Some people consider renovations to be a trial; decisions and discomfort are borne for the end result. Others consider renovations a creative act, a process that is just as much of a reward as a home tailored to your exact taste. The clients for this luxurious yet laid-back 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood were firmly in the second camp. “Together, we’ve renovated two apartments, and we built a house from the ground up on the Jersey Shore,” says the wife, a lawyer. “Our last apartment definitely leaned traditional. Our beach house was midcentury modern. Over time, we’ve become more interested in taking some design risks.” She and her husband, who works in finance, were looking for a younger designer, one who thrives on collaboration with craftspeople. “We live in a city that is filled with artists and talent and creativity, and we wanted to harness that in our home,” she says.
They found their match in Michael K. Chen Architecture, a nine-year-old practice known for bold colors and bolder juxtapositions of materials, eras, and shapes. “They asked me specifically to challenge them a bit,” says Chen, which in turn was a challenge for his team, especially as they encountered a few of the clients’ unexpressed dislikes.
Vintage furniture, for one. Having lived with antiques in their previous homes, they wanted this one to feel like a brand-new adventure. “Our approach is often to create tension and connection across historical eras,” Chen says. “They wanted texture and depth, but they didn’t care for vintage pieces.” Picking colors also required a lot of back-and-forth. “They would say they really love color, but they don’t like red and they don’t like green and they don’t like orange.” Chen eventually pulled the narrow but varied palette from pieces like the painting in the primary bedroom, which atypically combines sunset pinks and purples with an acid green.
The close-knit family, which includes three sporty teenagers, likes to come together for gaming, movies, the World Series, and dinner every night. Chen removed most of the walls from the apartment’s 1980s renovation and created a fluid floor plan that allowed him to reinterpret some of the details that make prewar apartments so prized.
The elevator opens into a cerused oak–paneled gallery, floored in hard-wearing terrazzo, that feeds visitors into the living room, dining room, and den through salon-style doors, as well as offering quick access to the kitchen. Around the back, Chen placed a kid-friendly zone, with a pegboard wall for hats and coats, and drawers set to receive phones for nightly charging. Visitors can turn left toward the generous living room, outfitted in soft neutrals and brawny pieces in steel, wood, and marble, or right for the cave-like playroom, with its pebble-shaped Moroso poufs by Toshiyuki Kita.
Chen and his team added depth through materials, taking the clients to stone yards and fabrication shops to choose and approve woods, marbles, metals, and wallcoverings with patina and figuration. Design cues were derived from the couple’s collection of contemporary photography, including large-scale works by Edward Burtynsky, Candida Höfer, and Ralf Kaspers, now distributed throughout the apartment. “In photography and in their attitude toward furniture, they really like the evidence of craft,” Chen says.
The subtle palette is visible in choices like the spectacular pink Byzantine onyx in the main bathroom, which connects to a blushing bedroom with a mauve silk carpet. Grayish blues enter in the form of hand-painted wallcoverings in the media room. The kids’ bathrooms feature tiles in almost-primaries of red, blue, and green.
In the dining room, especially, the family’s needs and the architect’s design ambition perfectly meshed. “We wanted a room we could use every day for dinner,” the homeowner says, “but one we could also occasionally glam up a little bit.” To that end, Chen worked with Christopher Kurtz to design a table that is both indestructible and very, very glam: an aluminum surface with a rippled edge. For family meals, it stays pushed in toward the leather-and-mohair banquette. When they entertain, the table gets pulled into the center of the room and expanded with leaves cleverly hidden in a cupboard. The chandelier pivots so that the drop can be centered over the table in either spot.
In November 2019, the family moved in and has spent quarantine in situ. “We didn’t expect my husband’s work computer to be on the dining table,” the client says. “We are using it as we expected—and then some.”
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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