Monday, May 4, 2015

...about small, dark and handsome: the adventurer’s lair, Design on a Dime 2015

Living, working and designing in Manhattan, I’m no stranger to small spaces. And while, sure, I’d love to work with more square footage and elbow room than New York living typically affords, there’s one small space I’ll gladly tackle: a vignette at Design on a Dime, the annual fundraiser for HousingWorks.  

Even though each of the 55+ designers is given a diminutive 10 x 12’ space (some with three walls, some with only two), and the booths exist for mere moments, the event thrills for the design opportunity it affords, like a fleeting flash mob of art , accessory, lighting, rugs, furnishings, paint and paper. The goal is to wow, entertain, and entice shoppers, big time, in a super small space. 

For the past two years (2013 and 2014), I had a GREAT time flexing my color muscles, so my first instinct was to once again use color to catch the eye of blogger, bigwig and (most of all) bargain hunter (all the solicited merchandise is sold off at up to 70% off to benefit Housing Works). The event’s April date also lends itself to a colorful burst, like spring blooms returning to Central Park after a black-overcoated, overcast and drawn-out winter.

But I wanted to remain, well, neutral, (to keep it interesting for me, and to keep people guessing about my design range), and for a few other reasons: One of my all-time most popular blog posts was all about that beige. Even D&D showrooms known for color report their biggest sales coming from creams, grays, taupes, tans, and yes, even beiges. And at the time planning for Design on a Dime, I was in the midst of a gentleman's all-charcoal master bedroom.

Neutrals get a bad rap for being default, safety net, or cop-out, but I wanted to see if an intentional use of a palette devoid (mostly) of jewel tones, primaries or pastels could still (even in a competitive environment like Design on a Dime) wow. But how? And, as practice for my own practice, could the intentional use of neutrals make a small space live larger? Here’s how I tried to bring sexy back, this year, to new neutrals.  
Texture, and a Game of Opposites
Never is textural play more important than in a monochromatic room, be it emerald green or navy blue, but perhaps even moreso in a room of gunmetal gray. Starting with walls of the oh-so-swank Ralph Lauren Home’s Pearl Ray Shagreen wallcovering in Gun Metal (Ralph Lauren was this year’s official wall sponsor, donating all of the paint and most of the wallpapers), texture was pressed heavily into service. Even solid upholstery colors (like on Bernhardt’s Marcourt banquette and the sexy, SEXY Major Leather Chairs from Mitchell Gold +Bob Williams) were selected because they had an interesting surface texture.  
But texture stories really come to life when they are used as foils against their opposites: shiny against matte, earthy against machined, and that and more happened over and over as items were secured for the room. My textural favorites were the Painted Feathers pillows by pillow-masters Dransfield & Ross, an urban jungle mix, one part Rio, one part rain forest.
The earthy and urbane push-pull of the space was also expressed through metals and metallics polished (the Jelly vase, used as an ice bucket, from Kartell through SwitchModern) or rough (AERIN's gold Bleecker lamps, on the “hallway” side of the space). And that “Hemingway meets Halston” juxtaposition became a great filter through which to run all subsequent decisions.
Dark and Light
Making a dark room sing is also about light: bringing it in, bouncing it around, and even knowing when to stop it. While many still think dark is the wrong way to go in a small space, I’ve yet to have that experience. Dark colors make a room’s edges fall away into the shadows. But nowhere is lighting more important than in a dark room, and even this space with its little-bitty 10 x 12 footprint had ten light sources, not counting the overhead spots.
Lighting plans work best when there are more lamps than you think you need, and different kinds of them. Among those ten light sources were four with white shades (on AERIN’s Bleecker and Frankfort lamps, and Barry Dixon’s Snail Shell lamp for Arteriors Home) diffusing the light, two with metal shades (the statuesque Soria floor lamps from Room & Board) throwing dramatic shadows, two can uplights and two halogen spots (both from Lamps Plus) adding pinpointed drama. 
It’s my number one trick for making a small space live larger: limit the color and/or value difference (how dark or light a color is) on just about everything in the room. When wallcovering morphs into wood blinds (The Shade Store’s uber-sharp Matte Edged wood blinds, in Grey Ash) and the main upholstery pieces relate to the wall color without stopping the eye, the room presents a seamless appearance, and even larger-scaled pieces (that banquette is NOT small) blur their own edges and settle back into the room. And tone-on-tone rooms always look like more money than you’ve spent.
You Can Never be Too Rich... or Too Taupe
But it’s not just the tones of colors you use to stretch inches and budget: it’s which ones. There are some neutrals that just ooze sex appeal: smoke, zinc, slate or charcoal. These rich neutrals (plus taupes and warm grays) ALWAYS look like more money than you’ve invested. I also think they live richer when pushed to their value extremes: pale and pearl gray, or deep, dark and stormy. It’s the middle ground of neutrals that have given them their bad rap. 

Aside from its budget-stretching alchemy, the beauty of a neutral envelope is that you can add just about any other color as an accent. (Here, smoky blues, gray-ed down greens and that shimmering aquamarine on the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Bette ottomans.)
Unless working with a pattern-happy client (which I love to do!), left to my own devices, I’d rather revel in texture than pattern. But love, as they say, conquers all, and when I first saw the Dransfield and Ross Tibet pillows, made from an amazing earthy, elegant and exceedingly tactile cut velvet (Tibet Small Scale, in Graphite, from Clarence House), it was love at first sight. I knew that pattern would be joining the room. (We ended up making our own versions of the pillows, from yardage graciously donated by Clarence House, and crafted locally by Anthony Lawrence-Belfair, to “spread the wealth” on donations, and not overtax any one vendor too much.) 
I also loved the “conversation” those pillows had with the stenciled cowhides and Foo Dogs (both from Lamps Plus) and the other globally-sourced pieces from Pagoda Red.

That pattern also turned the corner from the more pure neutrals in the room, bringing in a camel color (that paved the way for golds) and the blue-heavy graphite, which bridged blues and grays in the room.

It’s proof that if you’re stuck for inspiration, one amazing textile (or rug) can completely jumpstart your process. 
Tip the Scale
Go big when you go home. The biggest mistake I see when people are tackling small spaces is that they underscale everything they bring in. It looks meek, weak and underwhelming. Here, I opted for pieces that were anything but shy. But you have to know some of the tricks to make big pieces work (I’ve shared my tone-on-tone one already). That coffee table is an incredibly gutsy scale, but the mirrored finish tames it. The ample Major Leather chairs don’t have arms to block sight lines and seating access, and their reflective legs all but disappear. The other trick is...

Pairs and Shapes 
Shape, and mass, were big tools this year, to keep the look impactful, visual interruption to a minimum, and cohesion to a maximum. Selected pieces were big on shape, low on detail (except mirror finish or wood grain).
Blocky shapes were repeated (the coffee table, the Room & Board walnut Keane side tables and the sexy Virgo mirrored console from Currey & Company). Circles showed up in the custom painted Timothy Wilson tondo, custom framed by Gerald Kurian, through Steven Amedee, and the stone “bis” from Pagoda Red. 
Repetition is a major player in creating cohesive spaces... and so is symmetry: think in pairs when you can. Symmetry gives weight (the good kind) to a space, and creates elegant focal points. You can always break the monotony that sometimes happens with symmetry with a playful placement of one of the pairs, or just one rakish accessory (like the great Gazelle figurine from DwellStudio) or asymmetrical piece of artwork (like Dan Romer's “Essnce” print).

Gloss and Gold Digging
The dramatic potential of a bit of bling is truly celebrated in a dark space, and gold was the precious metal of choice, partially for its warm nature against cooler grays, but also for its Seventies swagger: the gold in this room is the equivalent of Bradley Cooper’s chest-nest of chains in American Hustle.
And don’t underestimate the shine factor of artwork (the glass on framed work, the high gloss of the main plexi-mount art piece), accessories (that not-at-all Fool’s gold pyrite candle holder by Kathryn McCoy Design), and even the sparkle brought in from barware, stemware and acrylic tray... not to mention the mirrored furniture, and Large Black Square Mirrored tray, adding a black band like chic eyeliner to the already mirrored coffee table.)

The Art's the Thing
I’m ending this story with where it all actually began: that show-stopper photo from  photographer Drew Doggett. When a bit stumped for inspiration this year, I found Drew’s work, and the minute I saw this image, I could see that elevation of the vignette already finished in my head, even before Drew had returned my first email begging for the donation. 

His globally sourced imagery is heavily informed with a fashion photographer’s eye, and this enigmatic image from his "OMO: Expressions of a People" series became the surprisingly urban tone-setter for what soon became dubbed “the Adventurer’s Lair.”  
It also shared what much of the rest of room was already doing... a dark tone-on-tone look, an earthy-urbane balance, and the rough textures of the actual image sealed beneath its mirror-like plexi facing. 

There’s NO better way to inject any space, neutral or not, with drama, than with the impact of contemporary art, especially of a larger scale. Don’t wait to pick the art; Start with it. And that’s my parting and artful shot on how to bring drama to any space, neutral or not.

Visit my Adventurer's Lair Pinterest board to see all the items in and sources for this year's vignette.

All main vignette shots: Jody Kivort.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

...about theme decorating, and a horse of a different color: Holiday House 2014, Derby Deconstructed

Theme decorating is a slippery slope. Done well, and you’re transported to an exotic Moorish room or major league executive front office. Not so well, with heavy hand and one-liner design, and you’re stuck in a Moroccan restaurant or loud-mouthed sports bar surrounded by, to paraphrase Beverly Leslie on Will & Grace, “kitsch and regret.” 

Theme decorating done well is one of the reasons I love Holiday House. The annual Manhattan show house to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation was built on a basis of holidays, events, and calendar moments, all meant to celebrate the days that happen when cancer doesn’t win. Over the years, design luminaries like Charles Pavarini, Suzanne Eason, Ally Coulter, James Rixner, Donald Schermerhorn and InsonWood have tackled then tamed holidays sometimes but not always associated with the polish and panache of one of Manhattan’s premier show houses. These, and the many other designers gracing the halls of the Academy Mansion each year have crafted subtle and witty spins on the likes of Halloween, Chinese New Year, Valentine’s, Mother’s and President’s days while steering fully clear of the rocky cliffs of cliché (and I joined them, for the first time, in 2013, with my Modern St. Patrick’s Day room). 

This past year, I took on a day that is perhaps a little more synonymous with style: Kentucky Derby Day. Tradition, pageantry, sunny southern skies, cocktails served up in silver cups: it all seems a natural for inspiration.

Some very noted design icons have built careers (and empires) by channeling the thoroughbred style (I’m looking at you, Mr. Lauren). But I wanted to bring a horse of a different color to Holiday House. Following in the footsteps of that illustrious list of designers who’ve understood the difference between “inspired by” and “slave to” (and inspired me long before my first invite from organizer and wonder woman Iris Dankner to create my own room), I wanted a space that even a non-horseperson would love, but that definitely served as an homage to the venerable jewel in the Triple Crown.  

That day in May has an abundance of inspiring elements, and I realized that by taking these elements apart, and recombining the pieces, I could make a room that succeeded on its own but still referenced the day. “Derby Deconstructed” was born. We were, if you’ll pardon one of the many horse puns possibly to come, off and running.

How can you be inspired by this room, even if your likes swing more to hockey, Hawaii or Hockney? Here are a few ideas.

Channel the Place (and Start with the Envelope) 
The Derby is quintessentially southern, so I knew I had to create a room that felt like it was part of an old Kentucky home. The room itself helped set the stage, with its handsome proportions and traditional molding. This room, it seemed, almost wanted to be southern. To nudge the illusion along, wide wooden Hunter Douglas (courtesy David Michael Interiors) shutters and strategically-placed brass chests turned recessed bookcases into faux walk-out porch windows. A great white paint from Farrow and Ball on the woodwork gave this room with good bones a classic look, fresh feel, and new lease on life.
In any room, I’d start by addressing the walls and windows, and in a room meant to conjure Japan, for example, I’d start with Indigo grasscloth paired with woven-wood or nubby silk window coverings.

Color, Wonderful
Two of the most iconic parts of race day, mint juleps and the “Run for the Roses” moniker immediately conjured color. And if your artistic license is current, you can have a little fun bending the rules. After all, Mint juleps aren’t, at all, mint in color, but that’s what my walls became, again also to bring southern spring and charm to the Upper East side of Manhattan (AND to see if we couldn't give mint green a slightly better reputation). It also seemed to instantly evoke some old-school gentility by echoing a tucked-away color.
And as the poetry goes, those race-day roses are red... but mint and red seemed, well, dangerous. Instead, inspired by the ribbon pink of the event’s charitable purpose, the rose became an amped-up fuchsia. Turning up the volume from a typical faded or dusty rose also kept this room young and fresh... and let me use that eye-boggling JAB Anstoetz silk satin on those Bernhardt chairs, a color repeated in the custom NDI floral arrangements. Underneath it all, a minty green silk rug courtesy color meister Joe Carini at Carini Lang, with just enough bending to blue to suggest a dew-covered field of Kentucky bluegrass reflecting a cloudless spring morning.

Materials, Girl! 
Derby Day brings to mind all sorts of textures, from humble to haute. Straw from the stables, the brilliant flashes of racing silks atop white pants and black boots, leather, and brass. Take all those elements, mix well like sugar, mint and Woodford Reserve in a julep cup, and reapply! The white and leather mixed to become the padded fireplace surround. Straw went up on the ceiling (that Thibaut grasscloth), and those racing silks became the accent palette when actual silk wasn’t pressed into service. So let your Yankees room have (glove) leather and aluminum (bat) furniture, even if a logo or pinstripes are nowhere to be seen.

Pattern Play and Geometry, 101 
Repeating geometry is one method I often employ to give an eclectic room some stable-izing (I warned you there’d be puns) underpinnings, and this room was no exception.
Harlequin diamonds were one of the patterns that became a leitmotif in the room, often seen in jockey shirts and stable flags. It popped up on the custom fireplace surround (New York’s The Workroom), diamond tufting (the custom Avery Boardman settee) and the quilted velvet on the gold-framed chairs (JAB Anstoetz on Currey & Company chairs).
Photo: Rikki Snyder, Houzz
Along with the diamonds, the room had its fair share of racetrack ovals, both precise and relaxed, from the exquisitely crafted pelmets courtesy Marks &Tavano, to the Currey & Company chairs and the organic oval of the vintage-look Wisteria “Egg” coffee table. And the spilt-upholstery on the white-framed Currey & Company chairs also were directly lifted from a jockey’s locker.
The lesson? Steal some geometry from the theme you’re trying to mimic: waves, star(fish) and scallop (shells) for something beachy, and not only do you evoke the thing you’re honoring, but you’re giving yourself welcome parameters to stave off any design paralysis when a world of options might otherwise overwhelm.

Context Matters 
Once the stage is set, you can bring in other shapes and items that become something new just by the merit of their context. The pattern on the AERIN lamps from Circa Lighting became horseshoes just because they were in this room, just one example, the custom embroidery on the Villa Savoia embroidered pillows another.
The Ulf Moritz-designed SAHCO drapery tie-backs from Donghia suddenly seemed very equestrian-tack inspired, in their jockey-silk colors and brass detailing...  easily joining the bridle party. The herculean vintage canvas, on loan from 20th Century by HKFA, and the color-blocked paintings by Miami Beach artist Babette Herschberger became racing-silk suggestive with their bright and jaunty geometry.

And when visitors, tipped off to the Derby Day theme, invariably asked, “Where’s the hat?” I pointed them directly overhead, where the witty and millinery-inspired feathered creation by Steven Wine of ABYULighting became the perfect stand-in.
Even that gent over the fireplace seemed ready to play his part. While probably European or British in upbringing, the subject of the Technicolor oil by LA painter Aaron Smith became an instant southern patriarch, Bourbon magnate, Tennessee Williams protagonist or horse breeder. Big Daddy, indeed.
Let a Little Literal In... But Gently! 
To let visitors in on the inside track of the room, some clues were more blatant than others... the Giacometti-ish Bungalow 5 Arabian horse statue ( a LOT of look for the money), the Jill Greenberg horse photo courtesy ClampArt, the commanding Assouline book, an antique horse brass from Nancy Price Interior Design, two horseshoes (gilded by The AlphaWorkshops), the bourbon bar and the Ralph Lauren stirrup-inspired Westbury lamps (also, Circa Lighting).

So, in a baseball-themed room, sure, hang up that (professionally shadow-boxed) jersey. Just (humor me one more time), rein in the impulse to cover every surface with literal references or mementos. Using a little restraint will let you create a space that speaks to aficionados and the, well, theme disinterested. And isn’t a space that makes everyone feel comfortable the ultimate trophy room? Giddy up!

See all the pieces from the room on my Derby Deconstructed Pinterest Board, and see more literal reference on my Equestrian Style Pinterest board.

Unless noted, all photos Jody Kivort.