Colouring in the white boxes

Colouring in the white boxes
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First Published: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 16 AM IST

Geoffrey Bradfield’s bachelor pad with an art by Caceres+Miranda in the centre. ((Photograph by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)
Geoffrey Bradfield’s bachelor pad with an art by Caceres+Miranda in the centre. ((Photograph by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)
Updated: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 16 AM IST
The strange and painful metamorphosis of Manhattan House, the vast pale brick building on East 66th Street, from a genteel and dowdy rental into a luxury condominium has entered a new stage. On a slim penthouse terrace on the 21st floor, Larry Laslo, a veteran interior designer, fell to his knees before a concrete Buddha head, the size of a large pouf, and said, “This is where you come to pray for the mortgage.”
Geoffrey Bradfield’s bachelor pad with an art by Caceres+Miranda in the centre. ((Photograph by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)
Laslo, who wore a deep tan and black denim, was one of 22 designers who had been given rooms in six apartments there to trick out for the Kips Bay Decorator Show House. For the first time in 36 years, the show house—which is open through 22 May—is being held in an apartment building instead of a town house.
Laslo’s made a shiny white shell of his space. “I like white with pops of colour,” he said, patting a lime green patent leather and purple tweed dining chair. “But you have to be careful to avoid that Palm Beach gag factor.”
Earlier, he had given a tour to an elderly woman, showing her the bedroom with its rag paper ceiling sewn with crystal beads (“beats gold leaf,” he said), woven leather rug and psychedelic ikat walls, and, in the front hall, a Marilyn Minter photograph of a woman whose mouth was stuffed to the gagging point with jewels. (“It’s called ‘Choked,’” he said. “Don’t you love it?”) Finally, the woman turned to Laslo and said, “It sure didn’t look like this when I lived here.”
But as sunny as these containers are, they still come with only 8.5ft ceilings. And they are very similar containers, rows and rows of white rectangles like the shoe boxes many people come home to every night. It has made for an unusually democratic show house.
A room designed for a “swinging ’60s chick” by Ellen Ward Scarborough. (Photograph by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)
What do you do with a white box? Jeff Lincoln covered the walls of his study with corrugated cardboard and painted it shiny brown. The designers at Burley Katon Halliday, an Australian firm, painted theirs in high-gloss lavender—even the floors, an encomium, they said, to the designer Joe D’Urso. Matthew White and Frank Webb commissioned Clare Graham, an artist who likes to work with bottle caps and buttons, to cover the walls of their bedsit with the tops of cans. You can see the bites of the can opener in the rippled edges of the metal discs, which reminded White of the mirrors on the ceilings of Indian ­palaces.
“My late partner used to say that trees don’t grow to the sky,” said Geoffrey Bradfield, who worked for years with Jay Spectre. The walls of his bachelor pad were armoured in auction catalogues and burnt orange Venetian plaster, and a vicious-looking cactus lurked on a Karl Springer cocktail table. Sara Bengur’s walls were orange, too, but her kitchen looked like a sunny Miami bungalow; most of her ideas about urban living had to do with getting out of the city. “You could be anywhere, up here,” she said, adjusting the bird calls on her Sony Vaio notebook and indicating a banquette inspired by those in Turkish palaces.
“There is such protocol about what city living should be, a concern with what other people think, and this idea that you should live a ‘New York life’ in New York.”
A lot of decorators were thinking about the single life. Ellen Ward Scarborough (aka Chuck Scarborough) and her sister, Madeline Roth, made a bedroom for a “swinging ’60s chick,” said Scarborough, who wore a flounced miniskirt and black stilettos. That the only reading material was a copy of Valley of the Dolls on a bedside table made a dark coda to the goofy turquoise lamps and perky décor. The cartoony pineapple-shaped headboard in wide-wale turquoise corduroy sent a mixed message, too: If the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, why was the bed only a twin?
There were framed Rorschach test inkblots in the office for a therapist put together by S. Russell Groves, printed from sources such as Theinkblot.com. Groves and his team imagined that this office did not belong to the shrink but to her patient, a glamorous woman whose therapist made house calls. It’s the next step in home amenities, he said, “a step beyond the massage table.”
Perhaps the most artful answer to the problem of the plain white box was also the simplest. Next to the photograph of the gagging woman in Laslo’s entry (in a penthouse Lenz said was in contract for $10 million) was a tiny bedroom by Jennifer Carpenter, a principal of Truck Product Architecture.
Carpenter designs children’s furniture that looks like delicate modern buildings. She painted her room two shades of blue, added a bunk bed, a shelf and a desk, and 100 paper aircraft, which she suspended from the ceiling in a flight pattern that started at the door, looped once, and headed out the open window.
It felt, said one exhausted photographer who had made her way through all six apartments, just like oxygen.
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 16 AM IST