When an international family admired the sophisticated and detail-oriented interiors of a friend’s home decorated by Mercedes Desio and Alberto Villalobos, they knew they had found the perfect designers for their Manhattan pied-à-terre. As art collectors they wanted neutral tones that didn’t compete with their contemporary collection. But because they have a large family that includes four children, comfort and ease of living were the primary considerations, which is precisely why they bought into the renovated Plaza hotel, where full in-service amenities are available to hotel guests as well as condo residents.
The prestigious location, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, is also conveniently situated for the family’s frequent visits. A private wraparound terrace offers the option of an outdoor living space with views of lush interior courtyards and Central Park. “It’s close to everything—museums and Midtown,” says Desio. “It’s a perfect fit for what they want to do here in the city.”
The designers, who are international themselves (he’s Colombian; she’s Italian), understood immediately what drew the couple to the iconic Plaza. “The historical exterior is more traditional,” Villalobos says of the 1907 French Renaissance château-style building, “but the interiors are a little more contemporary.” For the designers, this juxtaposition of old and new provided the best of both worlds. “The residence was new when we started so in a way it gave us more freedom, because we weren’t preserving something,” says Villalobos. The history was already there in its architectural bones, and small changes to interior finishes, such as updating door hardware to more contemporary styles, simply helped make the space more clean-lined.
Working behind the scenes, builder Giovanni Cupelli oversaw subtle changes involved with such things as painting, plastering, resurfacing countertops, hanging the chandeliers, and fabricating millwork for the den. “The designers are an amazing team, and we worked hand in hand with them to execute the project,” says Cupelli.
Dealing with what Villalobos described as the “beautiful proportions” of the rooms, the designers devised a palette of gray throughout. On one end of the apartment, they created an open living-and-dining area with pale dove walls that could function as both an elegant entertaining space and a family room for hanging out and having breakfast. In the living area near the fireplace, two sofas are upholstered in an alpaca-blend fabric because it is soft, durable and easy to maintain. “The client loved the bohemian look of velvet but didn’t want it to get crushed,” says Desio.
Behind the sofas, encircling a rectangular contemporary Holly Hunt table long enough to support a family’s sprawl of computer notebooks, are Louis XVI-style dining chairs upholstered with outdoor fabric on the front for durability and horsehair from Loro Piana on the back. “The client loves antiques, but the chairs had to be functional,” explains Villalobos, who included a vintage screen by Fornasetti, a red chinoiserie secrétaire from the William and Mary period and a Baccarat chandelier in the mix. “The wife grew up with them,” adds Desio about the last. “It’s part of her tradition.”
Throughout the apartment, offsets continue. In a multipurpose study that easily converts to a guest room, dark gray wool wallpaper provides a cozy cocoon-like feel. Contemporary artwork by Ivory Coast artist Jean-Marc Louis, who paints on vintage canvas, is held in antique frames, and a pair of bronze sconces are sculptural highlights when paired with crisp rectilinear sofas and low tables whose trays can be removed to double as luggage racks for visiting guests.
The master bedroom on the opposite end of the home is dressed in shades of cream, and the similarly toned wallpaper brings warmth to the walls. Long, sheer drapery fabric feels like what Desio describes as “an Emily Brontë moment, where the terrace doors open and the curtains are flowing. It’s light and romantic.” Meanwhile, says Villalobos, the four-poster bed offers a little more structure and takes advantage of the vertical space. It also lends a sense of gravitas, complementing the Colonial artwork in gilded frames and bringing a sense of history to the room, where the client didn’t want antiques. The terrace, which wraps one side of the condo, leads from the master up to the dining area, and a planting of evergreens gives it an interesting and colorful vegetative wall.
“We really tried to make sure that old and new continued throughout the apartment,” says Desio. Noting the storied backdrop of The Plaza and the homeowners’ leanings toward more contemporary design, the designer says of the project, “That juxtaposition is what we are all about.”
— Liz Arnold