Wednesday, October 28, 2015

...about making the mix modern: Bilotta Art of the Table.

Picture it: a beautifully-blank slate of cool marble countertops, raised-paneled cabinets, dark wood, and pearly, slate-y-gray floors. That was my fortunate starting point when I was invited to the fifth annual Art of the Table at the New York Bilotta Kitchens showroom, one of five designers each assigned one of the permanent kitchen displays, each more gorgeous than the next even empty.

We were each tasked with bringing our own stylistic twists and turns to the spaces, with table top choices, art, and accessories. We couldn’t make any structural changes (basically, anything already built-in had to stay that way), so it all depended on what we had borrowed, bought, trucked in, hung up, propped, arranged, set or leaned to tell a compelling, if not somewhat fantasy-based story, helping visitors see the kitchens in a whole new light. Basically a styling assignment, but not unlike working within the confines of bringing a room to life in a rental, or working with a client itching for change yet not yet ready, willing or able to renovate.
The other major given, too, was the table setting: event co-sponsor Prouna, a purveyor of luxury stemware, flatware, and fine bone china, much of it encrusted with a glittering scatter of Swarovski crystals (yes, you can eat off them... just hand-wash, please!). Several patterns seemed perfectly matched to this kitchen of icy, silvery and pewter tones, some even cut of the same fine cloth as the kitchen’s pre-existing chandelier, an exuberant orb of crystalline flowers (Prouna’s Platinum Leaves pattern, an early front runner, seemed made for this kitchen, and that light.)

All great news, right? Well, yes and yes-ish. These, as they say, are all good problems to have.

The kitchen I was given was by far the most traditional within the sleek Bilotta space, and that’s not necessarily where I would start, even though I really haven’t met a style I didn’t like (and I’ve done my own traditional kitchens before without issue, with a few more in the pipeline). The amazing array of Prouna’s pieces and patterns from which to choose is also far more fanciful than I might consider left to my own more modern and minimal devices. But I also love a challenge, the attraction of opposites, and the game of “compare and contrast,” so I knew, right away, these traditional (and, with elegant curves and a floral chandelier) somewhat feminine beautiful bones would be getting some modern, masculine elements to create the good kind of tension from which any room, fictional or family-friendly, benefits.

Starting point: The original Bilotta kitchen
Color Story, Part 1... and the “Divide by Two” Rule
The first task to tackle was making my mark on the space itself, and for that, I turned to my favorite tool in the toolbox: color. I knew this blue-ish gray, white and brown kitchen would play well with almost any kind of palette. But when I’m working with givens, I like to knit in rather than purely layer on. So I came up with a plan that’s proven to make sense even outside this kitchen: when faced with an existing color to add, work with or around, see what happens when you break the main existing color into its two biggest parts... so in this case, the predominately gray background was broken into its two parts: black and white (a purple room could be split into red and blue, as one example, a beige room broken into deep brown and pure white, another).

When both black and white are used intentionally, I think the effect can be strong, graphic and gutsy. I also knew bringing more white into the kitchen would make the marble countertops and white tabletop seem like intentional choices of my own, not just a bit of lucky and rich inheritance. (I’m a fan of what I like to call “intentional white.” See how here and here, and stay tuned for more!)

Start (Again!) With Art
With black and white as my first decision, the next one was exactly how to bring it. I decided to take the “art” part of the “Art of the Table” assignment very seriously, and start where I often do, especially when no client is on board: with art. Off to see Christine Berry of Berry Campbell gallery I went, and she graciously let me raid the ample and inspiring storehouses of their recently and gorgeously expanded Chelsea gallery.

Immediately, Ken Greenleaf’s shaped canvases (non-rectilinear art a current and ongoing obsession, sure to pick up more fans when the Frank Stella show comes to town later this year) and Ken’s small-but-super-strong charcoal drawings felt like they’d provide great contrast to the finer lines and sweeping arcs of the surrounding cabinetry. 

Done, and done, and the gracious Christine didn’t bat an eye when I revealed I’d be hanging the main canvas above the stove, arguably the kitchen’s focal point, although not the most traditional of places to hang a museum quality piece! Ah, the fun of a fantasy installation, but in all seriousness, not every gorgeous Manhattan kitchen always gets cooked in, so not that far in the realm of folly. 

To add to the art story, metal sculptures (another current obsession), deceivingly high-end in appearance, but in reality, from the go-to treasure troves of Arteriors Home.

The metal rings, a pair of their Kobe sculptures, created a giant graphic room divider on the kitchen’s elegant curve of counter-height seating that suggested enclosure without shutting off the space, while echoing, in a more industrial way, the cabinets’ interlocking arcs.

Suddenly, a narrative framework emerged, one of an art-driven modernist who’d inherited a classic kitchen (maybe in a great Brooklyn brownstone), and other decisions started to fall into place.
Color Story, Part 2
While the framework was coming into focus, I started to narrow down the china choices. While the Hemisphere pattern caught my eye early, I also kept coming back to the Pavo Silver, and what turned out, at first, to be the sticking points for that choice— an overall, nearly-Baroque, no-holds-barred pattern and its purplish, lavender wash, both of which seemed distinctively NOT very “modernist” or (and please pardon the gender assumptions) masculine— ended up being wonderful palette inspiration. Hey, even a minimalist is allowed to get his bling on and set a fancy table every now and then, and we’re entering the season of bounty where fancy tables anchor family gathering and professional fetes... so why not let my fictional modernist in on the fun? Plus, “fancy” is what Prouna does best. 

That lavender wash (and a deeper, richer purple rim on the bread and butter and salad plates) made me realize that the range of purples, from aubergine to amethyst, lavender to mauve, would be a perfect yet unexpected color choice... what could be more modern than that?
The heroically scaled Fiercely Remote, by Perle Fine, courtesy Berry Campbell, was tucked into the Butler's pantry, and provided more color reinforcement, knitting together the room's range of purples.

Amplifying What’s There 
I do also very much like “bouncing the bones” of a room further into it. Otherwise, you end with two pieces, and a split-personality, two awkward party guests with nothing in common to discuss. I still had two components that needed bouncing to knit content and shell: those purples from the tabletop, and the deep espresso base to the kitchen island, table and the closing curve of the cozy banquette.
To get purple into the room, I turned to my friends at Thibaut: their Shang Extra Fine grasscloth in Plum lined the plate display area and the inside the glass-fronted cabinets (the second time I used the aptly-named Extra Fine paper, that reads more like silk than grass).

To get the room’s brown further integrated into the add-on layer, I turned to accessories, layering on great African pieces (that echoed the Greenleaf angles) courtesy Bruce Tilley’s Décor NYC, and tortoiseshell, from my own collection and from Pottery Barn, votives used as water glasses, and hurricanes used in the cabinets.
Falling for Fall 
I’m a self-professed sucker for fall. So once pheasants appeared on the Pavo plates, I helplessly fell for fall: this would be a decidedly autumn table. But can you create autumn in an ice-toned room more suited for a Doctor Zhivago, totally-Frozen fantasy? I say yes! Like bringing the cozy autumn aesthetic to a modern space, there are ways to bring a seasonal vibe with nary a pumpkin or pilgrim in sight. 
The amazing pheasant-feather placemats from my friends at Jayson Home, their feathers a real-life relative to the ones on the fanciful plates, layered the table with a scatter of color like a base of autumn leaves, their circles a perfect “bounce” of the circles already ringing the space. More pieces from Jayson Home, in horn and petrified wood, added more autumn and bounced those browns deeper into the space.

Stay Open to Inspiration
Even a strict and solid design plan benefits from an open eye. In the midst of planning, with most pieces in play, some yet-to-be determined, I clicked on an email from Daniel Cooney Fine Art, heralding one of their frequent online iGavel auctions. The image that greeted me stopped me in my tracks and quickened my pulse: Greg Endries “Dimitry,” an edgy (I don’t always love that word, but sometimes it truly fits!) image stared back at me from my email. 
The mix of the earthy background, the surprising elegance and modern-baroque of the all-over tattoo, the chic tone-on-tone Louis Vuitton scarf and black leather jacket... even the touch of purple at the lips and coppery-brown sweep of hair... spoke to everything I was hoping this room would be, both color- and vibe-wise. That all-over pattern of his facial tattoo also found a surprising counterpoint to the pattern of the china, a modern Baroque motif that created the room’s “New Kind of Elegant” title.
Suddenly, I found the masculine muse this room needed, and whether the subject was the fictional owner or one of his collected works, I knew he needed to hold pride of place (Greg graciously agreed, and Steven Amedee Fine Custom Framing came to the last-minute rescue).

It proves that ANY interior scheme is an organic process, subject to midstream twists and turns, and this late arrival crystallized all other choices.
Tricking the Traditional 
Along the way, I also leaned on some other tricks to take any possible fussiness out of a traditional scheme, while still being inspired by it: an organic layer, a mix of high and low, shape and scale, and repeated geometry. 
What holds its own against the finely crafted man-made? Organic elements— rock crystal, horn, petrified wood, the stunning feathered pillows courtesy Dransfield & Ross, even the styling choices of eggplants and chestnuts— all related to pieces already in the room, and provided their own strong punctuation (My favorite detail: rock crystal pieces from Jayson Home used as knife rests!) Pottery Barn glassware and pillows mixed high and low at the table. All these choices keep any potential pretentiousness at bay, like balancing the sweetness of a dish with a more acidic wine selection.

The ornate quilting of the Pottery Barn Caitilin pillows also mimicked the overhead light fixture and Platinum Leaves plates used on the plate display shelves.

John Lyle’s Shannon floor lamps stood like sentinels while bringing architectural presence with their strong, graphic shapes. An underpinning of repeated and simplified geometry also amplified built-in details (the Greenleaf pieces a bridge to the earthy zebra-hide stool). Around the room’s edges, china choices became more graphic and simplified, Prouna’s Origin line, creating graphic moments while keeping the focus on the table.
Modern Florals
Another trick to keeping a traditional tabletop or styling scheme fresh and unfussy: simplified floral arrangements that let single blooms really shine, keeping the emphasis on color and shape. Talented friend Matthew Kusniar picked materials to be perfect counterpoint or partner to colors and shapes and materials in the room, bringing feathery lavender mums to the table, their dome of color having a happy conversation with both the overhead fixture and the placemats. On the built-in sideboard, white and purple calla lilies mimicked the horns that also appeared frequently throughout the space.
Overall, with styling tricks and some gorgeous layers, it all just proves to me that when you get the envelope right (like Bilotta did), you can pretty much put anything in it to suit your taste, mood and style. 

It also proves that it's all about the mix: modern and traditional, urban and organic, masculine and feminine, and the mix is where the energy comes from: like a great  brownstone filled with contemporary art and mid-century furnishings, each is all the better for the contrast. You end up noticing the traditional elements (in this case, a great zinc and marble hood, overlapping circular moldings of the glass-front cabinets and plate display niches) more with a modern layer than you might with an all-out traditional scheme.

Thanks to all the amazing partners for making my Art of the Table appearance possible!
Kitchen Design: Bilotta
Dinnerware, Serveware, Flatware, Stemware: Prouna  
Media partner, Art of the Table: Traditional Home
Backsplash Tile: Artistic Tile
Wallcovering: Thibaut 
Paintings and works on paper: Berry Campbell
Photo portrait, "Dimitry," Greg Endries, framed by Steven Amedee Fine Custom Framing
Standing Polished Bronze Lamps: John Lyle Design
Floral Design: Matthew Kusniar, NYC
Metal Sculptures:
Arteriors Home 
African Masks: Decor NYC 
Feathered Pillows: Dransfield & Ross 
Candles: Fivestripes
Placemats: Jayson Home
Beaded Napkin Rings:
Dransfield & Ross 
Agate Coasters: Jayson Home
Horn Decorative Items:
Arteriors Home 
Petrified Wood Bowl, Horn Serving Items, Crystals, Serving Trays: Jayson Home
Tortoise Accessories and Velvet Pillow Covers: Pottery Barn
Napkins: Crate & Barrel
Metal Obelisks: Williams-Sonoma Home
Installation and tabletop shots: Jody Kivort 

Get the look! See items included in, and inspired by my "New Kind of Elegant" kitchen and "Autumn Aubergine" tabletop on Pinterest

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

...about upstairs, downstairs, step by step, on the heels of a Diva: Kips Bay 2015.

During the 2004 concert staging of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Kristin Chenoweth starts her number by telling Patti Lupone, who immediately precedes her, to get off the stage. “I stay,” she says. “You go. Mine!” she chirps at the larger-than-life Lupone.

The audience ate it up with a spoon, and Lupone milked it for every inch, strolling off stage, nearly dragging the spotlight with her. Chenoweth, of course, ultimately more than holds her own, but truth is, not even a full-fledged star likes to follow a full-blown Diva.

It’s a little like that at the 2015 Kips Bay Decorator Show House. Last year’s tour-de-force was a real design milestone in the 43 year span of this grande dame’s run, a stunning collection of gargantuan rooms and some of the most over-the-top creative work by the likes of Juan Montoya, Ingrao Inc., Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Alexa Hampton and John Douglas Eason.

It was the hautest of the haute couture, driven largely by the stunning shell in which it all unfolded, one of the storied and legendary Villard Houses. And while this year was still more bespoke and Savile Row than prêt-a-porter, it certainly was a more livable, relatable space where you didn’t have to stretch your mind muscles quite as far to find take-home tips or relatable rooms compared to last year.

How do you follow a diva? Doing what Kips Bay is known for: quintessential "Upper East" old-school decorating, and that's the script most followed.

The 22 design world stars this year played their roles well, and the house still entertains, but it’s way more Chenoweth than Lupone: lighter, breezier, not as deeply serious, intimidating or avant-garde as last year’s. It’s still highly entertaining, with plenty of brilliance, wit and design bravura. While there might not be a $1 million dollar fireplace screen like last year, it’s still every bit a show house, albeit far more Bernstein Broadway than Wagnerian opera, and still very much worth the ticket price, $35 to benefit the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club
The house returned to its roots in a way, ensconced in a typical East Side mansion. But “typical” in these parts still means five floors, outdoor spaces, a never-ending oval of a showstopper staircase, grand and ample rooms, and a cool $35 million price tag, even before the designer trappings that came together in a nearly-miraculous four weeks from start to finish.

The location, the Gilded Age Arthur Sachs mansion, feels like a well-preserved house that’s been spared the often brutal surgeon’s knife of never-ending reworkings, but in fact, the mansion experienced a light-handed but total gut renovation, designed by Henry Jessup of HS Jessup Architecture, and finished by Interior Management, Inc.  just moments before opening its doors to the Kips Bay decorators.

Throughout, serendipity and coincidence lend the home a surprising continuity not always found in show houses, and in that continuity, trends of note and patterns worth repeating.
With only the fewest of exceptions (foyer, first-floor and top-floor landings, a Keith Haring tiled powder room, and McMillen Inc.'s spare homage to Rio in an upstairs bedroom) the décor is largely all- or mostly-traditional. Even some of the less traditional rooms (by Charles Pavarini, Alan Tanskley, and Thom Filicia) feel settled in, yielding a net effect that’s vaguely vintage rather than brand-spanking new, and giving the house the illusion that one owner (with some serious designer assistance) brought these rooms to life over the years rather than cutting it all off one bolt of toile or chintz. And while not to the degree of the 2013 house, it does give visitors a lovely tour through time, although through a designer’s prism, not a slavish re-creation. 
If you track this house for trend, there were plenty that cut through: Murals are back, gray's still the neutral du jour, plaid is en pointe, African and tribal art is au currant, and the rabbits of Hunt Slonem are still running strong. Palm fronds, whether Golden Girls lush or Chrysler Building sharp, offer the ultimate design escape. Salon-style hangings are still amping up art collections. Patterns are meant to be mixed. Cheery, cherry red is making a juicy comeback, thanks to Red Queen Alessandra Branca and LA designer Mark D. Sikes. Art Deco has been refreshed with a lighter hand, and, it seems, every room should be designed for multi-function, and one of those functions should be a bar. Another somewhat surprising repeat apperance: every single bed in the house had some variation of tester or canopy, whether linear and spare or draped and enveloping.
The men of the house turned it out in buttoned-up fashion. Alan Tanksley and Kips Bay veteran Charles Pavarini both let their architectural roots show while letting their artistic flags fly, Pavarini with a metal-leafed wall of Ann Sacks travertine, a stretched-membrane ceiling in his closet-turned bar and stunning shagreen-embossed leather drapery (crafted by Anthony Lawrence Belfair), Tanksley with a fog-shrouded Deco-esque mural on the interior of the sloped mansard roof.
Thom Filicia’s multifunction “modern library” also had a foggy palette of mixed patterns with a modern menswear vibe. Filicia’s art was some of the house’s gutsiest, if you were to separate the private rooms from the public circulation areas of Ronald J. Bricke, Paula + Martha, and Philip Mitchell, all three largely art driven.
Filica wasn’t the only one to use gray. It showed up in a light to mid-range value on  the toile-inspired stairwell wall covering (a surprisingly unifying backdrop for Mitchell’s two+ floors of floor-to-ceiling artwork, a stellar example of the staggering skills of insider secret iLevel) and to an elusive deep and warm gray (Tanner’s Brown, from Farrow & Ball) on the Christopher Peacock kitchen cabinets.
Plaid dotted the house, starting with the room-commanding, custom-colored AKDO tile backdrop (one of several places this boutique tile house's intricate offerings glistened) applied on the bias in the Christopher Peacock-designed, House Beautiful-sponsored and Silestone-clad kitchen, which Peacock himself said was more “a living room you cook in.” Even his oversized lanterns threw shadows of plaid onto the room's ceiling.
Upstairs, Alessandra Branca deftly mixed tartan into a sea of refreshed and exotic botanicals and ticking stripe, and on another floor, David Phoenix cocooned the man’s master bedroom with a pale gray-and-tan tartan that struck the perfect masculine/feminine, winter/summer balance, grounding the flighty, trippy and metallic Damien Hirst butterflies. 
With those tartans leading the charge, it was a good year for geometrics in a house often known for chintz and cabbage roses, with an exuberant use of overscaled but picnic-ready gingham in Mark D. Sikes’s vote-splitting formal dining room (showing off his own wicker line for Soane Britain, Sikes being the first American to design for the UK company).  
Geometry took a more organic, global turn, with Sikes' paisley, and Tilton Fenwick’s own hand-block-inspired Zulla fabric for Duralee, covering the walls in their tricky-but-tamed back stair landing, featuring a silk purse of a solution to the room’s sow’s ear of wiring: raised conduits used as chair rail, softened with Houlés fringe trim.
Global influences weren’t limited to the Best Marigold Hotel-evocative Tilton Fenwick space. Ceramic giraffe-head vessels commanded Tanksley’s layered room, which also referenced Greece, a nod to the room’s inspiration, Alexa Hampton’s Greek-born husband. The expedition continued with Branca's beaded and feathered African headdresses.
The elegant Hers bedroom by Cathy Kincaid featured a grand tour’s worth of souvenirs, Asian and otherwise.
The globetrotting continued to Brasil in McMillen Inc.’s roof-deck-adjacent bedroom, and Michael Herold’s deep, dark and dramatic but TINY space, taken to the tropics with the Cole & Son Palm Leaves wallpaper, all very Midnight in the Jungle of Good an Evil.
While last year’s house had a Whitney-worthy collection of public-scaled art with a capital A, this year’s house made art, with a welcome trend toward sculpture, a far more personal endeavor. And while Filicia upped the ante with a man-sized (and -shaped) piece, smaller-scaled works of wood, plaster, stone and metal showed up in Tanksley’s aerie, Branca’s lush tablescapes, Bricke’s yin-yang of a stair landing, and Paula + Martha's mobius ribbon  floating above the stairwell. But nowhere was the sculpture more personal than in Pavarini’s hands: the multiple skyscraper pieces were an ode to his grandfather, the start of his own architectural leanings.
Perhaps some of the most notable lessons of the house were the importance of the “throwaway space,” and the value of imbuing even modest rooms with multifunction. Almost every landing and elevator vestibule was designed to stop traffic, not just move it. Tilton Fenwick created their perfect roost for cocktails and gossip (evocative of Dineen Architecture’s drinks lounge from 2013) from an awkward back stair that might have otherwise been dissed and dismissed. And perhaps the best space in the house? That walk-in closet-turned-geometric gem of Herold’s, proving yet again that some of the biggest moments in show houses take place in the smallest of footprints.

As for multifunction, Branca got a whole apartment’s worth of use (lounging, dining, gaming, socializing, napping and more) by activating all four corners of her room, while Filica and Tanksley turned office into a sitting room and vice versa.
As in many show houses, the biggest risks displayed were not from all-out design, but from quieter moments, none more spare than the top and bottom (mostly) black-and-white brackets by Bricke below and Paula + Martha above, both white-walled, and a true illustration of the oft-overused “curated.” When other rooms jockey to outdo, isn’t minimalism, in a show house, a risk? Bricke put it back in perspective, with a question: “Isn’t everything in design a risk?”
The other lesson of the house: the most noted, complimented and remembered element was not what was brought in, but rather what was built-in: that compressed and elegant nautilus shell and star turn of a staircase, which not even salon wall or opening night crush of well-heeled guests seemed to upstage. It seems to prove that if you truly get the bones right, even bones as seemingly low-key as the polished wood ribbon trailing up towards the skylight-capped top floor, anything works around it, but nothing outshines it. Perhaps the diva does always get the last laugh, and the curtain call. Patti would approve.

The Kips Bay Decorator Show House is open to the public through June 11, 2015. 

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All photos: Patrick J. Hamilton