Rarely is a dorm room—home of unframed posters and “decorative” shot glasses—the basis for choosing one’s interior designer. But for a pair of native New Yorker art collectors, all signs pointed back to Ryan Lawson’s collegiate quarters. “Long before hiring Ryan, we knew him as a student,” recalls the wife of her son’s friend at Washington University in St. Louis. “Ryan’s space was unlike anyone else’s. It was clear even then that he had a great eye.”
The admiration went both ways. “We became fast friends,” says Lawson. “One college break they invited me to their home, at the time a five-story brownstone, and it made such an impact on me. Everything was so beautifully personal and full of wonderful objects that really told their story.” When that story evolved to purchasing a grand apartment on Central Park West, the couple promptly tapped Lawson to compose the next chapter.
Part of the apartment’s appeal was that, architecturally, it was good to go. The existing moldings and trim were in great shape, as were the elegant white oak herringbone floors. Bathed in park-side sunlight, it was the perfect setting to give their cherished artwork and photography pride of place. “My husband has been collecting photographs for over 40 years,” notes the wife. Their ever-evolving roster includes works from “the very beginning of photography to contemporary,” she says, adding: “We choose art the same way we choose furniture—because it’s interesting to our eye. Not as an investment, but as a way of seeing the world.”
The living room’s George Nakashima coffee table, for example, is a piece the couple bought in the 1980s and have lived with and loved ever since. Lawson’s task entailed curating from their existing furniture, art and objects, “and by understanding the way they live, creating a tidy, edited version for them—the most realized version of their collection,” he explains. That translated to filling in furniture gaps, selecting wallcoverings and swapping out lighting fixtures for either French vintage or modern ones—“to give a jolt of contemporary,” the designer says. As a nod to their beloved coffee table, he found a Nakashima dresser for the primary bedroom. “These synchronicities help tie rooms together,” Lawson adds. “With a collection so varied, it helps to have themes reappear.”
In the entry hall, a silvery grass-cloth wallcovering is a subtle, textured backdrop for two Man Ray photographs displayed alongside a rare bench by Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In the adjacent living room, the moody, black-and-white striated effects of works by Edward Burtynsky and Doug and Mike Starn harmonize with each other. A 1930s Portuguese needlepoint rug—“one of my favorite finds ever,” notes Lawson—anchors the room, joining the couple’s beloved 1950s French armchairs. “I built the room around them,” says the designer, who modernized the milieu with a pair of curvy mohair-covered chairs and embroidered plaid drapes with a Viennese flair.
Throughout the apartment, intriguing materials, textures and forms spark ongoing dialogue with artworks, furnishings and objets. In the dining room, Lawson paired a charred-wood-and-bronze table with contemporary chairs upholstered in graphic, red-and-white-patterned fabric—“to amp them up a bit,” he says—and juxtaposed an antique Chinese demilune with another atmospheric Burtynsky landscape. A console designed by Lawson in the living room showcases the owners’ collection of book art by Richard Minsky, founder of the Center for Book Arts and a world-renowned bookbinder. (“It’s one of the largest collections of Minsky’s work in the country,” shares Lawson.) And from the mantel, a pair of Italian santos, or “old saints,” bless the room, though their prominence on high may well be short-lived. “Every time I come visit, there’s a new arrangement,” the designer laughs. “With some clients that could be a nightmare, but with them it’s always interesting and dynamic.”
Indeed, the collaborative aspects of the project made the journey all the more enjoyable. While Lawson respected the homeowners’ “encyclopedic knowledge” of their pieces, deferring to them when they had strong feelings about art placement, the couple conversely deferred to Lawson’s long-trusted sense of style and composition. “Ryan sees things through a fresh, creative lens, and he layers elements in a way that invites for conversation,” says the wife. “He knows us and understood that it was never about creating a pristine environment, but a comfortable one.”