Sneden’s Landing (New York) – 1988
Driving through the bucolic hamlet with its rustic-looking residences, for a moment the Hudson River was visible through the trees and then it disappeared. As we pulled into the driveway, I saw a very large unattractive brown house and suddenly my heart sank. Stephen Shadley, my business partner at the time, explained that we would pick up a key and then look at the place to the right, next door. Relieved, we approached a white clapboard splitlevel house from the 1940s. When we got inside, it was very difficult to look past the existing dark wood everywhere and the sad furnishings.
A few days before, we visited the client’s apartment in Manhattan to talk about working on the house and to see some of her possessions. Her apartment had been painted the brightest white I had ever seen and this was on every surface. She had a few homes. This one seemed to be more of an art gallery. There was very little furniture, but there was a large, striking collection of photography including black-and-white prints by Herb Ritts and stills in washed-out colors from obscure Hollywood films. The owner had taken some of the most beautiful photographs herself. The subject matter reminded me of movies where art by Salvador Dalí was sometimes commissioned—films like Lady in the Dark or Spellbound where the subconscious dreams that occur in deep states of sleep are evoked.
That visit was invaluable to get a sense of the client on many levels. Drastic measures were necessary to transform the murky rooms into a spacious, bright stage set—somewhere you could shoot a 1940s-type movie as seen through the eye of a Surrealist poet.
Like the client, the house had a few surprises to its character. From the front entrance one would never imagine that down the spiral stairs was a mammoth room with high ceilings in wood forming an A-frame with huge beams running across. On the south wall, the fireplace had a simple mantel attached to a flue that ran from floor to ceiling. Knowing that white would suit her, we still had some concern with painting over everything since it was all solid mahogany wood. We were given the go-ahead and before too long each and every room, including that mahogany living room, was gleaming white.
Sometimes trying something daring works, and other times it doesn’t. When we were ready to strip and stain the floors from dark to light, the color of oxidized copper was suggested. The large room received the color first. As it went down, we agreed that it was “interesting,” but when completed it was frightening. The room looked like the pool at the YMCA. As soon as it dried, the sander removed the copper-gone-green and translucent white went down throughout.
Undeterred by the floor-color incident, we still wanted something more exciting and offbeat in the entrance over the white floors. A black, blue, and white random checkerboard pattern was painted with stylized wood graining. This did the trick. It also gave us an excuse to get down and do some whimsical painting—a trademark design stamp which is always enjoyable. The wood grain technique was so effective that some of the beams surrounding the dining area and the fireplace flue were also done in this finish. It added to the fantastic hallucinatory effect with its pronounced undulating veins. The term surreal has become a catchphrase for the odd, but we weren’t looking for things with that quality alone. What we were looking for was offbeat, large-scale items, and luckily we had one Paul Frankl club chair to use as a starting point. We went to resources in a number of cities in search of chunky furniture to use as sculptural objects—as in a de Chirico landscape throwing off any consistent sense of scale.
While going through the storage warehouse in one of the more interesting shops in Manhattan, a half-sphere in brass with multiple arms was spotted on the top of tall industrial shelving. It looked like a porcupine that had been in an accident. The store owner said that it was just half of a complete sphere and that there was also a second one. They were light fixtures that had previously hung in a commercial space. The size was phenomenal and they would be pivotal in establishing the bigness we were after. An auto mechanic restored the dented domes of the chandelier, straightened the 140 spokes on each, and then sprayed them with a white car finish. Once they were hung from the high ceiling, it was deceiving that they were over four feet in circumference.
On one of the shopping trips that brought us to Philadelphia, the twin to the existing Frankl chair was found, then shortly after a sofa. Although tremendous, they also fooled you into thinking that the size was average until you sat in them. Two cork tables, also by designer Paul Frankl, were brought together from different states and painted white. The pair appeared like shoe soles.
To give the main room some detailing and to avoid hammering into the wood walls to hang art, a long continuous shelf was installed around the perimeter of the room. This was where some of the photography collection could be displayed as an ever-changing exhibit. Vintage Eames chairs, restored and ebonized, kept coming in like ants at a picnic—one more reminder of the Surrealists. Things continued with petrified driftwood floor lamps, table lamps, and other unidentifiable creations like the organic formations in the paintings by Yves Tanguy. Running with this, a number of pieces of driftwood were brought back from the beach in Long Island and used as handles on the long low custom bedroom dressers. The wood was placed over the drawers and cut at each seam. There were countless innovative approaches and once the trust was established, we were off to the races and no stone was left unturned.
Similar to a movie, once the action took place it was time to strike the set. Unfortunately, the client moved on shortly after completion leaving me with uncertainty as to whether this all took place or had been a strange but fantastic dream.
Boulevardier Richard Gillette‘s book, The Art of the Interior was included by publisher Rizzoli on their list of Best Design Books of 2011. Richard is currently happy to be back working for loyal clients on a remarkable house in Gloucestershire, England.
All Images by: Michael Mundy, photographer, more from Michael via his online publication,