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


  1. Thanks for all your insights into the KB show home, I was lucky to be in NY last month and was so impressed by the level of work. Quite exceptional.

    1. It was indeed a tour-de-force this year, wasn't it Robert? I hope you also consider a return to NY in the fall, to see Holiday House!

      And thank you so much for taking the time to leave a note!

  2. It is exhilarating to see designers finally break out of the mold, experimenting as a true artist only can.
    It is also wonderful to also see the mix of styles, antiques
    to humanize spaces are back again--Hooray--not just mid century reigns! After all we all know that interior designers make the market, and as a private broker in luxury objects, furniture,lighting,art, from the ridiculous to the sublime--Mars Palm Beach Estate Holdings on 1st dibs, I finally see the light- back to good taste mixed with mighty creativity!.