If God is in the details, as the saying goes, then architects Lee F. Mindel and Peter L. Shelton should apply for holy orders. Consider, for example, the apartment they recently designed on the top two floors of a new building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. So subtle is the apartment’s palette, one color melting into another, and so fine its balance between old and new, that the eye sees the whole, not the parts, and it is blissfully unaware that designers were hard at work. “We’ve reduced things to their essence,” says Mindel. “I hope the design looks inevitable—that you can’t imagine its being any other way.”
Only 11 stories, the building is hardly a skyscraper. However, it is so situated that not only are the top floors saturated with sunlight, but the apartment’s owners, a couple with two small boys, also have wide views on three sides—uptown, downtown and to the east as well. “We were able to take advantage of the unobstructed views and three exposures of light,” says Mindel. “The apartment is almost the width of a double-size Manhattan town house, but it feels as if it’s not one of many apartments but almost a house in the air.”
A duplex—a house in the air—is a dream of many New Yorkers, and the architects, who double as interior designers, took full advantage of its two stories. “We wanted the public spaces to feel as if they’re contained in a vertical rather than a horizontal space,” says Mindel, “and we exaggerated the two-story nature of the space. Wherever you are, you get a feeling of verticality.”
Key to that concept is the apartment’s most prominent feature, a stairway that runs along one side of the dining room. It is both a stairway and a wood sculpture, with more than a nodding resemblance to one of Donald Judd’s stack sculptures: geometric shapes cantilevered from a wall in such a way that they seem to float in space. “It’s a sculptural navigator,” says Mindel, “a sculpture that captures the interplay of light and just happens to be a stair. It seems to magically fold on itself, like a folded piece of paper. When you’re in the dining room, you don’t see it as a stair but as a sculpture.”
If the stairway is the pivot on which the apartment turns, the arcade of windows is a band that holds everything together, “seamlessly integrating architecture and interior,” to use Mindel’s words. In front of each window, the designers have placed a semitransparent white scrim and a gray drapery. “The scrim acts almost like a canvas upon which the city becomes painted,” says Mindel. Mounted on recessed hospital tracks in the ceiling, the drapery falls all the way to the floor and once again emphasizes the verticality of the space. “We also used the scrim and the curtain to try to create a kind of dematerialization of the masonry at the window wall so that there wouldn’t be such a contrast between indoors and outdoors,” says Mindel, “so that the city and the apartment become one.”
The scrim and the drapery work together as well to create a sensation of movement and depth along the window walls, and one would not work without the other. “When the sun hits it, the scrim glows,” says Mindel. “But if you had the scrim alone, it would be too harsh. If you had the curtain alone, it would be dreary. The scrim lightens and enlivens the curtain. When you get the two together, they become part of the skyline. Our goal was a celebration of light and an incorporation of the city into what is a family space.”
In ancient times the Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra, and old Ra would feel right at home in the temple to light Shelton and Mindel have put together above the noisy streets of Manhattan. Even the rug—yes, the rug—is tied to the sun, mimicking its daily path across the skies, from east to west. Woven into the rug is an arc that begins in the dining room, which faces northeast and which gets the sun in the morning. The arc ends at the far corner of the living room, which faces southwest and which sees the sun set in late afternoon or evening.
That curved pattern is the result of careful tufting, with wool and silk twisted together by hand. Yet the arc pattern is so subtle, like raked sand in a Zen garden in Kyoto, that a casual visitor might walk on it without noticing it, or noticing it only subliminally.
“Everything in the apartment reaches out to something else,” says Mindel, and the designers themselves reached out to the owners’ sons, who occupy two of the first-floor bedrooms. Small boys may not appreciate the careful connections among the objects around them—the placement of an exquisite Giacometti end table near an Alvar Aalto round table, for instance. But they can appreciate bathroom sinks that have been set low, at a child’s level. Knowing that one boy loves hockey, Mindel asked him to do a tracing of his favorite player. He then gave the tracing to a muralist, who reproduced it on a wall in the boy’s bedroom. “It’s something he can live with,” says Mindel. “You try to get children invested in their space.”
The boys’ parents are invested in their own quarters—a master bedroom, two baths and two large dressing rooms—on the second floor, down a long hallway from the media room. Painted in orange letters along one of the walls of the hallway is a typographic work by the Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. It consists of three words—”Over Again Before”—and a blue ampersand that ties them to their French translation—”Passé Encore Avant.” Those are Weiner’s words, but they perfectly express the designers’ intentions. “They tell you to turn the corner to something new,” says Mindel, “and they open up the space from end to end.”
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