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Quick Change Artists
House & Garden, September 2005

Rules define even the most enviable life, and no disturbance will be brooked. At this discreet Manhattan building, heavy construction occurs only from May 21 to September 21. Only between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Only on weekdays.

So when a couple with two children decided they wanted a total makeover of a 7,600 square-foot apartment completed in one year, a perfectly choreographed three-ring circus came there for four months. The ever-changing cast starred 70 to 80 of the crème de la crème of New York’s construction and craft workers, pulling together on the first residential design in the United States by Dutchman Pier Boon. “It was kind of crazy,” he says. He credits the project’s success to the clients for “knowing what was possible” and to “the guys who worked so hard, with so much emotion.”

Everyone who worked on the apartment uses the words “genius” and “magician” to rate one another’s abilities. They describe the clients as “sweethearts.” The wife visited the artisans’ off-site workshops and spent days at the site, fearlessly making major decisions that were executed immediately. She frequently provided a deli spread or trays of baked ziti for the crew’s lunch. “There’s nothing like the sound of 70 men saying yes,” she says. But in an apartment where the ebonized front doors have silver pulls the diameter of cake plates, the only extravagance lacking was time. “We had to think clearly and fast,” says Pablo Rosario of Uberto Construction.

Coordinated by project manager Christopher Hughes, assisted by Stephanie Schaefer, the artisans were as precisely timed and positioned as Shanghai acrobats. The most breathtaking events included winching a 2,300 pound marble bathtub, hand-carved from Italian marble, up the side of the building and through the window; loading an enormous Boon-designed mirror atop the elevator car prior to installation in the powder room four flours above; and, most astonishing in Manhattan, the crew’s discovering it was the client’s birthday and stopping work for 30 minutes to surprise her with a chocolate cake.

The clients found Boon, who is well-known in Europe, when they bought his book at a design event. They decided to work with him on the apartment they bought for their return to city living and cold-called him on his cell phone to ask, “What do you think of doing an apartment in Manhattan,” Boon says. “I thought it was a joke.”

When he first saw the space two years ago, the couple presented him with books of ideas for each room. Later they gave him drawings by William O’Neill, the architect who had worked on a remodel for the previous owners. The clients hired O’Neill to work with Boon because he knew the space as intimately as he knows New York’s Byzantine building requirements. Boon saw a theme in the idea books and pushed for a minimalist design, one with an opulent edge to honor the rich architectural heritage of the 1916 Starrett & Van Vleck building. To enhance flow and keep public and private separate, he demolished and rebuilt almost every nonstructural wall and added ebonized oak or limestone tile floors. Boon, the clients, and Uberto representatives worked out details such as turning a maid’s room into a mirrored studio for Bikram yoga and installing mantels for six fireplaces.

Boon wanted to keep the apartment “in balance,” he says, “so that when you walk from room to room, it wasn’t a surprise every time.” The predominantly white interiors avoid the clichéd chill of stark minimalism with a cheerful warmth that comes from the soft lines of the furnishings and the period ornamentation of the rooms. Overall, the apartment speaks of a beautifully engineered simplicity. Imposing falls of dense, insulating silk curtains with a thick layer of batting inside the lining puddle below high ceilings. White upholstered furniture comes with extra covers. Each room is a quietly luxurious setting for the couple’s art collection, which includes works by Damien Hirst, Henri Matisse, and Rachel Hovnanian, a New York artist whose paintings so impressed Boon that he’s mounting a gallery show for her in Amsterdam.

Her provocative works pop out against the uncluttered interiors. The custom-designed, hand-made moldings, painted a rich, flat white, provide bold textural decoration. The richly carved patterns vary from room to room, reflecting the eclecticism of the building’s era and the grand scale of the apartment. Boon kept everything else “calmed down to counter the richness.” Nicholas Smacchia installed the moldings, using plaster as a master baker employs icing to create a smooth surface.

Peter Cyr provided the same kind of topflight work in some of the custom cabinetry. Virtually all his work is invisible, seamlessly fitted into a larger whole. The enormous mirror in the powder room has discreetly placed shelves on both sides of its ebonized frame. In the dining room, a massive china cabinet hides behind doors indistinguishable from the other panels. In the laundry room, Cyr suggested building in countertops at an almost imperceptible slope to allow drips from drying garments to flow into the sink.

With no detail overlooked, the private areas are if anything more deluxe than the public but also more restrained. Yet here, the warmth verges on whimsy, particularly in the children’s rooms. The son has a two-room suite, complete with something he really wanted, a steam shower. The daughter’s room, with a blue silk headboard and enough built-in storage to absorb the impact of a sleepover for five friends, is fit for a postmodern princess.

No matter how chaotic life is, the apartment imposes calm. Soundproofing eliminates traffic noises and footfalls from above. “I love it,” the wife tells Boon. “I really am at home.”