In design, you have to own the challenges and make it fabulous.” So says designer Nicole White, whose adherence to this credo was key to a mission she undertook at The Ritz-Carlton, Coconut Grove: Combine and transform two adjoining residences into one spectacular art-filled home in the sky.
Some designers might have been daunted by the prospect of seamlessly uniting two distinct dwellings, but White saw only opportunities: to give her clients a larger foyer, relocate their kitchen from its front-and-center position to a less prominent spot and show off their extensive collection of works by primarily Black artists.
White worked with general contractor Jason Bush, with Michael Neil Reinstein as architect of record, to create a new floor plan of open, light-filled rooms. Walls were pushed back to create a larger foyer, and plumbing and electrical systems were moved to allow for the relocation of the kitchen—now no longer immediately seen upon entering the residence. In spite of the construction, the designer was determined to ensure structural issues wouldn’t hinder her goals. “The biggest issue is: You can’t move columns,” she explains. “So, one of our tricks was to build the art collection around these things that were set in stone.” In the living area, for example, the intersection of two immovable walls provided the perfect display niche for a life-size ceramic tribal art figure by Woodrow Nash.
Another clever solution involved illuminating the homeowners’ diverse artworks, which range from portraits by Elizabeth Catlett to furniture by Jomo Tariku and masks by Gene Pearson. “With condos, it’s always a challenge to get lighting in the concrete ceilings without having exposed junction boxes,” White points out. “Initially, we thought we could just add a new chandelier. But for a project like this, the goal was to not do the norm.” So, she did the unthinkable and lowered the ceilings over the living area and adjacent lounge to accommodate linear integrated lights. Similarly, in the foyer, a glossy new stretch ceiling features a perimeter of embedded light. “No one likes to drop a ceiling,” the designer admits, “but I think it’s a great solution when it’s done in a modern and smart way. Now that drop ceiling is like its own artwork that’s floating there. And at night, it glows.”
Another constraint awaited White: the couple’s aesthetic preferences, which fall at opposite ends of the spectrum. The husband leans minimalist and modern, while the wife— who requested black floors and green sofas—“is wowed by anything that’s whimsical, glamorous or detailed,” the designer says. To appease the former, White created an ultra-modern shell, with clean lines, sharp angles, light-colored walls to balance the dark floors and a kitchen lined with a seamless expanse of lacquered cabinets. For the wife, the designer incorporated pieces such as aged brass-chain sconces and a gold- footed console in the foyer, curvy velvet living area sofas and, nearby, armchairs with gilded frames. “Initially, the husband hated those chairs,” White recalls, “and now he loves them.” Part of the strategy for harmonization involved shopping with the couple so they could inspect furnishings together. The clients met White at High Point Market, where they found the dining area’s light fixture and the living area’s massive black-and-white photograph of a Northern Kenyan woman in traditional attire.
In other areas, the designer was given complete freedom. “I have autonomy on accessories,” says White, who introduced tribal necklaces and pillows embellished with textural leather folds and fringe. “A lot of attention was paid to materials that had movement and things that were a story in themselves.” Perhaps no space exemplifies this more than the powder room, where she had carte blanche to interpret the wife’s wish for something “super glam.” “I’m heavy into black at the moment,” White notes, “so I said, ‘Let’s have fun with the wallpaper,’” which incorporates texture and a metallic sheen. The space also displays one small artwork from the homeowners’ collection— ”a subtle finish,” she says, “to a room that itself is an artful statement.”
It’s a sentiment that speaks to the project as a whole: While erasing the seams between two residences, White blurs the lines between the backdrop for art and the art itself, creating a gallery- like space as striking as the collection it contains.