MR Architecture + Decor Enlivens a Pre-War Manhattan Apartment for a Family
When David Mann first saw the pre-war apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side it had not just one maid’s room off the kitchen, but a veritable warren of them, once the accommodations for a full complement of live-in staff. But being waited on hand and foot was simply not how his clients, a couple with three school-age children (and, now, a puppy), intended to live in their new home. The wife, the primary point of contact for Mann and his staff at MR Architecture + Decor, wanted a beautiful home for her family in the 3,900-square-foot third-floor space—but not a formal one. “She envisioned rooms that weren’t too precious, where her kids would feel comfortable,” Mann explains. “She also wanted them to be personal and bit eccentric.” New York–based Mann orchestrated an extensive renovation that reconfigured the apartment’s entire back end. Gutting the servant quarters yielded four proper bedrooms, each with en suite bath, plus a new powder room. But the design team preserved the layout and generous proportions of the public rooms, which surround a rectangular foyer. They also retained the two fireplaces—including the living room’s original Gothic Revival mantel—and replicated the handsome deep-set casement windows.
Those windows not only admit abundant light and frame treetop greenery, they provided decorating inspiration as well. “Black frames set into the thick white walls—that started a dialogue about contrasts,” Mann explains. The concept informed the overall approach to the rooms, which go from light to dark and back again as one moves through the space.
The white elevator lobby is a bright spot— as well as the first hit of eccentricity. The tiny space is encrusted with convex plaster discs of varying sizes created and installed by Brooklyn-based artisan Stephen Antonson, a friend of Mann’s and one of the many craftspeople the designer makes a point of establishing relationships with and then tapping for client projects. Antonson had been experimenting with the shapes in his studio when Mann paid a visit—and was inspired. “We had the idea to cover the whole ceiling in these forms and have them drip down the walls, so that when the elevator door opens you get this surprise.”
The organic forms—which suggest white rose petals, or perhaps sand dollars—evoke nature, a theme sounded in the foyer, too. There Mann planted a console made of an enormous tree root. Above it hangs a large-scale photograph by Paolo Ventura depicting a man wearing a bird mask. “The client buys art the way you should buy it: she picks a piece, and then another piece, and then another,” Mann says. “And we responded, finding places for everything.”
A massive painting by Morten Knudsen, for instance, was hung behind a sinuous custom Vladimir Kagan sofa in the living room—another buoyant space, thanks to windows on two sides that, left bare, let in all the sun. Because of the room’s length, it was a tricky space to furnish. The solution was establishing three furniture zones: the seating area with the Kagan sofa, centered on the fireplace; a tufted banquette and bronze coffee table to one side; and, at the other end of the room, two armchairs flanking a Callum Innes oil that hangs between new blackened-steel-framed doors leading to the library.
In that room, the designers modernized the fireplace and hung a mirror-screen TV—with a custom frame—above the mantel. The palette is muted, but it’s in the dining room where the color really deepens. Two walls are sheathed in warm-toned leather embellished with swirling cutouts that form intertwined flowers, the work of designer Genevieve Bennett. “We love leather on walls,” says Mann. “But we thought, Wow, we can take the room to another level and make it extraordinary.”
More artistry is found at the opposite end of the apartment, in the master bedroom, another moody, cosseting space. Shimmering against charcoal-colored grasscloth wall covering is a tufted-velvet headboard and pair of spherical ceramic lamps from the 1960s. The latter rest on bronzed nightstands by Soraya Osorio—their drawer fronts carved and glazed by ceramist Peter Lane—that are among the wife’s favorite objects in the apartment.
For her, the darkness of the bedroom has value beyond decorating drama. She is sensitive to light at night so window treatments were a necessity. Sheer roman shades modulate the sun during the day. At night, however, blackout shades turn the room into a calm and restful haven free of even a glint from the city-that-never-sleeps glowing outside—a contrast any Manhattanite would envy.