Laura Kirar was putting the finishing touches on a West Side town house she had spent nearly two years designing and decorating when her clients announced they had already sold it. Along with that shocking news came her next assignment: The couple had purchased a landmarked Flemish Revival town house just a few doors down that would require a complete gut renovation.
“There aren’t a lot of Flemish Revival town houses left in Manhattan,” Kirar says. “This was exciting for us, because we don’t often get to start from the ground up.” Thus began her mission to invent a new history behind the 1868 façade. From the outset, she wanted to honor its Dutch roots, but not literally.
“I didn’t want to do a period house,” she says. “I wanted to pay homage to the period with a contemporary intervention of something that never would have been done in the 1860s.”
Row houses of that era were notoriously dark, because closed-off rooms prevented light from flowing into the center. Kirar solved that problem by gutting the entire home, bringing in architect Thomas Vail, as well as builder Patricia Riley of Sunrise Construction, and creating a new design with a series of transomed glass walls. The dining room illustrates this “architectural language” with a curving wall of hand-poured seed glass framed in decorative metalwork, which is echoed across the transoms of the powder room and living room on the same level.
“If someone were to create a gazebo or an aviary in Central Park in the 1860s, we imagined something that you would find there,” Kirar says of the design. She repeated this treatment in the upstairs library—this time with clear glass—and on the steam shower and bathtub enclosure in the master bathroom. At night, the bathroom’s light glows through an upper transom of translucent glass into the hallway on the other side.
As Kirar set about filling the interiors, she continued to take historical cues from the architecture and from her clients’ collection of English antiques. The Flemish style inspired her design for a fireplace surround in the dining room, for example, but she executed it with Raku tile that was hand-glazed and painted in Japan. Other unexpected elements include a modern Abstract Expressionist painting by Richmond Burton over a Regency table. In response to the wife’s request for a strong color scheme, Kirar proposed deep blue with a touch of aubergine for the walls. “It’s an interesting color with mahogany, which tends red,” she explains. “There are so many traditional colors and approaches you could take in here, but we just wanted to take the English antiques style and turn it on its ear.”
The designer took more anachronistic turns in the living room, which contains several of the owners’ Chippendale antiques. Because that style carries Oriental inflections, she hung Chinese ancestor paintings on walls lacquered in deep coral. “It’s not red, so it’s not directly embracing chinoiserie, but the lacquer [treatment] itself pays respect to that style,” she says. Kirar also added a 1913 Viennese chest, which anchors the space across from a massive Flemish- inspired custom replace under an antique Dutch mirror. About mixing so many styles and eras, she says, “It’s off in the best way.”
Kirar achieved similar impact in the small upstairs library, though it was hard-won. Her clients loved a huge set of antique glass-enclosed bookshelves she had purchased for the previous house, but the set wouldn’t fit into this home. After a long search, however, they couldn’t find anything they liked better, nor did they think built-ins would achieve the right mood. So Kirar had a woodworker trim the cases to fit the narrower dimensions. Along with a set of custom oversize seating, she says, “It’s the perfect grand scale that’s so inviting. It makes you want to sit there and read.”
Though most of the furnishings throughout the home’s five levels are custom, Kirar’s 20-year experience as a furniture designer shines most in the master bedroom. Few of the owners’ antiques are in this space, so she put her creativity to work—starting with a pair of shallow armoires that flank the replace. “This is our Flemish Revival moment,” she says, noting their curved upper moldings. Kirar also painted the pieces to expand the view visually beyond the room’s single set of French doors. “We wanted to create these imaginary windows—an additional landscape, so you feel like you’ve got more to look at,” she says. She also designed a Chinese Deco-style master bed, which she later modified to include in her second collection for Baker Furniture.
Looking back, Kirar doesn’t consider the two years she spent on her clients’ previous town house as wasted. Rather, she sees it as time spent helping them realize what they wanted in a home. “I think they accepted bold decisions in this house that they hadn’t with the first one,” she says. “The process with the first house gave them confidence and trust in us, and I believe this was the dream house they always imagined for their family.”