“It’s not your normal home,” asserts decorator Ghislaine Vinãs with certain understatement. Indeed, this four-bedroom apartment, on which she collaborated with architect David Hotson, is anything but ordinary. It is filled with a masterful interplay of intricate volumes and a wonderful sense of whimsy. Among other things, it features a 14-metre-high living room, a 25-metre-long slide and a 140-square-metre terrace. There is also a swing, a climbing wall (installed on one of the structural columns) and some pretty stunning 360-degree views of New York. “It was,” says Hotson, “an absolutely exceptional design opportunity.”
Located in Lower Manhattan, the 613-square-metre space occupies the top four floors of a 21-storey tower constructed between 1894 and 1896. It was commissioned by the American Tract Society, a publisher of religious pamphlets.
The building was converted into condominiums in 2002, but this unit was the last to sell. No doubt its complexity had something to do with it. With its sloping rooflines and arched windows, it is quite atypical. “It’s like you situated a grand mansion on the top of a skyscraper,” notes Hotson. There was no air-conditioning, no domestic water on the upper level and just a tiny kitchen and bathroom. It had also never served as a residence before, simply as an architect’s office. A scene of the Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster movie Inside Man had, however, been shot there. When Hotson first visited, part of the set was still in place.
The current owners visited the apartment by mistake. “It was advertised as a finished space,” they remember. Still, they were not only undaunted by its challenges, but actually excited by the possibilities of having so much vertical space – a rarity in New York. Previously, there had been four floor decks more or less in the same place (Hotson simply raised the bottom one a couple of feet to optimise the views out of the windows). None of the space, however, was open. So there was no sense of the dizzying height. One of Hotson’s most strategic design decisions was to create a four-storey volume at one end, criss-crossed by a series of glass platforms and bridges that allow vertigo-inducing views up to the eaves and down to the living room.
Stylistically, the clients requested something resolutely contemporary. “The outside of the building has copper cornices and terracotta tiles, and some egg and dart motifs,” they explain. “We thought it would be fun to contrast that with something super, super minimal and modern.” More than anything, Hotson was determined to create a breathtaking spatial experience, which he describes as “delightful”, “sparkling” and “surprising”. It is also deliberately confusing. “You can’t really understand the apartment until you walk through the front door,” he maintains. “You have all these somewhat disorienting, intersecting glimpses that escape your efforts at comprehending them. The space possesses you, you don’t possess it.”
A typical example is the main staircase, whose polished stainless-steel frame creates reflections that constantly distort your vision. Walls are set at angles and there are various ways of moving through the apartment (you can, for example, access the office from the living room via a ladder). Viñas herself was originally flummoxed. “It’s such a mind warp,” she says. “It was difficult for me to get a full grasp of the project.”
Viñas’ aim was very clear: to turn this bravura architectural masterpiece into a home. “The clients are in awe with the beauty of their apartment, but you also have to throw in something more casual,” she explains. She did, however, insist on having a stark white backdrop. “It’s almost like putting clean sheets on a bed,” she opines. “There’s a beautiful severity to it.” She also felt it would be the perfect canvas for her trademark pops of bright colour. Viñas is a particular fan of greens and oranges (even the underside of the white dining table was painted tangerine). She incorporated hot pink and vibrant blue into one of the bathrooms, and egg yolk yellow into another. The clients, meanwhile, requested a few softer hues. The wife asked for Prada green, the husband wanted the living room to be cream.
Hotson admits they are not tones he would have chosen himself. “I was so enamoured with the spare, severe, white volumes,” he recounts. “I was envisioning a very pale palette.”
“David’s work is incredibly pure,” concedes Viñas. “I’m all about messing things up.” Still, it was a tension that proved exhilarating. As Hotson notes, “That contradiction and the contest for attention between us was one of the really successful things about the project.”
One thing they did have in common was the desire to introduce lots of quirky, tongue-in-cheek touches. Hotson created a walkway for the clients’ two cats, Lady Penelope and Brains – a 3D labyrinth that allows them to move from room to room.
He also introduced a number of clever, peek-a-boo views. He pierced the medicine cabinet in one of the bathrooms, for instance, with an opening that allows you to look across the apartment, through a window, all the way to the Manhattan Bridge. “All you see is this miniature image of the bridge, sitting on the shelf like a souvenir you brought back from your vacation,” he rejoices.
Viñas, meanwhile, created a crazy mural in one of the guestrooms – an artist’s interpretation of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch – and chose a brash floral print for a sofa installed on a glass platform over the living room. “It’s lovely and hideous at the same time,” she laughs.
Many of the most fun ideas, however, came from the clients. Among them, the stainless-steel slide, which was inspired both by Carsten Holler’s “Test Site 2006” installation at London’s Tate Modern, and Wallace and Gromit. “I liked the idea of coming down to breakfast in it and being there directly from bed,” says the husband. It was fabricated in Germany, hoisted onto the balcony with a crane, and welded and polished in situ.
“It’s a tour de force of metalwork and a superb feat of engineering,” declares Hotson.
For Viñas, it’s also very practical: “It’s not just a toy. You use it to get down from the second floor really quickly.” That said, it does occasionally engender a few scary moments.
“Every so often, somebody will completely freak out in a good way,” quips the husband. “It’s blood-curdling because it acts like a big gramophone amplifier. The first time it happened was with Ghislaine [Viñas]. It was horrifying. Then, we realised she was still alive!”