Milieu, Winter '15
"A New Canvas", Written by David Masello, Photography by Ann Stratton, pages 136-145
The couple was told to close the door on their Park Avenue duplex and not come back for four days. During that time, all of the furniture, rugs, decorative accessories, and objects would be removed.The couple's notable collection of art, with major works by Ellsworth Kelly, Sean Scully, Jean Dubuffet, and Richard Sierra, already had been put into storage. Upon their return to the apartment, interior designer Joe Nahem would reveal his work, as would their art consultant, Ann Cook, who had rehung all of the pieces.
"That's how my project designer, David Gorman, and I like to operate," explains New York-based Nahem, who heads Fox-Nahem Associates. "We have our client leave their home, then we do our installations of all the items we've chosen. Many of the pieces we've selected are 'on-approval,' meaning that the clients haven't yet said 'yes' to them. But I can say that not a single piece for this project went back to its source. We watched the clients as they walked into their entry foyer, always my favorite moment in a project, and I could tell they seemed in shock, but in a good, satisfied way."
"Was I pleased with the results?" asks the homeowner rhetorically." I must have been, given that I immediately hired Joe and David to completely redesign the house my husband and I have in Southampton. We were thrilled with the way they had transformed our New York home and the way it now accommodates our art collection. They gave us new places to hang and display the art. Our art consultant, Ann Cook, was able to rethink the way the art is presented throughout, and that now means we look at the art in new ways."
It made sense that the clients would hire Nahem for the project. He is known for working with collectors and designing rooms that best reveal their works. "Frankly, we do know how to do it," he says, "and with these clients, they let us be a little more daring in our design. So many collectors want everything to be safe and beige, have the art take over in a space, but for me, there's a fine balance between keeping things interesting and not being afraid to use color and texture in interiors."
The client concurs, adding, "Joe has such a good sensibility and knew how to design with and around our collection. Much of Joe's process is about the unexpected, and that's why I like his work."
One such unexpected moment occurs in the entry foyer. Although the client earlier had vetoed an eighteenth-century Spanish Colonial console with elaborately carved scrolls, Nahem was convinced it was right for the space. "When Joe first took me to see that piece, I took one look at it and said, I'm out of here," says the client. "But when I saw it in place in the finished apartment, I loved it." In keeping with Nahem's penchant for the unexpected, Richard Serra's Untitled (Arcs), a decidedly abstract ink-on-paper, perfectly complements the highly ornate console.
In the dining room, Nahem paired a custom-designed walnut table with vintage midcentury modern chairs, above which appears to bloom a rare 1950s-era brass chandelier by noted Finnish designer Paavo Tynell. "It's such an interesting juxtaposition in the room," says the client, "the floral-like chandelier with the simple, midcentury lines of the furniture."
One of the more challenging moments in the project was a sitting area in the living room. It had been decided in advance that a black-and-white, twelve-foot Ellsworth Kelly canvas would be positioned there, so it was up to Nahem to respond to that scale. He custom-designed a ten-foot sofa with a brass frame that is both decorative and structural, and he positioned a large Lucite and glass coffee table in front, anchored by a pair of towering circa-1950 floor lamps.
The family's TV room, or what the client refers to as the "front den," was actually the genesis for the entire apartment project. As the client recalls, "The joke is, I hired Joe and David to redo that one room, since that's the place where my husband and I and our three grown children spend most of our time. It had to be comfortable and a place for more of our art and sculptural objects." Nahem's solution was to position an L-shaped banquette there of his own design. A polished concrete coffee table with a ceramic ball support is as much a piece of modern sculpture as it is a practical surface. Walls are upholstered not only for the soft textural statement they make, but as a way to muffle street noise, a concern for many Park Avenue residents. The same wall treatment is used in the master suite.
Although the couple had been living in the apartment for seventeen years, having raised their sons there, they wanted a major update. The late Jed Johnson and his (surviving) partner Arthur Dunnam were responsible for the original interior design, but after so many years, "It's not surprising we wanted a refreshing," says the homeowner. "Yet, I felt like I was cheating on my husband, for changing Arthur's work! But this new design is exactly what is right for us now."