The Heights of Elegance

Architectural Digest, March 2004

When Charles Evans, the real estate investor and movie producer (Tootsie is his tastiest credit), approached designer Laura Hunt, she was energetically engaged in a production of her own--the big bow-wow wedding in Dallas of her daughter to a son of Ted Turner’s. “Charles took me aside during the festivities and confided that his triplex was looking tired,” she recalls. “I perked up: I knew it well--I’d been going to parties there for years--and I knew I could make it into one of the most glamorous apartments in Manhattan.” And indeed, now she has.

The triplex, with its voluminous wrap-around terraces, occupies approximately 8,500 square feet of the 16th, 17th and 18th floors of a classic Art Déco building on Park  Avenue. Originally decorating by Michael Taylor, with his signature travertine tables, overscale banquettes and grass-cloth wallcoverings (see Architectural Digest, March 1981), it was later anglicized here and there, and had ended up a big of a hodgepodge. Hunt felt she absolutely had to start fresh.

Providentially, the first things she stumbled on--they were submerged in the basement of a SoHo antiques shop--were 28 Lalique panels from the Normandie. With their crystalline transparency. they would make an ideal floating balustrade for the fantasy staircase she envisioned: a two-story polished-nickel-and-macassar-ebony affair that slip unquestioned into a 1930s movie. “Charles himself has lived the playboy life of a star of that period--he’s partied hard,” Hunt explains. “And worked equally hard.”

On the strength of the proposed staircase, Evans declared himself ready to go Déco. “And then,” he says, “one thing led to another.” To begin with, to roomfuls of Déco-inspired millwork. And then to walls--in the 16th- and 17th-floor entrance halls and surrounding the now realized staircase--that consist of over 3,000 panels of faux shagreen, adding even more drama to the picture. And finally to a collection of furnishings of singular presence and radiance assembled in under a year.

“The pieces we found are luscious--they’re all pretty curvy,” Hunt points out. THe pair of 1920 Süe et Mare giltwood sofas in the living room are voluptuous, to be sure, and the two Paul Dumas rugs swirl with flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors (one was made in 1925, the other in 1930, and bot are of a monumental size for a Déco carpet--”Weren’t we lucky to find them,” comments Evans). The 1940 Paule Leleu wool rug in the 16th floor entrance hall is pleasingly round, while the 12 mid-‘40s Dominique mahogany armchairs in the adjacent dining room have not only round backs but flared legs and, Hunt adds, “arms that reach out to hug you.”

Other highlights, each with a luster all its own: a pair of ‘20s Jacques Adnet mirrored cabinets; a 1930 Alfred Porteneuve macassar ebony commode; and in the dining room, a deluxe ‘30s Porteneuve mahogany table and incomparable 1941 Jean Dunand four-panel eggshell-and-lacquer screen depicting deer in an enchanted forest--both pieces once owned by the Art Déco connoisseur Felix Marcilhac. So extensive a collection did Hunt put together with Evans that she found herself having to design only a handful of fill-in pieces, including an etched-glass-and-gilt-bronze chandelier for the ding room and a pair of ebony-and-faux-ivory demilunes and matching recamier-style sofas for the living room.

The first two floors of the triplex were conceived strictly for entertaining, the rooms (fully used perhaps only half a dozen times a year) appointed with the promises of the night in mind. From the hundreds of yards of cashmere Hunt created a portiere as a lavish entrance into the vast L-shaped living room. There all is cool luminosity, with walls swathed in ice-blue satiny silk in an overscale diamond pattern and a mantel surround of glistening mercury mirror and eglomise.

Just off the chocolate-velvet-walled dining room is the whimsical garden room, where small dinners are held. Hunt--inspired, she says, by the Art Déco master Rateau--designed a side-board of wood painted to look bronze and topped with red lacquer that speaks to the vermilion-veneered Bagues tables at either end of the one remaining Michael Taylor banquette. “I love that shot of red in here,” she says of a room that is basically blue, for the banquette is upholstered in the same cornflower-colored Fortuny fabric as the draperies and the table skirt.

The garden room walls were painstakingly lacquered in shades running from periwinkle to violet and then embellished with impressionistic images of trees, flowers, ferns, butterflies, dragonflies, peacocks and a lone rabbit. The process took a full eight months, with Evans making copious suggestions to the decorative artist. “I was very involved with the rabbit, the dragonflies and both peacocks,” he confesses. “Then one day,” Hunt recounts, “he walked in, looked around and--like the natural producer he is--pronounced, ‘Perfection.’” And “perfection,” Evans goes on to insist, is “the perfect word for the whole new apartment that Laura Hunt has made for me.”

Certainly the bedroom up on the triplex’s third floor is nothing if not a perfect Art Déco set, what with a Jean-Michel Frank parchment-and-amaranth dressing table, a Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann macassar-ebony-and-dark-camel-leather chair and Ruhlmann silvered-bronze desk lamp. The sympathetic background  is parchment-colored walls and a black, gray and camel carpet. Rounding out the room are a 1914 Alexander Archipenko sculpture of a female and figure and, on the wall behind it, a 1928 Jean Dupas drawing, Three Ladies.

“And incidentally,” Laura Hunt reports with a smile, “one of New York’s last great catches is a playboy no more--Bonnie Pfeifer, the former Ralph Lauren model, is now firmly in residence. Charles is very lucky: Not only is she a wonderful person, but her streamlined elegance mirrors what I like to think is the apartment’s own.”