Walk the Line
Sophisticated enough for contemporary art yet sturdy enough for three children and a dog, this Upper West Side town house by Steven Harris surprises from top to bottom
Marisa Bartolucci -- Interior Design, 9/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Judging from the outside, you'd probably think this was a 19th-century row house. But appearances can be deceiving. Behind the Italianate brownstone exterior is an almost entirely new dwelling. "There were serious structural issues, so we had to reconstruct half the house and the foundation, then reframe," explains architect Steven Harris, who's something of a town-house expert, having renovated over 30 of them. "We kept the facade because the building was in a landmark district."
So call this Upper West Side house discreet contemporary. That certainly describes the decor, which the owners, a couple with three children, worked "very slowly and deliberately" to assemble with the team at Harris's namesake firm, he says. "The owners have strong opinions and an extraordinarily discriminating eye, making the project both challenging and fun."
While the architecture is austere, it's warmed by natural materials such as the carved mahogany of the stair rail and the burnished bronze of the spindles. Flooring upstairs is sumptuous auburn-tinted Brazilian cherrywood. On the ground level, Harris paved the combined kitchen and family room as well as the adjacent patio in a dove-gray Italian lava stone, uniting the indoors and the outdoors in a way rarely seen in a city house and opening up the family room, which might otherwise have been dark and claustrophobic.
"All grays are the same for some clients, but this couple were always able to see the subtlest difference in tone," Harris says. Inside, the stone's velvety color softens the edges of the kitchen's lacquered cabinets and stainless-steel counters. On the private, tranquil, virtually maintenance-free patio, the stone is punctuated by stands of bamboo tall enough to provide a glimpse of-green from the rear library upstairs. In this house, the way things connect and flow seems effortless and inevitable.
Seldom does a house bear the stamp of its owners so strongly—particularly with regard to the kinetic sculptures that infuse the rooms with an unexpected quirkiness. Delicate suspended forms in aluminum and stainless steel, commissioned from architect turned sculptor Tim Prentice, bring shimmering animation to the dining and living rooms. In the library, a life-size stainless-steel figure by Antony Gormley stands beneath a massive David Weeks chandelier that possesses the presence of a mobile-by Alexander Calder.
Because the couple are so passionate about their art collection, the furnishings defer to it—bright colors and patterns were out for public areas. The muted greens, browns, and grays might have been a recipe for drab if it weren't for lustrous, strongly textured materials. Handwoven rugs in wool, silk, and linen blends and upholstery in silk velvet and chenille bring a sensuous iridescence to-otherwise rigorous rooms.
So the couple's children and dog could romp through the house, Harris also chose materials that are virtually indestructible—or are chemically treated to be that way. A relaxed practicality is a cornerstone of the design, and scale is equally important, which is why many of the upholstered pieces are bespoke. Among those that aren't, Arne Jacobsen's Egg lounge chair throws some curves in the library, and Eero Saarinen's Executive side chairs offer a counterpoint to the family room's linearity.
The family room and kitchen are the house's most used space, while the seldom used formal dining room is in the front of the ground floor, in the public eye. That pattern repeats on the second floor, with the informal library in back and the formal living area in front. On the third floor is the couple's bedroom, bath, and study, where a Vik Muniz photograph echoes the rectilinear geometry of the schist fireplace surround. The fourth and fifth floors house a guest suite and the children's bedrooms—each with its own distinctive light fixture, such as a bright orange acrylic pendant or a capiz-shell chandelier. And the sixth floor has a billiard room with a terrace in the front and back.
That hierarchy of function areas imitates the Victorian house that once stood on the site. Instead of adding a double-height living room or some other dramatic architectural gesture, Harris intentionally respected the traditional town-house layout. Quite simply because it works.
Previous spread, left: Bamboo grows between pavers of Italian lava stone on the back patio of an Upper West Side town house rebuilt by Steven Harris Architects.
Previous spread, right: Antony Gormley's stainless-steel figure stands on the library's Brazilian cherrywood floor, near Stéphane Couturier's photographs.
Opposite: The library's David Weeks ceiling fixture rotates above a custom chenille-covered sofa and an Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen.
Top, from left: Tim Prentice's kinetic sculptures in stainless steel and plastic are suspended on the library wall. A Vik Muniz photographic self-portrait hangs above the room's fireplace, with its honed-granite hearth. Bottom, from left: In the living room, a-custom silk rug anchors a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chair, a Chris Lehrecke daybed, and a Christian Liaigre occasional table and sofa. Burnished bronze spindles support the carved mahogany stair rail.
Left: The showstopper in the living room is a specially commissioned Prentice sculpture in aluminum, stainless steel and Lexan polycarbonate.
Opposite: The living room's Harry Bertoia wire sculpture stands on a custom bronze-finished steel table.
Opposite: In the study, part of the master suite, a Muniz photograph hangs over the schist fireplace surround.
Top, from left: The master bath is-lined in Calacatta and Thassos marble. In the dining room, Jacobsen-inspired chairs surround a custom table topped in rosewood. Bottom, from left: In the master bedroom, the custom headboard is made of jacaranda paneling from a demolished Oscar Niemeyer house. A 1960's-style repro mirror adds dimension to the entry hall.
Top, from left: A capiz-shell chandelier hangs in the bedroom of the family's younger daughter. Besides lacquered cabinets and stainless-steel counters, the kitchen has a view-of the patio's metal sculpture by Pedro S. de Movellan. Bottom, from left: The billiard room is on the top floor. Ferruccio Laviani designed the acrylic pendant fixture in the older daughter's bedroom.
Opposite: Meals in the family room take place at a table surrounded by Eero Saarinen's Executive chairs and a leather-covered banquette.