It’s tempting to see the past filtered through sepia tones, as newfangled fashions fade into sentimental relics. But not so in one young couple’s apartment situated within a landmarked 1923 Colonial Revival building on the Upper East Side. More than just nostalgic, the historic interior feels vital, reanimated with dynamic patterns, optimistic hues and all the conveniences a modern family might require.
“They wanted a decorative plan that would support the space’s traditional foundation, but with a fun and colorful point of view,” explains designer Emily Butler who, in collaboration with architect Michael Labbé, set about reinterpreting the home’s period sensibilities. The space itself has “so many of those finer details that we loved,” the wife shares, from its 9-foot-tall ceilings to the well-proportioned social areas designed for elegant entertaining. Time, however, had taken its toll, battering the beautiful herringbone floors and original wood moldings. And, functionally, “these apartments were designed with service spaces that aren’t used in the same way anymore,” shares Labbé, pointing to the formerly disjointed kitchen and bathrooms and to the lack of storage throughout.
Efforts began with choreographing more gracious movement throughout: repositioning doorways, squaring out oddly angled spaces and installing integrated storage. One now enters the home through a streamlined foyer that connects the kitchen, living and dining areas. And pruned of its jagged corners, the now-fluid kitchen layout makes room for a walk-in pantry, laundry area and built-in banquette that better suit the clients’ lifestyle. Labbé also cushioned the once-abrupt transition between public and private spaces with a vestibule reminiscent of the stately anterooms of prewar floor plans. “We wanted to bring back those classic gestures where we could—even in more compact spaces,” shares the architect.
After the original herringbone floors were repaired and given a rich chocolate stain, and once the new, softly curving crown molding and base trim were added, Butler engulfed the rooms with striking wallpapers to lean into the apartment’s jewel-box characteristics. While her lively selections feel youthful and current, many in fact reference archival motifs, from the living room’s chinoiserie floral to the iconic Scalamandré zebra print in the husband’s office. The same applies to Butler’s fabric selections, whose highlights include a 1940s Josef Frank Citrus Garden pattern, which she used to dress the powder room window, and a French Japonisme-inspired botanical from the 1930s which was judiciously splashed across the living room’s slipper chairs, throw pillows and sconce shades. “I love that these designs have been around for such a long time but still feel so fresh in this apartment,” Butler muses.
Seeing the past through new eyes continues in details large and small. For furnishings, the designer embraced classic upholstery, like the living room’s English-style, tight-back sofa with kick-pleat skirting and barrel chair with fringed trim. Window dressings in turn favor formality, with pleated Roman shades and matching drapes and valances. Such traditional elements play well with “all the special antiques and family heirlooms that we have throughout the apartment,” the husband notes, pointing to prized pieces like their secretary desk and linen press, which Butler deftly folded into the living and primary bedrooms respectively.
The home’s entirely new millwork program was similarly considered for historical accuracy. New doors are now adorned with crystal knob replicas that match the apartment’s previous hardware. And the freshly renovated kitchen touts crafted details that nod to 1920s: black-and-white mosaic tile, custom cabinets with nickel hinges, and doors constructed “the way they would have been done back in the day,” notes Labbé. Cabinetry throughout the dwelling features the same inlay-style door panels, from the living room shelves to office built-ins which slyly stash a secret drinks fridge. More intricate millwork also solved the powder room’s exposed maze of pipes, further disguised by a deep emerald high-gloss paint job. “The client loved expressive stones,” the designer adds. And so, characterful slabs were selected, as seen in the space’s swirling River jade vanity or the kitchen’s gray-veined counters and backsplash.
Now fully roused from its stylistic slumber, the design has even won over the baby the couple welcomed just after construction wrapped. “He stares at the colors and patterns all day,” the wife laughs. “He’s always reaching out to grab the flowers from the wallpaper or the pillows.” The apartment, it appears, is already enrapturing the next generation.