NY Spaces Apr '08, "Neo Classic"
pages 41-49 by Marjorie E. Gage
DO IT OVER-FROM TOP TO BOTTOM-AND DO IT ON DEADLINE:
That was the essential mandate that the owners of this four-story brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan gave to Joe Nahem and his partner, the late Tom Fox. "They vacated the house for six months, and supported us creatively every step of the way-they were dream clients, really-but there was one thing on which they were clear from the start:
'We spend Christmas in our house.'" So with key in hand and clock ticking, Fox-Nahem worked in partnership with architect Tom Vail, of Vail Associates, to restore the structure, update the antiquated electrical, plumbing, and heating systems, and replace everything from the plaster moldings to the risers on the stairs to the lamps on the tables-and make it look as if it had all evolved naturally over time.
The goal with any total renovation is to create a space that looks built over time, not purchased in one stop at a designer showroom. For that, designers need to know what colors, textures, and objects will best reflect the clients' style, and also know where to find them. "Our clients had lived in the house for 20 years, their children had grown up in it, and they were ready to tackle a full-scale renovation. They were concerned that the architecture of the house-one of a row of brownstones built for upper management of a brewery in the neighborhood-keep a sense of the past, but they didn't want heavy-handed Victorian decorating. "The answer lay in a light-reflecting palette of soft grays, clear whites, and lavender-blues, combined with gilded surfaces, mirrors, foil wallpapers, and Venetian chandeliers that serve to create a sense of openness and light in an interior that is exposed to natural light in the front and back, but completely blocked from it on east and west.
Structurally, they opened up small interior arches to create broader channels for light to pass through from front to back, and they shielded the dinning room from a new kitchen addition (not shown) at the back of the house with a wall of French doors fitted with frosted glass. "The clients entertain at home often, so the translucent glass lets light shine through, but also keeps the distractions in the kitchen out of plain view."
Three days before Christmas, when the designers turned the renovated brownstone back over to their clients, the paint was barely dry on the walls, but the beds were made, the bar was fully stocked, and the transformation was complete. "Everything was in place, just as if it had always been that way," recalls Nahem, "-only better."