house & garden
TWENTIES TWENTIES VISION
It's perfect turn-of-the-new-century style: clean, sophisticated, contemporary, yet full of the lessons and elegance of a time when rare woods and forged metals were so well married to graceful, imaginative shapes. The inspiration may be the era of French moderne, but the result couldn't be more up-to-the-minute.
The town house, on one of those quiet, tree-lined streets on Manhattan's Upper East Side, could be a lesson in a decorating alphabet that begins Admire, Borrow, Collect. "They did their homework," said Jack Levy, of the clients' involvement.
The collaboration among the clients, interior designers, and architects, the Brooklyn, New York, firm DiDonno Associates, transformed the nearly derelict I870 town house into a paean to the seductive formalism and rich textures of the early modernist period. "As there was not one iota of detail that remained, our job was to bring the house back to a certain period that would suit the clients' collections," Ron DiDonno says.
"Our house is a combination of precious original pieces and a lot of reproductions," says the client, who has been enthralled with French moderne since the time, about 11 years ago, when she had her engagement ring made in an Art Deco style. "My husband and I had the same taste," she says, "so we became collectors." Over time, they also became indefatigable fans and researchers of the period. These days, revered names like Andre Arbus, Rene Prou, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, and Jean Dunand roll off their tongue in a way that reflects the ease with which they have integrated original, reproduction, and contemporary pieces of furniture.
As Levy says with gusto: "When they embrace something, they embrace it." Every detail was carefully, even obsessively, considered. When the right table or the extra half dozen chairs, for example, were not available, or didn't fit the space, the clients commissioned new versions.
Many pieces were custom-made, including the combination coffee table and television console, inlaid with ivory; the red-leather covered bedside tables with drawer pulls that add a finishing touch; the Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann-inspired graceful iron stair rail that winds up the four floors of the town house; and a pair of consoles in the dining room that match the living room mantelpiece's high-contrast Portoro marble. All the carefully choreographed pieces act as a supporting cast to the impressive, over-scaled period dining table and period lighting fixtures.
The introduction of contemporary artwork was important, in not making the house feel like a time capsule. With the help of New York art consultant Ellen Kern, the clients selected works by Terry Winters, Ross Bleckner, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mark Rothko. "These were very personal choices that reflected their sensitivity to surface and texture," Kern says.
The designers chose a palette that allowed the best pieces to stand out taupes, pale smokes, and olives for the living room and study lush red for the draperies that light up the master bedroom. The client, intent on a particular shade of red, found it at Christopher Hyland. Like the Lee Jofa cotton velvet used for the other crisply tailored curtains, the fabric brings a contemporary note to the interior. "We all fell in love with it, not only because it draped beautifully, but because it is not delicate," Levy says. That suited the client. "We're not one of those families where children are not allowed in the living or dining rooms " she says. The couple's 2-year-old daughter is learning early how it feels to be surrounded by museum-quality furnishings, yet she is not intimidated by them. That seems to be just the right approach to form the eye of a very, very young collector.