All love stories unfold according to the same familiar rules. So do I-love-New-York stories. In the classic tale, you have a mad-hot affair with Manhattan in your 20s—wild nights, poetic mornings, fabulous people, brilliant cultural events. Then you flee to the suburbs and buy a house with a yard, having decided that the city is not a marriage-and-family type of town. But you never forget it.
When met the couple whose apartment he would ultimately spend the next two years designing, they were on the cusp of reuniting with the city they’d left behind. “We had made a commitment to each other that when our kids went to college, we’d return,” says the husband. When the time came, “We ran back.”
Says Sofield, “I identified with their whole situation. Like: ‘We were young and owned the town, and then we moved out and bought the proverbial butter churn.’ This was coming back to their former selves.”
Except that their apartment resembles nothing the pair had ever inhabited before. Built in the 1920s, it is a three-level maisonette with views of the East River and a nearby park. “We’re not talking grand,” says Sofield of the 6,200-square-foot space. “We’re really talking palatial—one of the most phenomenal spaces in New York.” Over the decades, it had been divided into smaller units, then reconsolidated. When the couple purchased it, the layout of the spaces offered a lot of drama, but not much delight. “It had been opened up almost in a loftlike manner, which actually made it enormously difficult to use,” says Sofield. “There were extreme changes of scale. The large rooms felt desolate, and the small rooms oppressive.”
The designer lay awake nights puzzling over the apartment’s configuration. “I love doing that,” Sofield says. “For me, it’s like a Rubik’s cube, a geometric and mathematical problem.” Achieving what he finally determined was the best solution required erecting walls and creating smaller rooms. The clients were skeptical. “Putting walls up was a stretch for me,” says the wife.
But Sofield brought them around. “It actually feels much larger now,” he says, “because rooms have certain purposes, spaces are defined, and views are framed. There is a logical sequence to it.” Indeed, the unfolding of rooms feels so seamless and intuitive that it’s hard to imagine it any other way. “I think that there’s a kind of inevitability about what we’ve done here,” Sofield admits. “I’ve come to believe if I do a great job, nobody will know I existed. I think that’s the sign of a successful project.”
Perhaps. But when it comes to everything else about the home, you’d have to be anesthetized to miss the designer’s impact. It is evident in the purity and elegance of the decor, which shimmers and gleams in response to the silvery light from the East River right outside or, in the darker rooms, echoes the quiet grandeur of the Manhattan bedrock jutting aboveground in an adjacent park. It can be felt, too, in each and every surface, most of which were handcrafted for this project. Certain walls are waxed plaster, others are clad in hand-painted wallpaper or straw marquetry. The living room fireplace surround, a monumental structure of glass backed with white gold, was cast by an artisan (after much cajoling from Sofield) specifically for the room. And every element of the oval staircase was custom fabricated, from the glass-egg banister dividers to the waterfall-inspired silk carpet. “I love involving artisans,” says Sofield, who himself spent three years apprenticed to a master woodworker. “To me, it’s what eventually will distinguish the work—it feels considered, and not just purchased.”
By happy coincidence, that is very much the way the clients feel about his work: that they didn’t just purchase a by-the-books William Sofield design, but rather got something tailored specifically for them. Says the husband, “The first thing that attracted us to Bill was his design sense. But right away it became clear that he was an excellent listener. He was paying attention to who we were, how we lived.”
Indeed, throughout the project, Sofield solicited their input and observed their habits: how they worked, played, sat on chairs, wandered through rooms, ate their meals. The three traveled together to Paris, where they discussed aesthetic choices. Then he tweaked and modified, measured and adjusted, and created furnishings that reflected the clients’ lives, from their grandest gestures to their smallest tics.
How did it feel to be the objects of all this scrutiny? “We loved the process,” says the husband. “As far as I’m concerned, we didn’t spend enough time designing this apartment.” The collaboration allowed the couple to really reflect on their lives, and consider the things that matter most to them as this chapter of their New York romance gets under way. The result is a stunning testament to what they have accomplished, and who they have become.
“I feel grown-up for the first time in my life, really,” says the wife.
Adds the husband, “I feel like we’re dating again.”