Close your eyes and picture a classic Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. You're seeing polished mahogany, perhaps? Lots of mirrors and lacquer? Slabs of marble, and bronze, maybe, and brilliantly gilded just about everything else? All sorts of materials, in fact, that aren't warm, practical, easygoing, soft, or remotely family friendly. Which is why, for this young family of four who yearned for comfortable, functional space, architect Peter Pennoyer closed his eyes and envisioned a major reconfiguration of their new apartment's rooms, and capped his dazzling refit with a grand enfilade of stately park-view windows. Simultaneously, designer Steven Gambrel closed his eyes and imagined fumed-oak flooring, patterned carpets, knotty-pine walls, strategically allocated high-gloss paint—and all of that with a 1950s subtext: an inventive fusion of the rough with the refined.
"And yet," the husband says, "our friends are amazed at how comfortable it is. I think people can spend whatever they want, but if it doesn't feel like home, well…why?"
And because their rented apartments never felt like home, these nonnative New Yorkers with two little boys were "looking for permanence," says the wife. "And this was a duplex apartment," her husband adds, "so it felt like a house. But we knew we didn't want anything formal."
Gambrel, whose work they'd long admired, understood exactly what they desired and designed a home so easy, and so relaxed, that none of the effort shows. But it's there. Patterns, colors, textures, and styles are combined in ways that seem inexplicable but are also wildly successful. In the living room, for instance, he set the sofa and chairs in two unrelated pink patterns on a gray rug. He added raspberry-banded beige curtains along with not-quite-coral trim paint (one of several he mixes himself, labeling this one a "dirty pink") against walls as pale as morning mist; the pièce de résistance has to be the black marble fireplace mantel with its alabaster urns. "I show the clients a collage with all the components on it to see how they speak to one another," Gambrel explains of his process. "Based on that, we make our decisions." But that mantel was the very first thing they were shown, and the wife burst out with, "What? In a house with two growing boys?" (The men double-teamed her, however, and she's kind of fond of it now.)
"In the best collaborations, the architect and designer learn from each other," says Pennoyer. Happily, their clients did, too. "You hear horror stories about projects like ours," says the husband, "but we knew we had the dream team." "Although," adds his wife, a small-town girl, "sometimes I felt I had to bring them all down to earth. I wore my Dubble Bubble sweatshirt to meetings so that Peter and Steven would keep in mind who I am, and how I want to live."
Which explains the most remarkable feature of this 21st-century apartment—its sizable knotty- pine family room, where the boys play full-fledged soccer games and the grown-ups enjoy hanging out. Knotty pine has rarely been seen in urbane spaces since Frank Sinatra wore bow ties, but Gambrel laughs and says, "It's not in vogue, but I like the humble material. I think it's funny and warm." He furnished this room with, among other choice bits, a French painting from the 1950s and a small lacquer side table based on a '50s prototype. All that's missing is the silver cigarette boxes and standing ashtrays.
The dining room was a whole other ball game. It's just a large center hall, really—an enclosed interior room. Yet it doesn't feel claustrophobic because Gambrel plays with basic assumptions. Basically, he says, people are used to seeing windows and curtains, but because this space has neither, he mounted églomisé glass panels on the walls. (Églomisé is a process in which the back of the glass is silver- or gold-leafed in patterns or designs.) Then he tucked tailored, skirted tables into the corners to achieve an effect that causes diners, unconsciously, to read the glass paneling as windows, and the skirted tables as curtains. All expectations have been (subliminally) met, and guests feel right at home.
The family's expectations have been nicely met, as well. From their forever views of Manhattan skies to the quietly practical kitchen to the brilliant greens of the guest room, they love their modernized, humanized, endearingly retro version of relaxed, millennial chic. "Our home isn't over-the-top," says the wife. "It's very true to who we are." "We don't mind nicks in the fumed-oak floors," her husband adds. "Little quirks and imperfections are our style."
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Siweb. See the full house tour here.