Is it on yet?" Kevin Roberts is fiddling with the electrical cords dangling behind his platform bed. The bedroom is as ascetic as a monk's cave—white walls, white sheets, minimal furniture, and unpolished wood floors—save for the arresting artwork hanging on the wall. The piece, a neon wall sculpture by Glenn Ligon, spells out the phrase, "If I can't have love I'll take sunshine" in cursive scrawl. The art is at its most powerful when electrified, but that's easier said than done. "Plugs today are all childproof," says Timothy Haynes as he watches Roberts, his partner in life and work, struggle with the prongs. "Sometimes, they are adult-proof, too."
With their firm Haynes-Roberts, this New York duo has ascended to the pinnacle of their field, designing and decorating homes filled with treasures for such modern Medicis as Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch. Haynes, a Harvard-trained architect, and Roberts, who studied philosophy and cultural anthropology before turning to interior design, are known for devising impeccably curated spaces with a sense of livable luxury. They are often asked to create rooms that are showstoppers, but Roberts says, "Neither of us is interested in the decorative, per se. We can do it, but we've never been about the swags and the jabots."
Their taste runs far more toward restraint. Connoisseurship is their modus operandi and contemporary art is their passion, even if it can be challenging at times to work it into a home's design. "Some people buy art as decoration, but that is not where we come from," Roberts says. "We're interested in the history of art, and how a home's architecture, interiors, paintings, and sculpture all work together. We try to create a dialogue between all of these things."
It was their own ever-expanding art collection that prompted the move to their new loft. They had been living for 20 years in a loft in TriBeCa, a former factory floor ("There were pigeons flying around," Haynes says) that they transformed into an elegant showpiece with 18th-century furniture and 12-foot glass French doors. "I loved it there," Roberts says. "But we really needed more wall space."
They searched downtown Manhattan for a larger space that spoke to them. Another TriBeCa loft—"cool, funky, kind of broken-down"—seemed to beckon, but the building's finances were shaky. At last, they discovered a floor for sale in a historic cast-iron building at the southern end of SoHo. Haynes thought it had "good bones." Roberts took one look at the slickly renovated rooms and wasn't so sure. "It was awful," he says. "Really posh and overdone." When nothing else materialized, the pair circled back with a plan for a gut renovation.
They began by refining the architecture of the space with a design combining the openness of loft living with the traditional detailing of its 19th-century surroundings. "From the outside, these cast-iron buildings have period details like columns and fluting," Haynes says. "We didn't want to turn it into some ultramodern thing. We tried to marry old and new and hoped the end results would be more exciting than either of these things would have been on their own."
Their furniture spans three centuries and ranges from 18th-century French fauteuils to 20th-century classics, like a 1970s semicircular Milo Baughman sofa. For every purchase, Haynes and Roberts preferred to wait patiently for collectors' pieces rather than settle. They spent two years eyeing a pair of 1960s curved wicker-and-iron chairs, conceived by the French designer Mathieu Matégot for the airport in Casablanca, before finally taking the plunge. "The dealer in Paris had only seen three of them in his lifetime," Roberts says. "We negotiated with him for a long time."
The loft is filled with such unique pieces, like the monumental Jean Royère light fixture in the dining room and the metal-and-glass Philippe Hiquily table in the library. And while the overall effect is understated, the details are subtly spectacular, including the 18th-century marble and wood floors and the aged patina of the kitchen's stainless steel cabinets, which were fitted with Art Deco hardware.
But it is the art that takes center stage, such as a 2005 vapor sculpture by Larry Bell and a trio of calendar-date paintings by the late Japanese artist On Kawara. During renovation, when the workmen were putting the finishing touches on the new home, one man asked to use the restroom. Directed to the powder room off the library, the fellow beat a hasty retreat when confronted with a vanity mirror spray-painted with the words "Keep Out." He seemed puzzled when they explained that this, too, was art: a conceptual piece by the artist Rashid Johnson. The best strategy for living with art, the couple has learned, is to maintain a sense of humor.
This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Siweb. Tour the rest of the home, here.