Saturday, June 1, 2013

...about quiet and loud, and everywhere, the glint of gold: Kips Bay Show House 2013.

In any gathering, you get attention two ways: by shouting, or by whispering. The same is often true of design, and especially of show houses. Designers are faced with two basic choices: go big, with a bold gesture and an eye on coverage and cover shots, or stay subtle, and craft a gorgeous, livable room that makes the most sense when you’re walking through it even if that means missing some of the buzz and photo opps.

At this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Show House, to benefit Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club, at the Sharp mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the concept of quiet or loud held fast and true. But in showhouses, “loud” doesn’t mean loud-mouthed, and quiet is hardly mousy. And neither, better nor worse. There’s no one way in to success at any show house.  

Speaking Up
This year, rooms seemed to make a statement with amped-up color, showstopper wallpaper premiere, or high art and higher concept with bolder mixes and sculptural choices, even if these outspoken rooms caused more than one conservative East-sider to say, “I don’t think I could live there.”

Sara Story's room was meant to showcase her line of wallpaper, and she used the graphic pattern to launch a Memphis-inspired room softened a bit with lavendar, overhead, on upholstery and in the ombre effect of the adjoining bathroom's vanity. In its defiance of the room’s details and the home’s age, it fell a little flat in person, although the camera loved it: the risk of a bigger, more stylized gesture. 
I would have loved to see another layer, and another anachronistic element in the room (a pair of pimped-out Louis Bergeres, across from her custom sofa, more “art gallery” than “comfort zone,” would have been where I took this room next) to bridge the ages or complete the collected nature she seemed to shoot for, although I really wanted to sneak her black and white lamp out under my coat. And that bathroom was a surprising lesson in how to get a high-syle designer look with what could be builder’s basics and a painterly moment of DIY.
The ground floor was commanded by the informative and charming Andrew Suvalsky. His delicious and gutsy color choices made this windowless room a real destination, and far less a throw-away than an entry-level circulation space usually tends to be in a show house. His colors read more like flavors, actually, all tempered slightly by gray walls and white (lacquer, marble and shag). 

The space gave off off an I Dream of Jeannie vibe, perhaps due to draped walls, hanging lamp and the the Qarth-like Odegard table (which Andy flipped, then glass-capped).
Again, this was a room that could have existed at some point in this home’s not-too-distant past, but contemporary art kept the dust off (as art managed to do in the rooms of Kathryn Ireland, Jack Levy, and the garden-inspired hallway of Judy King.)

Andy’s tiny and two-toned lacquer bathroom got as many Wows as the rest of his space (and never escaped notice by anyone covering the event).

Keep it Down
In the quieter rooms, subtlety told the story firsthand with detail often lost in still images, and there seemed to be more understated rooms, by showhouse standards, this year more than ever. But the risk with those rooms is that they fade from memory a bit sooner than they probably should, or defy the ability to be short-handed, the ultimate driver of word-of-mouth. (More than one person asked, “Did you see the room with the fish wallpaper yet??")

Leading the quiet charge was the main living room/formal parlor of Mariette and Brooke Gomez, the mother and daughter of Gomez Associates. Like Geoffrey Bradfield’s room for Holiday House, it was such a treat walking into a room by a designer I’d only every savored in 2D, on the printed page. The Gomez room was everything I love about this RISD alumni’s work... graceful, deliberate, elegant. And yes, quiet.
While her styling choices mystified some, including a savvy style editor I shall not name, (the giant coffee table-ottoman remained un-tablescaped, while piles of books covered the side table), I loved the room: modern art with gorgeous antiques, perfectly proportioned upholstery, all against her signature creamy neutral palette shot with a deliberate dose of color. Here, the two claret-colored chairs looked like the first inviting pour of red wine at a formal dinner table where the tables been set but the party hadn’t started. In the adept hands of the Ladies Gomez, the room is most definitely the backdrop for who and what happens in it.

Their formal mix still stayed livable, and no doubt was a smash hit with the ladies who lunch. It was also one of the rooms that seemed true to the house. 

Will it be remembered as an all-time show house great? Probably not, but that’s the risk with a whisper. I’d still move right in, and I was taking mental notes as fast as my eye was spotting them. And PS: There were so many things worth noting in this working walk-through, I’m considering another post on the lessons taught from this one room alone.
The layout of the house also afforded the rare birdseye view of the room. But layout-wise, even these veterans didn’t seem to quite solve the space at the stair’s landing... although chair/console/art anchored one wall of it in a handsome vignette (even if the console felt oddly 80s for the rest of the room). And while yes, that space had to serve as circulation, it seemed just too much valuable Manhattan room real estate to just leave largely unfurnished... it was almost enough space to be handed over to another designer on this year’s seemingly limited roster.

In the Mid-Range
Of course, like at any soiree, between the party animals and the wallflowers there are the ones holding their own and garnering due attention with a mix of quiet and loud, and that mixed-in-the-middle approach was reflected in rooms by several designers.
The rooftop aerie of Barbara Ostrum Associates went big on inventory and graphic gesture (gold leaf fretwork above, zebra hide below) in an otherwise traditionally appointed and quietly toned space (all above a tone-on-tone Tibetan knot-meets-Greek-key patterned area carpet, another house trend). 
That ceiling proved counter-intuitive in a room so low slung: what could have felt oppressive managed to vaporize it, in ways that conjured the faux fretwork walls of Matthew Patrick Smyth’s Designer Visions show house dining room tour-de-force.

Sharing the top floor with Barbara was Eve Robinson Associates, in an ample space given a more spare treatment, and also a mix of bravado and calm. Lavender (a color repeated from one of Eve's past show house appearances) takes another star turn, and the second time in the house lilac was layered onto a ceiling (here, super high gloss, an inverted swimming pool cooling off the room).
Eve takes this spread of room and zones it for a full range of family function, while barely filling the room. And given the personality of all the assembled pieces, this is a family I'd like to meet. (Photos of Eve's room by Peter Margonelli, courtesy Eve Robinson Associates.)

Another of the rooms that was equal parts toned down and dialed up was the bar and adjoining drinks room of Dineen Architecture + Design, creators of some of my favorite spaces at show houses past, more than once. The volume was largely controlled by, well, volume, since they were only served a tiny slice of the show house pie, and an odd dish at that: an alley of a room, almost hidden, all wall on one side, all window on the other, and a sky-high ceiling. 

Their solution was a sculptural mix of high-personality and surprisingly–scaled pieces, each with enough presence to hold court in a much larger room. 

And the room, with its adjoining Jazz-Age bar (jazzed up with a lenticular modern art piece) set out to be what the actual homeowner requested: a drinks room. It certainly ended up being the tiny getaway where gin and gossip would both flow freely, one after the other.
Kathryn M. Ireland’s fireside bedroom was also a mix of quiet effort and bold move: a bedroom, draped and layered with yards and yards (and YARDS) of fabrics from her own collection for Scalamandré, augmented with vintage textiles. 

This space seemed settled in, a room that could have looked like this since the owners first took occupancy, their Hunt Slonem a later addition after some imagined anniversary spree gallery tour. You could almost smell a peat fire in the fireplace in this room made for nesting and winter’s naps.
Her pattern-on-pattern-on steroids was a trend Deborah Needleman had seen coming at a past keynote at the D&D Building: even humble and traditional pattern, when amassed like an armload of wildflowers, takes on a modern air. (My friends over at MT Custom did all of Kathryn's fabrication.)

James Huniford’s slightly irreverent and almost undecorated atrium had the feel of a collector’s retreat casually amassed over time. The brass octagonal mirror of herculean scale was the perfect note to make sense of the space’s odd bump-out above (the outside of the drinks room of Dineen Architecture + Design). 
James (co-chair and founding member of Design on Dime) confided he had inherited a hot tub in the original space. Were it me, I would have totally left it. Puh-lease, a swinging, bubbling hot tub at Kips Bay? He would have stolen ALL the press, and that wall-hugging citron settee could have moved to the opposite wall, the perfect vantage point for the sure-to-ensue water show.

Maybe these, the rooms generally calm in demeanor but not shying away from a risk or two (or three), are the rooms that run the biggest risk, show house speaking. They entice the safety-seekers, at first glance, but alienate them with a bold gesture caught at second glance. And maybe the net effect isn't showy enough for those seeking high theater.

Time travel
No one has ever accused a show house of having “flow,” this or any other. This house, in its mad mix of designers, was no exception. But in the mix, it managed to do a little bit of time travel even if the rooms, with only a few exceptions, did not ever go with the flow from one to another. The 40’s, 70s, 80s and 90s were all there, and even a dip back to 1930s Shanghai gave the house the feel that it had been part of an ongoing and never-ending décor project, where a decade or two separated the newly decorated from the long-ago-done. I could almost hear the fictional matron of the house, after squaring away her social calendar for the season in Stephen Mooney’s little pocket of a room barking to her harried assistant, “It’s time to redo the kitchen.”  
Stephen’s room was another one whispering, a sunny sliver that would have wafted away were it not for that perfect black bookcase, the handsome brass overhead fixture and leopard footstool.

That kitchen, this time, was a Christopher Peacock creation, and also remained largely true to a house of this ilk, if the latest occupants had updated it for their love of cooking, or wanted their house staff or caterers to waffle and wok in high style.

Andrew Suvalsky's ground floor living room had a 70’s swing, as did the practically-studio apartment with en suite bathroom of Garcia/Maldonado, dominated by girlie show art (the painted nude, hoisted up the center stairwell). Sara Story’s room had an 80’s Memphis feel, and that tiny bedroom of Kathryn Ireland’s, filled to the rafters with canopy bed and bursting at the seams with prints and florals had all the layers of an 1890s English Cottage through a bit of an early 1990s lens.

But age was not simply an era, and several designers (like Ireland) created rooms that seemed to have been here in the house long before installation day. Jack Levy’s room did just that, with aged, murky colors, opium-den detail, and a trippy oval of modern art, echoed in the ornate coffee table. I could see this room with just a few adjustments as the setting for the later moments of The Last Emperor, Joan Chen striding in her aviatrix togs while a static-y radio crackled in the incensed air.

Everywhere, the Glint of Gold

And through it all, upstairs and down, like King Tut’s tomb at first torchlight, everywhere the glint of gold. The yellow metals were white hot: brass, gilding, gold leaf. Perhaps it was the home’s original golden ribbon of railing running up through the center of the house that inspired the batch of designers to go all Midas on every level.

Among the smallest spaces was Atlanta designer Robert Brown’s. He got the short end of the stick, a bit, but still managed to make a point of it, with a quiet little room, elegantly (and intentionally under-) appointed. 
He also did what is really hard to do: build a room of things you've seen before, like the pair of Thomas Pheasant floor lamps, and make them either look brand new or fabulously vintage. 

This tiny room right at the entrance got a bit lost in the shuffle, and not because Robert was dealt a smaller room: normally, size is no obstacle to show house success, but once the house opened, the ticket table was set up in his room, and many a visitor missed it altogether. Their loss. It was polished, chic, buttoned up and rich with great genteel detail even if spare of furnishing. And while curated is an overused word, it's worth dragging out and dusting off again for Robert's room of order.
This southerner's nod to the “wilder-than-Atlanta" New York was the python wallpaper (the serpent of the moment), but even that was a whisper compared to the usual show house hijinks. 

But his room was a perfect example, if you didn’t blink and miss it (or take your ticket and walk past), that understated can be a chic intention, not a shortcoming or short cut, even in a house full of designers vying for attention.

Kristen McGinnis’ dining room was perhaps one of the higher concept, artful, "louder" rooms. She both acknowledged and eschewed the age and architecture of the home, in her dining room with interior balcony, mile-high ceilings, ornately-capped pilasters and gracious proportion (all in place before she even got started). 
Hers was also one of the rare moments where one room made reference to and peace with another: her sculptural gold window seat had a neat conversation with the citron settee a floor below, and her stormy, steely walls found a color counterpart in the adjoining bar and drinks room ceiling.

That lacquer pushed those walls past the eye and the limits of the room’s footprint, perfect in a space most often enjoyed at night and no doubt candlelight (also, a great trick were this room a third its ample size). 

Overhead, a stroke of neon, more installation than chandelier, a bolt of lighting frozen over the almost delicate table and chairs. A pair of warped and woody side tables, married to make a dining credenza as much sculpture as functional furniture (yup, those doors work).
The longer I spent in Kristin’s room, the more a story started to unwind, evoked and spun by her deliberate choices. The patina on the gold-leafed ceiling brought to mind the graceful age and unapologetic, unrepaired elegant decay so frequently found in the homes of New Orleans. That overhead fixture evoked a flash of southern heat lightning, tangled in Spanish moss, bouncing, fading and lingering like an after-image in the stormy walls. The console, at once brutal and beautiful, seemed equal parts debris and reconstruction. 

Suddenly, this room, to me, was transformative, transportive. It was perhaps the theater set for a modern production and pivotal scene of a Tennessee Williams play or Truman Capote novel, if either had been around to spin a southern yarn in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I highly doubt an ode to post-Katrina New Orleans in a townhouse in New York was what Kristen was after, but like Art, the biggest story often happens off the canvas, in the mind’s eye of the viewer. If a room can do that, quiet or loud, or some combination of both, that seems a showhouse success. 

To me, Kristen's was the kind of room that does what a show house room does best: address function for the literal, weave a poetic web for the romantics, and in the process, capture attention, potential client, and fancy.

So maybe “loud” does indeed get the last word when it comes to this year’s Kips Bay.

Kips Bay Decorator Show House is open through June 4th at 161 East 64th Street, Manhattan.


  1. Patrick, yours is the best review of this years show house that I have read so far. You present a thoughtful discussion about the design choices made.

    1. Connie! You made my day, as I so respect your eye and opinion when it comes to all things design!!