Sunday, March 8, 2015

...about confessions on a tabletop: chopsticks, bone china and where inspiration comes from

“Where did your inspiration come from?” It’s my favorite question to ask, of painter or poet, composer or comedian, and one of my favorite questions to answer. Setting the table at Michael C. Fina was a refresher course, for me, on how ideas blossom and unfold, get rerouted or retooled, on any project or creative process.

I love tabletop design, whether styling them for clients or photoshoots, or covering great events like the annual Dining By Design to benefit DIFFA. So it was beyond a thrill to be asked by New York’s preeminent table-top source, Michael C. Fina, to style not just a tabletop, but the main window of their glittering Manhattan flagship.

But where to start?

I have to admit, the timeline between the offer and the deadline (a great reunion party for the participants and donors behind Holiday House 2014, of which Michael C. Fina was a most generous one) disappeared like a fistful of water, and intended planning sessions were postponed by more than one of this winter’s “snow events” and a few of my own urgent client deadlines. So by the time I got into the showroom to meet, measure, and discuss, we were a mere dozen days away from install. Yikes.

Here’s how it all unfolded, how we made the deadline work (and who helped, immensely, to make that happen), where the inspiration came from, and the lessons I learned along the way.
Work With What You Have (Access To)
I do it in client homes when stretching a budget, working within the confines of a rental, or when creating vignettes for Housing Work’s Design on a Dime: Build from your givens, existing, donated or just plain available. It maximizes both time and money. I love working with givens, helping homeowners fall back in love with something they thought was long-gone in terms of inspiration or design merit.

The main window already had a long table in it, so we’d start there... and let’s face it, doing an actual tabletop setting, for a tabletop purveyor is no real stretch. (Plus, did I mention I LOVE to style tabletops?). So, okay, the foundation was in place. But, yowza, that table is a nine-footer. We’d need a LOT of product. But we had the whole of the showroom from which to pick, right? Well, yes, and no. As many in the business of interiors know, “stocked” and “in stock” are not one and the same, and some things weren’t readily available in the considerable multiples we needed.

And as any designer who’s worked with a Pinterest-obsessed client, having what seems to be an unending source of choice doesn’t always help narrow the field, or get a project any closer to the finish line. It seemed that way with the seemingly bottomless well of product and inspiration surrounding me at Michael C. Fina. When you are smack dab in the middle of their stellar and staggering selection of china, crystal and flatware, there is no shortage of inspiration... but sometimes, too much to work from isn’t all that helpful, either, especially when the clock is ticking.
Luckily, I was working with Michael C. Fina’s calm and lovely in-house Merchandising and Visual Planning guru Jenny Lim. She steered me towards lines she knew she had in stock as we wandered (me, a wide-eyed kid in a candy store, with “candy” by the likes of Baccarat, Bernadaud, Juliska and Rosenthal.) During the store tour, the graphic, bright and banded Hemisphere Gold Stripe, Matte White, and Matte Gold patterns by Jean-Louis Coquet were quick to catch my eye. What also caught my eye, early, was the Blue Dragon pattern by Mottahedeh, and it seemed like with a white, gold and blue scheme and that gorgeous dragon pattern, we were really on to something for an upbeat and eye-catching tablescape.
Wicked Web and Lost Dragons
So, with visions of dragons and gold, stripes and cobalt blue, I went back home to plan.

Part of that planning involved getting lost in the Michael C. Fina website, where I discovered the contemporary take on Blue Willoware, Willow Cobalt, by UK designer Richard Brendon, and his dynamically graphic blue-and-white striped Patternity. Instant love, and suddenly, a table of blue and white, circles and stripes was setting itself in my mind, the Patternity stripe the perfect party companion to the gold-banded Hemisphere. (I very often rely on common geometries when pulling together any scheme, room, vignette, or tabletop.)
Back to the showroom I went, planning on capping a mixture of these patterns with those Mottahedeh dragon plates, which had also mixed in my mind with the Blue Willow to start to tell a great contemporary Asian-inspired spring garden table.

But alas, that mix only worked in my head and on my monitor, and I learned my first china lesson: bone china and porcelain don’t always play well together, with both a considerable difference in background white color, and how the glazes (in this case, both cobalt) react (one, crisp and graphic, the other, organic, “bleedy” and painterly). While both were still beautiful, pulling them together called attention to the differences in a way that didn’t do either any favors. Suddenly, I lost my dragons, the very first piece of inspiration I felt really good about, the one that seemed to kickstart the whole plan.

Not to panic. I’ve lost major inspiration pieces in client projects, upfront, when a client didn’t share my enthusiasm, or in the eleventh hour, when something’s out of stock or even discontinued. I still had plenty to work with (a total of five patterns to alternate, mix and match). Still good, and this old dog learned a new trick about bone china along the way.
While it was the dragon which whet my Asian appetite, other things pointed me down the path to an Asian-inspired table once he was out of my grasp: that Blue Willow pattern, the lantern-like ribbed texture and nearly-half-moon shape of the Coquet Hemisphere bowls.
Another thing was practicality: I knew I could style this table with extras easily found in some of Manhattan’s treasure troves for budget styling, including the go-to Pearl River, a frequent secret weapon of stylists, florists, and party planners.
I loved the instant architecture provided by the quartet of the giant Pearl River paper lanterns, a HUGE amount of impact for the money (even if, teetering on a ladder perched on the table at 9:15 in the morning, I questioned my super-precise placement plan for hanging them, aligned and just kissing). They framed the scene, garnered street-side attention, and shfted the focus back down on the tabletop without stealing any of its thunder.

The shopping spree continued at Pearl River with chopsticks (a certain need to make it up as I went along on install day meant I scooped up green, white and bamboo versions, without breaking the bank).

Onward to the flower district, and at Jamali Garden, votives and glass gravel for an idea that would prove to be short-lived (more on that later!). I love, on any table top, to add height, and then add heights in between those heights, so I was looking forward to using elements to fill the space between dish and the tall and gorgeous Baccarat Mille Nuits champagne flutes. The votives in cobalt helped start that step up, while bouncing that blue between Baccarat stemware and china patterns. They were also a very budget-friendly way to give the table a luxe, lush and filled-in look, while not introducing anything new, color or material-wise, to the mix, another key to keeping the clean, contemporary but still-layered look I was shooting for.

Practical Provisions
If I were setting this table for a one-night plan, there’d probably be fresh flowers. But this display had to last well into March. I knew immediately where to go, though... my generous and talented friends at NDI/Natural Decorations. They’ve helped fool visitors to my Modern St. Patrick’s Day and Derby Deconstructed rooms for Holiday House, and lucky buyers took more of their glorious handiwork home at last year’s Design on a Dime.

While perusing their site, and still thinking of the tabletop’s Asian underpinnings, striped plates and banded bowls, I came across NDI’s bamboo fence. Click! They’d be the perfect tabletop runners, giving me an earthy, organic counterpoint to all the glitz and glam above it. And the fact that the fencing itself is both striped, in a way, but could also allow me to “band” the table in an oversized, graphic way, really sealed the deal. In stock! Ready to ship! Add to basket! (Or, actually, the wish list for NDI. They said yes, as they have to me many, many times!)

I’m also a big fan of “intentional white” when it comes to design, and I knew that an all-white scheme for the flowers would get great impact while still letting the merchandise stay the star. It would also give the whole set-up a bridal bent, in this outpost that sees more than its share of Bridal Registries and visits by brides-to-be. NDI’s Peony Cubes and Peonies in a Porcelain Blue and White Bowl fit the bill, perfectly, and recreated a look I’m fond of when using real flowers: you get maximum mileage out of selecting one color and type of flower, then just using it en masse.
That centerpiece also has the perfect dialogue with the overhead lanterns, one happy half moon sharing the evening with the fuller versions above. (I’m also always about “Compare and Contrast” when it comes to filling out a display, table or room.)
Modern Take
When people think of “fine china,” they’re quick to think of formality, “the good dishes” that only get trotted out for holidays, and dusty dinner parties. But this table would be no Miss Havisham moment. I wanted a modern and slightly masculine sensibility (women aren't the only ones picking out wedding china these days!).
But like “all traditional,” “all modern” has a way of losing interest, too, so the modern patterns were joined by ultra-traditional stem- and flat- ware, in a very traditional placement. The casual/traditional push-pull continued with organic elements, fine cut crystal, and those breezy paper lanterns, and as it always does, the mix made it all the more interesting.
Invest, Splurge, Save
It’s my overarching philosophy, for any project, any client: the best results come from the strategy of “Invest, Splurge and Save,” and while the main components here were just pulled from inventory, not purchased, the idea was never far from my mind. Investment pieces—pieces you could work around for years to come— were the basic white Hemisphere. So, too, the clear Baccarat goblets, each standing the test of trend and time: you’d have each for as long as you’d want them.
The Splurge pieces were the more patterned pieces and the cobalt goblets. The Save came from the more temporary and theme-specific items: those paper lanterns, votives, and both the Crate & Barrel white and Bed, Bath & Beyond gold napkins.
Chopsticks and Other Lessons
“How fun,” I’d thought, “to position chopsticks at each placesetting, upright in alternating blue and clear votives, to add height and novelty!” What I hadn’t realized, but was quickly schooled on by several astute friends when the first teaser shots went live on my Facebook feed, is that displaying chopsticks that way also displays a certain cultural insensitivity (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say the word “funerary” came up more than once... hardly the intent!)  
So that plan changed, and once again, NDI to the rescue: those individual cubes, originally intended to be scattered about the table, became wonderful mini centerpieces in a look I’m eager to recreate. It gave that great mid-level height I love, and they’d make perfect gifts for dinner guests to take home at party’s end. They also, very practically, kept the chopsticks in place, and this time, without any cultural misstep.
Big thanks to my new friends at Michael C. Fina for the opportunity to handpick from their wonderful array of tabletop items, mix and match brands, and overall, make it an experience I hope to repeat.  Maybe I’ll get to use those dragons after all!

I hope my journey to the finished table has inspired you, too. Even more shots on my Pinterest album “Tabletopped.

Get Social! Find Michael C. Fina on Facebook and Twitter, Richard Brendon on Twitter and Pinterest, and follow me on Pinterest and Twitter!

All photos: Patrick J. Hamilton

This is not a sponsored post.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

...second looks: John Douglas Eason at Kips Bay 2014

He’s the kind of guy who generously uses “we” when he could easily get away with “me.” He's prone to giving more credit to serendipity than to his own innate and impeccable design sense. He’s the only person I know who can say, “Hello, darling!” and not sound like Gina Gershon in Showgirls. Meet the ever-dapper John Eason, of John Douglas Eason Interiors, a talented designer riding a wave of much-deserved attention. John stopped by AskPatrick to pull back the (GIGANTIC) curtain on his Kips Bay Decorator Show House debut, letting us know what’s behind the mirror, and why girthy Italian legs and nuclear reactors, among other things, kick-started and energized his star turn at the venerable designer show house.

Listen in on the full conversation here:

...or read on for some of the highlights!

Patrick J. Hamilton: Everybody knows Kips Bay. Was it intimidating working specifically in this amazing house, let alone Kips Bay? Because the house is kind of legendary, right?

John Douglas Eason: The house is definitely legendary. The thing that was challenging was I’ve never really worked in a 34-ft high staircase before. And I probably had one of the most logistically difficult spaces to work in, since it was the staircase. Especially having just a landing really to place furniture on. In all of that big scale and all that big size, the landing is relatively small. And with traffic coming up and down you couldn’t really do anything that would make those stairs feel more narrow. But yes, definitely, it was a little bit intimidating, having this kind of size.

PJH: It was kind of an odd combination of an incredible cubic footage of space, but a fairly small footprint to put anything down, right?

JDE: Exactly. And so getting the scale and getting proportion of everything just right was certainly a bit of a challenge.

PJH: Give us some stats. Like the yardage of wallpaper, the height of that window treatment.... drop some numbers on us, John!

JDE: The window itself was approximately 11.5’ high.

PJH: Holy moly! That’s just the window right?

JDE: That’s just the window! The walls themselves were 138” high from the stone piece that had a carved detail in it, where the stone ended. From the top of that to the bottom of the crown molding was 138.” The depth of the space was 220”.

So when we made the wallpaper, we painted that at the artist’s studio. Is this where I get to namedrop about the artists I worked with?

PJH: Of course! Assuming you’re willing to share your secret sources!

JDE: Absolutely! Christianson-Lee Studios, they’re based out of Ridgefield, Connecticut. We were able to do a small-scale sample to get all our colors right, and then we actually painted it on a thin canvas. Because of the size of their studio... we did the entire length of the wall. It was done in three different sections.

BEST & Company, the contractor I worked with, installed 220” long rolls of paper on the walls. And they did it all when there was scaffolding less than 8” away from the wall.

PJH: Yay, scaffolding!


PJH: It sounds like they lived up to their name!

JDE: They absolutely did. And they did not complain about it. I’m amazed they didn’t just throw the paper back at me!

PJH: I would imagine that stone was something that you could not change. What else were you given that you could not change or that you had to work hard to work around?

JDE: The baluster was historically landmarked, as were the stone steps, which meant that I couldn’t really put any type of beautiful runner or something just to make that softer or warmer. I really would have liked to warm that space up more.

PJH: I loved that smoky, sort of mysterious mirror. It did that trick that mirrors do: visually expand that space a bit. Is there something hiding behind there, John??

JDE: When we first took the space, the entire wall was covered with just a great big piece of sheetrock. So we had no idea what to expect when the sheetrock came off. But you know, it’s a show house, so you can generally expect that whatever the worst possible condition could be is what would be there.

PJH: It’s not going to be an ancient Roman tile or fresco or mural or something like that!

JDE: Exactly! Yes, we were not so lucky to find anything quite like that!

I considered a lot of different options. One thing would be putting a screen there. But nearly anything I would have put there would have taken from the footprint of the landing. If I had a folding screen, then that would have pushed whatever console or what-have-you out further. And there just wasn’t that kind of space.

PJH: In spite of the size constraints, you ended up with that bust— that bust! Oh my god!— That console! That chair! That photograph!! But where did you start!?

JDE: I started with two different things. When I saw the space, the first thing that came to mind was the Ingo Mauer chandelier. I’ve admired his work for an incredibly long time and always wanted to use one of his pieces.

The next thing I knew that I wanted to go for was to see if I could get Barry X Ball to loan me one of his pieces for the space. I became familiar with Barry’s sculpture two years ago when he had a big exhibition at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. And then fortunately as a member of the Museum of Art and Design, we did a studio tour of his studio in Brooklyn this past fall.

The minute I got the space, I thought, “Oh my god! One of these sculptures of his that has the real feeling of the Reniassance would be a perfect piece to put in the space.” The piece not only addresses what’s now and what’s hopefully part of our future, but it also addresses the past.

Barry likes to have his pieces displayed in classical venues. And so I think that was very appealing to him. It’s something you don’t run across all that often here in the United States. He’s shown before in Venice, and his works there are beautiful.

PJH: What was the biggest risk that you took with the space? Was it a specific piece, was it an overall design, was it putting art on patterned wallpaper? What felt to you like the biggest leap of faith?

JDE: Part of the biggest risk was just the arrangement of the things I chose to put in the space. A Wendell Castle chair (courtesy Friedman Benda Gallery), sitting next to a Baroque console...

PJH: Why does that work, though? Because it totally worked!

JDE: That console and that chair work together because in a way they were the yin and the yang of each other. The console was from H.M. Luther, and it’s 17th Century Baroque, Italian, and it had those great, big girthy legs...

PJH: Oh my!

JDE: ...and all those beautiful curves that were carved into that. And likewise, the Wendell Castle chair— which very 21st Century, one of only eight— that piece as well had those great big ginormous legs, but then those beautiful soft curves, and the beautiful silver leaf. And that seemed to pull with the metallics. The Thomas Struth photo that we used had the metallics in it, and that was the last thing to come in.

PJH: Did you always know you were going to put something up there, it was just a matter of what?

JDE: Originally I had always envisioned probably hanging two horizontal pieces on that wall or on the opposite wall. And when this one particular piece came, it was like, “No, your thinking is so wrong, you really need this vertical piece to offset the horizontal stripe in the wall.”

I always knew I was going to put something up there. Whatever was there needed to feel grand in scale, worthy of the space, and of the highest possible quality that I could bring.

The decision about the wall, the curtains, and everything else had already been made when the Marian Goodman Gallery gave me a selection of things to choose from. The minute I saw that was a choice I had, I was like, “This is it!” and I knew it would work.

PJH: Going back to your “Compare and Contrast” game with the console and the chair, you could bring that photo into that conversation and still do a lot of the same things. It’s sort of gutsy and curvy, there’s geometry...

JDE: That photograph is actually of the core reactor at the Max Plank Institute in West Germany. The thing that was crazy about it and unanticipated was the reactor almost looks like it has scales on it, and those scales so perfectly reflected the sails on the chandelier. It was just amazing to me how perfectly all of that came in to play together. Everything felt like it was speaking to everything else in the space.

PJH: When I was writing about the whole house, I kept coming back to your space, because it seemed to encapsulate a lot of what was going on throughout the entire house. Gray (like on your ceiling) was a through-note through a lot of the public spaces, incredible showstopper art was another, statement lighting fixtures another, even that ridiculously (in a good way) ornate console... Why were so many designers all on the same page about this house? Was it the house itself? Is it just that everybody’s tapped into the same moment? What’s going on?

JDE: Any good designer listens to what a house has to say to them. And there certainly is a sense of grandeur about these spaces. That living room, I’m not sure what the dimensions were, but it felt like a football field. In current times, and maybe not so much when the house was built, I think we all have this awareness of human scale, as well, and want spaces to feel like home, want them to feel cozy.

With the grandiosity of the pieces that were put into the rooms, I think it was all about addressing the grandeur of the house but also wanting to make rooms feel livable and make them feel like a place where you might actually have a family.

PJH: Sort of taming the house, a little bit.

JDE: Exactly.

PJH: When I interviewed you awhile back for Apartment Therapy about your past home, you talked about listening to the space... and you’re talking along those terms now. What did this incredible house whisper in your ear, John?

JDE: Maybe this is just some of my own musings, but I think the house would like to be a home again. And as I thought about the house as a home, and I thought about what today’s billionaires would want to put in their homes, it occurred to me that they would want whatever artwork or possessions to not only display their wealth, but be things that are also the most current... things that are very much of the moment.

JDE:  My main goal with the space was to make it feel as though we had respect for the history of the space but at the same time, I wanted to do something that would make the space feel current and modern, but not so modern and so out there that it felt like we did things that didn’t belong, that were foreign to the space.

PJH: I know you’re also heavily involved with Bailey House... were you not in up to your eyeballs on that right at set up for Kips Bay?? Like how... what... how are you still... what happened??

JDE: Yes indeed! I’m definitely heavily involved in Bailey House, and we had our big annual auction event on March 27th. It was definitely a challenge. And somewhere in the middle of all of that, I also did a tabletop thing for the Lenox Hill Spring Gala...

PJH: Of course you did!

JDE: ...which I had committed to like about 48 hours before getting the call for Kips Bay!

PJH: Oh god!

JDE: Yes!

PJH: The best way to be busy is to be busy, I always say!

JDE: It all worked out. I think it’s the thing we all find out about these things.

I’m very fortunate. I have wonderful and lovely clients who are very supportive. No doubt, there’re definitely some of them that have felt neglected over the past few weeks. But I find that when you’re involved with something like this, everything and everybody pulls things together to make things happen.

Even the folks at Bailey House were so amazing.  As the event was coming up, I was having to say no to certain meetings which I would have normally been involved in. They were like, “John, whatever we can do to help, and once the event is past, if there’s something that we can do that would be beneficial to you, just let us know.”

PJH: That’s nice to hear. What other space in the house would you have loved to take credit for? What else caught your eye in the rest of the house?

JDE: The other space that just really jumped out to me was the space by ODADA, where they took this room with this really odd blue neon light in the ceiling, and they worked with that by painting the ceiling blue.

They kept the furnishings spare, but everything in that room, if you took each piece individually, they were all just incredibly beautiful pieces, high quality. But just something about it felt warm and intellectually intriguing to me, aesthetically pleasing. It’s a room that I’d love to be able to say, “That was my room! I did that!”

PJH: Having gone through all this, and done it while Bailey House was in full swing, and while setting tables for Lenox Hill, any advice to future show house or table-top participants?

JDE: You’ve got to be organized, you’ve got to have your finances in order because things come up that you didn’t anticipate, that you have to buy at the last minute. And you’ve got to be ready to make quick decisions. That’s one of the things that happened with that mirror. We didn’t get that sheet rock off until late in the game, and I had to come up with a quick solution.

PJH: So you recently married your handsome partner Damon Crain, you’re just coming off your first smashing— I would call it a smashing— success at Kips Bay, and your apartment was just featured in New York Spaces magazine... it’s not a bad time to be John Eason, is it?

JDE: You know! (laughter) For somebody who is slightly uncomfortable with attention, I have to tell you (well, I’m slightly uncomfortable, and I love it at the same time!), it has been... quite honestly... I have a hard time finding words for it.

It is so amazing to get the support of the community that you work in, it’s so amazing to have found someone, who for better or worse, thinks that he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. And he’s incredibly supportive in what I do. He was very instrumental in helping me to be able to pull off Bailey House, Lenox Hill and Kips Bay. It’s just... yeah... there are days when I just have to pinch myself a little.

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All interior photography: Patrick J. Hamilton

Thursday, May 29, 2014

...about haute and haunting, and a day at the opera, all for a price: Kips Bay 2014

   “I’ve seen the future. I can’t afford it.” 
                —“Millionaire,” ABC

It’s always been the grande dame of New York (and national) show houses... Kips Bay Decorator Show House, the annually shifting address to which designers aspire and jockey to attach their names, designs and reputation.

But the 2014 edition is no ordinary dame. This is great bones and bearing, dressed to the nines, times 22. This house, this year, is Carmen Dell'Orefice in a Balenciaga wedding gown. It just doesn’t get any more couture.

The interiors are high on fantasy, indulgent excess, and stratospheric price tag of the assembled contents. “You can smell the money,” said one guest. The seven or so pieces in John Douglas Eason’s grand stairwell were insured for a cool one million, and Christopher Peacock told the New York Times his 15-by-10-foot closet would run up a price tag of $60,000, although, he reassured, “You can do this on a budget.”

The overall over-the-top response owes largely to the house itself. Instead of the usual upper east row home of respectable, upscale provenance, this year’s setting is a more storied one: the northernmost structure of the six McKim Mead and White-designed Villard Houses, now part of the New York Palace property.

In the tradition of designers “listening to the architecture” of a structure or space, especially so in the absence of an actual client, the legendary house seems to have had its say and its way, coaxing a herculean effort from the stellar cast. It seems to have both humbled and inspired them in the process with its history, gracious flow and proportion, inherent character, expansive wall space and towering windows.

The house swallows up all but the grandest of gestures, due in equal parts to its amazing presence and staggering size. Although Architectural Digest’s Margaret Russell said in the New York Post, “Even though its scale may be grand, the results are not pretentious or ostentatious,” this lily is gilded. If past houses were poetry, this one is opera: grand, dramatic, sweeping, often in a language foreign and exotic, and not necessarily accessible or translatable to all audiences. But that’s made this the Kips Bay to end all Kips Bays, in style, size and execution.
It says something when million dollar decorator Martyn Lawrence Bullard seems soft-spoken, and almost overshadowed by the home’s larger rooms and original details. As you’d expect, Bullard talks back to the house, with a wildly-marbled paper from his line for Schumacher. But the house somehow still seems to have the last word.
It also says something that Ron Arad’s one-of-a-kind fireplace surround, a giant’s thumbprint of polished steel rods, in Ingrao Inc.’s room, which would have garnered all the attention in years past, seems just slightly above par for the course, in a house riddled with million dollar-plus features.

With such a traditional shell, you’d expect a bit of chintz or toile. But in that respect, the house happily disappoints. Although Elle Décor’s editor in chief Michael Boodro Tweeted, “Grand, old school decorating is back,” the house has an au courant, futuristic air, due in large part to the selection and handling of art, avant garde lighting, a nearly untenable scale to frame and furnishings, and that fireplace.
A few steps through the doorways of the first floor alone, and you’ve lost track of how big the rooms actually are, like Alice through the looking glass before any of the “Eat Me/Drink This” pit stops. A vintage shoulder-mount zebra seems almost delicate in scale in William T. Georgis room before you realize it’s hanging at least three feet above a towering secretary, with more than a few more feet above it and, well, that it’s a full quarter of a zebra
In John Eason’s soaring grand stairwell, a Thomas Struth photograph seems modestly scaled despite its 111” height. The ground floor rooms of both Ingrao and Juan Montoya seem more high-end luxe airline lounge than living room, with meandering, free-form sofas that could accommodate a few dozen or more awaiting their first-class seat on some Emirates flight, in rooms seemingly big enough to land the actual planes. 
Upstairs, ceilings still soar, and even the modest rooms are enviable volumes. Alexa Hampton’s sitting room seems humanly scaled, yet after your eyes adjust, you realize it’s a room large enough to tuck a living room that easily seats seven in just one corner.

Yet for a house full of grand gesture and pedigreed showmen (and women), what could have been Clash of the Titans is oddly, surprisingly, cohesive. Upstairs and down, and in spite of the unique points of view of the 22 designers and firms, an almost singular personal style, curated sense and design approach echoes and resounds throughout the cavernous rooms and vast public spaces. It’s as if it were all commissioned by some staggeringly wealthy, young-ish über-power couple, where one of the two is an art-driven and slightly severe minimalist, the other a bit more Old World and layered, both moneyed and daring, if not slightly eccentric. Though multi-faceted, it all seems remarkably planned.
The way the designers addressed the mansion’s woodwork is one of the silken threads that weaves the whole house together. More than half the designers, like Bullard, went the paint-and-paper route. The others created slab-like and monolithic installations, almost art themselves, floating, plastered, painted, gilded and sometimes backlit, hovering in front of the paneling, in at least three places in the house.

Color also lent cohesion. A few variations of an unexpected utilitarian gunmetal gray give transition spaces a commonality, and a shift to softer grays in other spaces furthered the effect of a grand palette plan. An upper floor seems to have been pulled mostly from the same swatch of the paint deck. (“Have you been to the teal floor?” one decorator friend quipped, of a color that first makes a cameo appearance in Georgis’ Cardinal’s lair before its star turn upstairs.) 

When it wasn’t teal (or Georgis' blood red), it was a gutsier-than-pastel mid-tone candy color, like Peacock’s pink confection of a dressing room, Cullman & Kravis peachy bedroom, Carrier & Company’s lemon yellow artwork, or ramped up like Vicente Wolf’s slightly uncharacteristic shot of persimmon, in an upholstered addition masking an unsightly doorway wall of one of the very few modestly sized rooms.
While color is omnipresent, there’s also a well-paced repetition of intentionally all- or nearly-all white rooms. The spaces of Darryl Carter, Edward Lobrano, and Montoya cleansed the palette like sorbet between an evening’s rich and decadent courses.
Other through-notes, undoubtedly happy accidents: Bullards' marbleized paper finds a companion in Carrier & Company’s Paris-flat evocative upstairs sitting room. 
The paper crowning Eason’s stairwell is one of more than a few places where linear geometry is softened by an organic, handmade feel, the Alpha Workshops wallpaper and stacked stone pencil tile from AKDO in Young Huh’s gentlemen’s powder room another. The two-sided sofas in Montoya’s and Ingrao’s rooms seem cut of the same decadent cloth. And the other three-quarters of Georgis’ zebra appears in bench form on the second floor gallery.
Georgis’ room seems the masculine counterpart to Hampton’s more feminine exotic stunner, both he and she having a field day with color and a sparkling, if not slightly wicked, sense of humor. The minaret arches in Hampton’s Moorish lambrequins appear again in Markham Robert’s sitting room/office mirror. 
A chair in Montoya’s room, an open art book open in Darryl Carter’s, and the Barry X. Ball lapis bust on Eason’s landing share a shrouded, draped theme. 
Also on that landing, an ornate console that looks like it sailed the Atlantic in a European cargo container with Georgis’ mirror and the black-and-white-marble-topped pair by William Kent in Ingrao’s room, paying homage to the entry hall’s flooring, adding yet another repetitive note echoing up and down the hallways.

Art, throughout, is large and gutsy. And how the two-dimensional pieces are applied yet another common denominator, with either a single gargantuan piece, or wall-climbing salon-style installations, every panel of the woodwork serving as an outer frame to each piece. There’s also a bonanza of sculpture, of a public-works scale that looks like it had to be hoisted in on cranes.
Lighting is another element adding to the continuity, with sculptural contemporary fixtures by Rich Brilliant Willing on one floor the perfect playmate to the Roll & Hill fixtures and Markham Roberts’ brass spiral on the others... while classic crystal chandeliers made more than one appearance in other rooms. 
And if they weren’t one or the other, they were “mere” sculptural showstopper, like Ingrao’s cloud-like oval of buffet-plate-sized Italian glass disks, or Eason’s Ingo Maurer kite-like Oh Mei Ma construction, the best fixture in the entire house, a hybrid of delicate gold leaf and muscular mother ship ready to beam it all up, like some art-loving, antique savvy intergalactic pirate galleon.
In one of the house’s happiest of accidents, and a shining example of “celebrate the givens,” Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Design Associates was faced with an overhead halo of neon, and either by edict or choice, chose to keep it. In the context of the completed house, it seems like a minimalist light sculpture commissioned specifically for the space, not a remnant of the room’s recent past. It shares a gallery-esque vibe with the two upstairs hallways, each feeling more like an art installation integrated into the house than something just carted in and nailed up for the show house’s 30-ish day run.

For all the continuity, the home’s grandiose scale, and the designers’ no-holds-barred decorating, a few grace notes get lost in the shuffle. The otherwise lovely bedroom by Lobrano seemed a bit sleepy in comparison to the more boisterous rooms around it, like a lovely debutante overlooked amid angular super models at Fashion Week. And not every visitor (or member of the press) realized Eason’s stairwell wasn’t a continuation of the second-floor landing designed by Meyer Davis or Bullard’s foyer, as in-common grays and metallics blurred the boundaries.
So much personality imbued the whole house with a feel of real storytelling, even more than Kips Bays past. And it wasn’t just Georgis’ wickedly sacrilegious jab at the notorious Cardinal Spellman, in the shadow of St. Patrick’s cathedral. (In Georgis’ hands, sangre de cristo turns into a bloody good time, and a decadent, gorgeous and sexy room.) Carter’s room seemed a chic set for a modernized Crucible, Scarlet Letter or Dangerous Liaisons. The White Queen (or as the New York Times’ Penelope Green supposed, Cruella De Vil) would most certainly scream through Bullard’s chic chessboard at any moment. Matthew Quinn’s kitchen seemed the perfect stage (and plenty of room) for the “Toot Sweet” number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hampton’s room where Jasmine and Aladdin finally park their carpet. And the consoles and other high-personality pieces here and there still no doubt under the spell of a maligned enchantress in Beauty and the Beast, somewhere between the Disney and Cocteau productions.
Haute and Haunting
Elsewhere, mysterious, enigmatic elements like those shrouded figures, a wild-eyed photo of Medusa flanked by narwhale tusks, silenced portraits, beheaded torsos, disorienting scale, murky colors, blood references, and corridors disappearing in dark shadows made this into a haunted house of sorts, the Victor Fung mural in the Meyer Davis hallway frozen in an eternal, eerie scream, punctured like a wound by the ruby red exit sign. 
The whole house could be the setting for some stylized sequel to Sleep No More or Eyes Wide Shut. Or maybe a little bit Halloween at Liberace’s or Donald Trump’s house.

And while there was a kitchen (two, actually, both by Quinn), there was no dining room, a semi-glaring oversight, although last year’s dining room by Kristen McGinnis could have successfully slotted right in, with its moody lacquer and artful narrative. So too, the over-the-top-and-back-again dining room by Inson Wood at Holiday House a few years back.
Some designers, while inspired by the surroundings, seemed to want to overpower or upstage them. And while gorgeous, those rooms felt a bit bullied, however elegantly, into submission, like a heavy hand in a velvet glove, although other results were certainly intended. Of his plaster wave of wall that included an oddly-scaled, almost-adobe fireplace, Montoya likened it, somehow, "to a cashmere throw."

To continue the opera metaphor, like a Wagner work, this year’s Kips Bay Show House is a multi-scene marathon full of big roles and bravura performances. And even if you don’t understand all (or any) of the words, it’s still a piece of staggering beauty, artfully composed and sure to be long remembered. It will, however, take a brave cast, and a remarkable stage set, to follow this year’s act.

The Kips Bay Decorator Show House runs annually in the spring in New York City. This year's house was open from May 1st through May 29th, 2014.

Stay tuned for closer looks of some of my favorite rooms and spaces! And click on any of the photos for a larger slideshow view.

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All photography: Patrick J. Hamilton