Wood is Good
A New York loft by 2Michaels sidesteps the downtown clichés of slick and shiny.
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 3/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Jayne and Joan Michaels, identical twins and partners in the firm 2Michaels, understand how seductive a photograph can be. Their firm's Web site opens on a single image: a corner of one sister's living room, where a shapely chaise and side table create an irresistible tableau. The photo's poetry has enticed many potential clients, including the owner of this New York loft.
Not long after discovering the site, she showed the designers her own set of seductive images, photos of rooms she found appealing. "Every space had a wooden ceiling," Joan Michaels recalls. Although the client hadn't made that connection herself, she had requested lots of wood. She even used the word country, not often heard in the canyons of lower Manhattan. Her goal for the space—a home for herself, her husband, and their baby daughter—was to avoid slick and shiny.
A paneled ceiling would have set just the right rustic tone, but the apartment had barrel vaults—in the style of many 19th-century industrial buildings. Covering the vaults with wood would have erased the space's history and compromised the ceiling height. But it might be possible, Joan Michaels realized, to insert segments of beams crosswise in the vaults. The contrast of medium-stained wood and light-painted plaster would produce the hand-crafted aesthetic of a basket weave. At the same time, the straight edges of the beams would bring the dramatic curves of the vaults into high relief.
While the owners hesitated about proceeding, the sisters consulted their former partner Jeff English, who still operates as English & Michaels. Then they took over the loft for a day, got up on ladders, and used kraft paper to stand in for segments of beam. The clients returned and gave the go-ahead, and the designers came up with the idea of simulated beams, actually three-sided boxes constructed from-boards. Because the vaults are different dimensions, the general contractor had to make a template of each one before cutting the lengths of Douglas fir to fit.
The result is a loft-size collage of thick and thin, dark and light, rounded and sharp. A collateral benefit: the hollow faux beams made it possible to hang light fixtures almost anywhere. The alternative, English says, would have been to attach metal conduits, sometimes awkwardly, to the ceiling.
An exposed heating duct, which runs through much of the apartment, offers another example of the way the designers capitalized on constraints. "On our first visit, it stuck out like a sore thumb," Jayne Michaels recalls. Boxing it in would have been ungainly. So, with an attitude of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the sisters gave the apartment an industrial spirit of which the duct was simply one component. Factory lamps and unfinished lumber abound. Pieces are not only rough but also large. "The space is so big—anything small would get lost," Jayne Michaels says.
That hardly means the furniture is unsophisticated, however. "We set out to find very special pieces, things you wouldn't see anywhere else," Jayne Michaels says. Luckily, her sister's partner in life is Larry Weinberg—a dealer in important 20th-century furniture and a private curator—and the three have also teamed up under the name 4PM to sell mid-century furnishings on the Web and at a small shop in New York. Collaborating with Weinberg on the apartment, the sisters found a farm table large enough for the couple's extended family as well as a set of six chairs with woven-leather seats, designed by Abel Sorenson for Knoll in the 1940's. Other showstoppers includechairs by Frank Lloyd Wright and George Nakashima and an armoire by LeCorbusier and Charlotte Perriand. The wife, who's a writer, was interested in furniture she could learn about, pieces with stories.
The sisters and English also designed built-ins to look "somewhere between old and new," Jayne Michaels says. A freestanding bookcase dividing the living area from the study is an elegant composition of horizontal and vertical elements, all of considerable heft. The kitchen features a wall of upper cabinets with doors surfaced in a single piece of butternut veneer, chosen because it has a figurative quality almost like a painting. Because the apartment's long and narrow floor plan terminates at the kitchen, the designers imagined it as a culmination, a visual tour de force.
On the wall perpendicular to the butternut "painting" is a system of walnut shelves. So as not to interrupt the horizontal emphasis with conventional, vertical cabinet doors, the designers substituted wide sliding panels of a translucent white resin reminiscent of rice paper. Where the natural wood and the white synthetic come together, there is a weaving of dark and light, thick and thin, just as there is on the ceiling. Even in the most utilitarian of spaces, the apartment's themes remain in photo-ready focus.