A family’s apartment in a storied prewar building has all the hallmarks of an Upper East Side classic. Luxurious satins and velvets? Check. Fabulous antiques? Double check. Show-stopping art? Of course. But look again. Among the customary details are surprises: quirky details, commissioned artwork and standout midcentury furnishings. “It was a really fun exercise,” says designer Josh Greene, who honed his skills at Ralph Lauren and with Michael Smith. “I was able to tap a part of my experience to create something on the Upper East Side, but not have it look so traditional. There’s more flair and attitude, yet it’s refined and proper.”
To find the balance between sophisticated tradition and modern edge meant Greene and builder and architectural designer Lee Stahl addressed every inch of the New York City home. “We looked at the apartment with an eye toward not having to touch things again,” explains Stahl. “That’s how it grew into a gut renovation.” It helped that the client was decisive and pragmatic—something Stahl already knew, having completed several projects for her over the years. “She said, ‘Let’s do it all now, not in pieces or stages,’” he recalls.
A major kitchen overhaul figured prominently in that plan. “We borrowed space from the massive entry gallery and built an eat-in breakfast area,” says Stahl, adding that the wife, “was beside herself with the end result because she’s a New Yorker who actually cooks.” Evolving technologies allowed the team to open up and reconfigure other parts of the apartment as well. For example, previously a small room was needed to house the unit’s electrical equipment whereas now “it fits in a half a closet,” he notes. Seizing the square footage, a new powder room was tucked off the entryway and further elevating the interiors, Stahl wove in details like a bespoke built-ins, fireplaces and plaster moldings throughout.
With Stahl’s stunning canvas, the stage was set for Greene to take the home to another level—a feat aided by the client’s own willingness to push the envelope. “She didn’t want a beige, subtle apartment,” Greene observes. Case in point: The wife informed him of an ebony-and-gold 19th-century French cabinet she had spied in Palm Beach and after seeing in person, Greene convinced her it was indeed a perfect fit for the dining room. That piece took the room in a compelling new direction, with the designer pulling it’s gilt hues into selections for the carpet, wallcoverings, sconces and vintage Mastercraft chairs.
In the grand living room, client pushed designer once more. “Early on, we settled on a scheme,” Greene remembers, “but she came back and said that her son and husband didn’t think it was enough.” So he returned to the drawing board, crafting a design that mixes dressy touches, like voluminous draperies and velvet tub chairs, with pluckier hits, like the 1970s Italian stools dressed in leopard print and lamps with Egyptian motifs that Greene repurposed from a pair of vintage pots. A brazen undercurrent carries into the library, which Greene and Stahl decked out in a rich, cobalt blue marine-quality enamel. A rust-toned wallpaper reminiscent of the inside of a vintage book was added to the ceiling to cozy effect.
Notably, the extensive project required the expertise of some of Greene’s favorite collaborators. Jona Brisske—who first referred Greene to the client—served as an informal owner’s representative and contributing architect, advising on schematics and architectural elements throughout. One beguiling example: The classical millwork replete with fluted columns that she designed for the dining room. “It was an opportunity to elevate the formality and classical nature of the entire design,” notes Brisske. The artist Nancy Lorenz, whom Greene knew from his early design days, was commissioned to make a series of large panels featuring abstract sweeps of gold. And his desire for a luxurious envelope to distinguish the living room saw him tap the finish specialists at Fresco Decorative Painting to create a soft, pearlescent plaster treatment. “When you’re doing a project of this scale, you can explore things,” Greene notes. “Your home isn’t so much decorated as curated for you and with you.”
That thoughtful approach is what makes Greene’s work special. “Every project is different,” muses the designer. “It’s my style and my clients’ style and desires filtered through the architecture of the space.” At the end of the job, he adds, “The most important thing is that they feel like it’s theirs.”