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