Coordinating art and furnishings at a behemoth of a Chelsea loft, John Barman never found himself behind the eight ball
Marisa Bartolucci -- Interior Design, 9/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
"I'd never been in such a huge loft," designer John Barman says of this Chelsea duplex penthouse—all 4,000 square feet of it. "The main living area has 12 giant windows. It's commanding." It wasn't going to be easy to wrest control, but Barman's jack-of-all-styles approach made him an ideal candidate for success. Best of all, he knows how to structure a room.
The latter talent was critical for this particular apartment, owned by up-and-coming players in the art world. Though the apartment's gallery-size spaces were clearly large enough for the clients' regular gatherings of artists, curators, and collectors, it was easy to see how the vast openness could overwhelm a couple spending a quiet evening alone.
There was another challenge, too: the art itself. Life, death, and transformation are recurring themes in the collection, which stars Francis Bacon, Cindy Sherman, Ron Mueck, and Lisa Yuskavage alongside a host of German expressionists. The demanding nature of Barman's job—balancing domesticity and drama—becomes apparent the moment the entry door opens. Greeting you are Robert Lazzarini's quartet of distorted human skulls in resin, bone, and pigment. Richard Avedon's stark portraits of In Cold Blood murderer Dick Hickock and his father, Walter Hickock, stare out from a wall beside the dining table. A photograph from Thomas Ruff's sexually explicit nude series hangs over the fireplace.
To create an interior that could hold its own against such powerful, often disturbing imagery while maintaining intimacy and warmth—if possible—Barman followed his maxim: "Keep it simple." Architecturally, the work was minor. (He substituted the entry's enclosed wooden stairway for an open metal one and the library and bedroom's plain mahogany double doors for versions with wood-framed glazing.) Concentrating instead on decoration, he developed a palette of funky blues and greens to humanize and unify. Because he felt that the furniture should have a contemporary character yet possess a certain softness, he chose primarily deco-inspired pieces with spare, graceful lines. It was the art, after all, that was on show.
To break up the large main living area and kitchen into distinct zones, Barman chose furnishings with architectural presence. The living area is defined by a custom Angela Adams rug, its jaunty op-art pattern of royal-blue and jade inset squares animating the space yet grounding the Christian Liaigre and Rose Tarlow furniture, all in similar shades. A leather-upholstered silver-studded davenport adds a tongue-in-cheek Edwardian twist. "The furniture placement suits the space while maximizing conversation," says Barman.
A custom glass cocktail table serves as a pedestal for two cast-plastic sculptures by Louisa Kazanas, while a sculpted watermelon balanced atop a paper cup brings humor to an imposing French 1940's travertine console with a base of limed oak. Gauzy white silk-and-linen curtains soften the art's hard edges.
In private spaces, colors reverberate with tones culled from objects that Barman's clients most treasure. The bedroom's brick-red walls, for instance, are painted in a deeper shade of the silk upholstering a pair of Dutch chairs. Antique furnishings—an heirloom Moroccan 19th-century bed of brass and black metal, an English 19th-century oak chest of drawers—bring coziness to a room laden with provocative contemporary photographs and Kathe Kollwitz and Emil Nolde drawings and watercolors, no less intense. The off-white bathroom, by contrast, is a welcome study in repose.
Colors in the loft's upstairs sitting area derive from plantings on the adjacent roof terrace, designed by Paula Hayes of Story, a Brooklyn landscape-design firm. The colors of the pines and chamaecyparis planted in cedar boxes find an echo in another custom Adams rug. Meanwhile, the rug's dynamic swirls act as a counterpoint to the massiveness of the nearby game room's carved-oak custom pool table, its felt top dyed to match the blue in the rug. From a player's perspective, the sitting area's wool-upholstered ottomans by Enrico Baleri and Denis Santachiara might just be two particularly enormous billiard balls.
With great aesthetic subtlety, Barman has accomplished what amounts to a philosophical task: bringing light and harmony to dark explorations of the human condition.