In Manhattan, the terms “uptown” and “downtown” imply contrary aesthetic stances. Yet, one young New York matron asked her design team to combine both perspectives in her new family home, a Fifth Avenue apartment in a storied 1925 Italian Renaissance Palazzo-style building overlooking Central Park. The family was leaving behind an equally venerated 1920s apartment nearby, says their longtime designer Douglas Wittels. He had restored its neoclassical details and deftly furnished it with streamlined yet transitional pieces, but “I suggested a new direction this time around. She’s always been minimal and anti-clutter,” says Wittels of his client, “but she’s gotten more modern and edgy over time.”
For the new apartment, trappings of traditionalism were forgone thus eliminating everything from the frothy millwork in the formal, classically proportioned rooms to décor peppered with involved furnishings or elaborate accessories. “We decided to make it very Zen, but in a new way. So it would have sleek furnishings and everything would be out of sight,” Wittels says. “But it also had to be warm, homey and comfortable, which would be a bit of a creative challenge.”
Realizing the challenging program would be “no small feat to achieve, especially with a large family and a maximal lifestyle,” Wittels says. The family’s home has always been ground zero for everything from play parties to formal sit-down dinners for several dozen. “Yet minimalism is very cerebral and exacting. You can’t have anything disparate or out of place,” he adds. Instead of leaving anything to chance, Wittels and architect Morgan Hare, along with project architect Arom Jeon, firm partner Marc Turkel and studio member Sybille Schneider, created an interior as tightly conceived, fashioned and edited as a luxury yacht appointed with exquisitely crafted built-ins and custom furnishings.
Hare eliminated the warren of formal rooms, replacing them with a series of open spaces that flow into each other around a central core that contains the foyer, elevator shafts and mechanical systems. The innovative layout “creates a huge circulation doughnut and new sight lines—even from the back of the apartment, which is now an expansive family room with long views of the city,” Hare notes.
To define the formal living area and dining room without walls, the ceiling has dropped and raised areas with recessed lighting, and the core is clad in meticulously crafted, fastidiously matched oak millwork that holds hidden storage in most rooms, and lacquer bunk beds and surprise play nooks in the children’s bedrooms. A symmetrical pattern of large precast concrete floor tiles and matching baseboards further underscores specific spaces. Those floor tiles also added another challenging wrinkle to the already rigorous project. “Every tile had to be precisely coordinated with the wall surfaces and millwork seams,” says general contractor Michael Dunne, who acted as project manager. “It required a tremendous amount of meticulous coordination. We had to work from the finished surface back to determine where to lay each piece.”
All the furnishings Wittels put in the place required the same kind of coordination and consideration. “I chose every piece for scale, shape, function and comfort, and custom designed most of the furniture to achieve exactly what we needed,” he explains. “Nuance is critical in a minimal environment.” The seating throughout is a case in point.
Wittels calculated it to be lean lined but unexpectedly cushy; made back heights the same for visual cohesion and added ever-so-subtle satin steel feet so they would appear to float off the floor.
Almost everything is a warm shade of off-white, except for Holly Hunt dining room chairs upholstered in soft blue Edelman Leather, which work with a painting by Ugo Rondinone. The pale palette lets the couple’s significant contemporary art collection take center stage, and of course, the matron’s rigorous attention to detail is exactly what makes her a perfect match for the designer, who admits he shares the same trait. “That’s why carte blanche worked so well,” he explains.