Faced with the task of converting a 750-square-foot New York City studio into a gracious space for hosting dinner parties, designers Max Sinsteden and Catherine Olasky of O & S felt a thrill. They’d long loved the modular shelving and storage units by USM, a Swiss firm that got its big break designing modular furniture for its own factory expansion in the ’60s (seemingly endlessly convertible, the Haller line swiftly became a cult classic among design types)—perhaps this was the perfect time to finally use one in a design project. Their vision: Partition off the studio’s alcove to act as a more formal bedroom using a custom USM modular shelving unit, which would include storage on both sides, a perfect nook for the TV, and some strategic gaps to let the natural light through. The catch: “It’s very much couture modular,” Olasky says of the Haller line (predesigned units range from $800 to $5,000, and theirs would need to be custom—not to mention large).
“We wanted to do our whole office in it, but we thought we might have to skip a year of being paid,” she laughs. A sizable chunk of the project budget—15 percent, they later calculated—would have to be allocated to the piece were they to move forward with it.
The living-room side of the Heller partition houses books, a TV, and a few strategically positioned pops of color to complement the scheme of the room.
Photo: Brittany Ambdrige
But the owner, the design team’s friend Chip Russell, was completely on board. “He loves to have dinner parties . . and this way we’re not sitting and having cocktails and looking at a bed,” Olasky says. “Plus, the light comes through the piece in places so it doesn’t box you in—it’s very friendly, not like putting in a big case piece.” Moreover, should Russell ever move apartments his Haller can evolve radically to work in a different space. “The really fun thing about it,” says Sinsteden, “is that it’s steel and heavy and it’s a wall—but it’s also so much about flexibility. It can turn into a pair of bedside tables and a chest of drawers, a set of étagères and a library.” Each of the colorful panels is removable and adjustable, a system built on patented ball joints and adjustable rods (“it’s adult Legos,” Sinsteden says). USM makes a number of popular configurations that are available to order as-is from its site, but the team wanted a custom-designed piece and worked directly with USM to configure it—a process they can’t say enough good things about. “They very much bent to what we wanted to design, like getting the television in there,” Olasky says. “The size required some customization, weight distribution, finding these standard brackets to make it happen. It was a highly customized piece.”
When the pièce de résistance, as Olasky calls it, finally arrived on site, she and Sinsteden had the crew tinker with its design on the fly—removing certain panels and adding some extras in—to make it just right. “This was probably the most precious item Chip invested in, the investment piece,” she says, “but we really felt like it made the apartment.” Well, not just this apartment—it has the potential to “make” every home he ever lives in.