A Manhattan House That Pays Tribute to the Metropolis’s Jazz Age
Located on a quiet block in Manhattan’s East 40s, the 18-story Beaux Arts apartment complex is one of the city’s understated architectural gems. It was designed in 1929 by the well-known New York architects Raymond Hood and Kenneth Murchison. Originally intended as a living and studio space for Midtown’s up-and-coming artist community, it consists of two buildings opposite each other with Art Deco facades made of limestone, brick and steel.
33-year-old Canadian interior designer Martin Brûlé discovered Beaux Arts five years ago while looking for a home base in New York after living between the city, Miami, Paris and Montreal for years. He was banned immediately. “I’m obsessed with the 20s and 30s,” says Brûlé, who often incorporates early 20th century motifs into his work: streamlined but lush materials and finishes like velvet, lacquer and polished wood; monochrome shades and geometric patterns; and bold antique furniture. “For me, Art Deco was a harbinger of modernity that was never really achieved.”
When Brûlé first saw the apartment, 1,300 square feet on the 14th floor, the entrance was a narrow passageway that led to a Formica-covered kitchen (“90s Home Depot,” he says), followed by one small meeting space intercepted by unpleasant soffits. But at the end of this living room was a single large casement window that, if you stood at the right angle, perfectly framed the iconic steel tower of the Chrysler building, which was built at the same time as the Beaux Arts. Brûlé signed the lease that day.
When Brûlé reversed some of the apartment’s undesirable features, he found the freedom to experiment and created a pause that is not only reminiscent of the New York jazz age but also the 80s reinterpretation of Art Deco that included minimalism combined with monochromatic flair. He hid the worn parquet floors of the two bedrooms with velvety wool carpets – chocolate brown in one room and creamy ivory in the other – and painted the walls to match. He plastered and decorated the walls of the main living room and the dining room with an imitated, rustic finish that suggests a mixture of limestone, parchment and travertine, the gravitas of which makes the reveals appear on purpose. Perhaps most dramatically, he ripped out the Formica in the kitchen and replaced it with discreet brushed stainless steel cabinets and a polished black granite worktop. Then he put a Smeg oven and a Miele hob in a cupboard at the north end of the living room, which was closest to the kitchen, and which he covered with floor-to-ceiling, cream-colored curtains. It may look too elegant to be practical, but Brûlé actually often hosts dinners for 15 people at a rare 8-foot-long bronze and marble gueridon table from the 1920s owned by his previous employer, interior designer and antique dealer Jean, was bought by Paul Beaujard.
The main room itself is divided into two parts: the half closest to the kitchen is anchored by the marble gueridon that Brûlé raised on mover dolls so it can be rolled around the room for dinner or meetings (the apartment also serves as his office). On the west wall, a small painting by Josef Albers from 1948, which hangs over the fireplace, is the only splash of color in the room. Nearby, an ornate chair from the Carlo Bugatti Mosque and a 1926 rosewood and parchment secretary adorn a niche. The other half of the room, facing the street, is his living area. The east wall is lined with low black lacquered Ikea cabinets that run the length of the room. They complement an Antella wooden table from the 1980s by Kazuhide Takahama that Brûlé uses as a desk.
In the center of the room is an LC4 lounger from the 1990s by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, which is positioned in front of the ten-foot high casement window, which is flanked by curtain panels made of ivory-colored raw silk. “When I was growing up, this chair was the most basic thing in the world,” says Brûlé. And while it’s true that the chaise longue has almost become a cliché of contemporary interior design, you see it anew in the context of Brûlé’s home and can appreciate its bold functionality. “Certain pieces have more presence and you have to give them space,” he explains.
But it’s Brûlé’s bedroom that is the most intimate (and revealing) space in the apartment. At first glance, it’s modest: a mattress on the floor with white sheets, a lonely oak chair on the side. But the sheets were specially made for Brûlé in a mill in Italy, the cushions are made from the finest Canadian goose down and the chair is a rare Carlo Bugatti from 1906: everything simple but carefully selected. This is how Brûlé designs. “What I love most,” he says, “is an opulence that is almost invisible.”