Elle Decor June 2016
Written by Kathleen Hackett, Photography by Joshua McHugh,
IT WAS NEVER JOE NAHEM’S INTENTION to turn the summer-rental home he owns on Long Island into a sales pitch for his interior design business. But after spending two summers in his Amagansett beach house, one renter became a client. “I loved the way I felt there,” says the financial entrepreneur, a divorced father of four who divides his time between an antique farmhouse in Westchester County and the Gramercy Park apartment that Nahem has transformed for him. “Joe has a wonderful understanding of how people really live,” he adds.
If ever there was a test of Nahem’s talent, it was the 16th-floor penthouse atop a prewar building overlooking Gramercy Park. “When we first saw the place, it looked like a crime scene,” says the affable designer, who founded the Manhattan-based Fox-Nahem with the late Tom Fox more than three decades ago. “I gave my client credit for his courage to see beyond the tiny windows, the unremarkable chockablock rooms, and the fact that he had to share a quarter of the top floor with a tenant who refused to sell,” says Nahem. But pluck and vision are only part of the story. Regret was also a factor. It turns out that the savvy businessman had missed an opportunity to buy this very same apartment years earlier. And there’s nothing like losing out on a desirable piece of Manhattan real estate to bring on a snap-decision.
“I saw the potential in the apartment’s good bones, but I was most interested in the outdoor space and the possibility of light-filled rooms,” says the owner, who grew up in the Midwest. Trading in those stingy windows for walls of glass was easy, but it presented Nahem with different challenges. His client’s ever-expanding art collection needed some real estate of its own, and even more pressing was whether it would compete with the priceless view and great art,” says Nahem. “The temptation is to force the furnishings and palette to recede to the point of being bland.”
He may have started in neutral, but by choosing a smart mix of furniture and luxury fabrics, materials, and surfaces, Nahem created a space that is anything but mundane. “Joe managed to give the apartment the sense of comfort and warmth I wanted and at the same time work in my paintings and sculptures in the best possible way,” says the owner, who hung a painting on top of the television above the two-sided fireplace after he found he didn’t turn on the screen for an entire year. He is particularly pleased with the wall of resin masks in the foyer. “I look at them every morning before I leave for work and ask myself, Which one am I today?” he says with a laugh.
Fume-oak floors, diamond coat-plaster walls, bronze-mesh panels, teak bathroom walls—Nahem has a sixth sense for the kind of details that had made his client feel at home in the rental, which he’s translated to the urban aerie. “Everything we chose has a quiet yet strong sense of quality,” he says. When it came to filling up the rooms, Nahem again took his cues from his own home. “I didn’t want it to look decorated so much as filled with beautiful things that look good together,” he says. He combined shapely midcentury-modern furniture, including a Nakashima cocktail table and a Scandinavian wing chair, with a traditional sofa and sliding walnut doors in the living room; he designed a headboard that incorporates a pair of side tables for the master bedroom; and from the kitchen ceiling he hung a stainless steel open shelf, polished to a mirror-like shine to preserve the view.
For his part, the owner finds that every room in the apartment brings him pleasure. “My meditation pillows are in the bedroom, I read on the living room sofa, and the kitchen and terrace are perfect for entertaining,” he says. Indeed, the expansive views make for an easy conversation starter among business associates and friends. But it’s the owner’s 13-year-old daughter who helped crystalize how successful and suitable Nahem’s vision has been. She and a gaggle of girlfriends celebrated her birthday in Manhattan with a Broadway show followed by a slumber party at Dad’s apartment, where they spent most of their time spotting the city’s landmarks from the terrace. Instead of cramming into the guest room, the teens sprawled out all over the thick, woven rug on the living room floor. What could have evolved into a night of shenanigans well into the wee hours turned out just the opposite. “I took them for dessert, and they ate so much that they came home and went right to sleep,” says the owner. “I loved every minute of it,” he adds.