This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
One of the most moving stories in mythology is the tale of the phoenix, an extraordinary bird that emerges from a flaming pyre with its colorful feathers even more beautiful than before. A duplex apartment overlooking Central Park West in New York City has a similar history. Engulfed by a raging fire and reduced to ashes, it has been handsomely reborn through the efforts of Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, principals of the ELLE DECOR A-List design and architecture firm Roman and Williams.
“Everything you see is absolutely new,” says the lady of the house. She and her British husband had lived abroad for more than a decade, immersing themselves in the cultures of the Far East before settling down with their two young children in a classic prewar apartment with white walls and dark floors. But when a workman’s rags combusted, Standefer and Alesch were left with a blank slate for the atmosphere-conjuring creativity that has won them acclaim onscreen (making sets for Zoolander, Practical Magic, and Duplex), in the hospitality world (revamping New York City’s Royalton hotel and decorating the Standard), and among boho-minded celebrities (Kate Hudson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow).
Conversations between the designers and the couple began in earnest, and soon it became clear that the desired result was quite a bit more ambitious than simply a reconstruction of the rooms that had existed before. “The wife likes rich woods, the color green, dramatic moldings, and the work of Richardson,” Standefer says, referring to Victorian-era American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a promoter of brawny, brooding Romanesque stone buildings. She’s also fond of India and Hong Kong and cites the China Club—David Tang’s posh Hong Kong restaurant decked out in shimmering lacquered decor—as one of her favorite spots. “I love modernity and minimalism, but I honestly can’t live that way,” she admits with a laugh.
Which explains why the owners have happily taken up residence in a place where inky tropical hardwoods meet the glint of artfully distressed brass and the delicacy of lacy openwork screens. Toss this with exquisite 1930s furniture and a color scheme that veers between pearly and murky, and it is no wonder that some visitors half expect to look out the windows and see not Central Park stretching out before them but the bustling port of Shanghai.
“There’s a layering of objects, periods, and architecture that we’re really proud of,” says Alesch, who designed each molding and architectural detail. The main living areas were configured to flow into one another, the airy layout inspired by the apartment’s gutted après-fire condition. “We saw how roomy it seemed at that point and said, ‘Let’s not build normal partitions again,’” Standefer says. That doesn’t mean the home feels like a cavernous loft by any means. But instead of using standard doors, they linked the individual spaces by creating capacious central openings that allow for sweeping floor-through views.
At one end, the living room is a sensual enclave of muted colors, accented by dashes of ebony and the glimmer of satin. The adjacent dining room, however, has a flamboyance Standefer delightedly describes as “off the hook”—chocolate-brown Venetian-plaster walls, a coffered ceiling, a chandelier composed of faceted handblown crystal globes, and angular silk-upholstered chairs by Jean-Michel Frank. “Stephen and I like special designers but not always their most obvious pieces,” Standefer notes. “Those dining chairs are less on the nose than you’d expect when you hear Frank’s name, but they help give the place a more interesting quality.”
The array of unexpected finishes and seductive materials helps too. In searching for a wood that would convey a sufficiently glamorous mood in the dining room, the design team considered and quickly discarded mahogany (too ruddy) and rosewood (too ordinary). “Robin is obsessive about tonality,” Alesch says. Ultimately they settled on a South American tropical hardwood called imbuia, aka Brazilian walnut.
“It’s more brown than red and has beautiful figuring,” Standefer explains. In the master bath, they used a different tropical wood, iroko, which resembles teak. They combined it with brass fittings and a grandly scaled sink for two made of large blocks of pale-green onyx and inspired by a bodacious lavatory at the Four Seasons hotel in midtown Manhattan.
Another bath is paneled in quarter-inch-thick sheets of antique brass that give the small room the feeling of a jazzed-up corner in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, a maritime motif echoed in portholes whimsically deployed in a wall of the children’s playroom.
It’s those kinds of details that thrill the globe-trotting owners, as well as the designers. When a visitor points out that the apartment evokes the shadowy cars of the original Orient Express at night, Standefer grins. “Modesty is great, and quietness is nice,” she says, “but sometimes it’s much more fun to be decadent.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of ELLE DECOR.