How a Manhattan Artist Created a Cabin in the Sky

For Christopher Russell, a family escape means commuting to the rooftop.

Photo: Wendy Goodman
Photo: Wendy Goodman

For artist Christopher Russell, a family escape means commuting to the rooftop, one flight up. I caught the breeze on a tip from his gallerist, Julie Saul.

Ceramic sculptor Christopher Russell and his wife, Gina, purchased their loft in the Meatpacking District back when there was still meat there. “It was around 1990,” Russell says, “and the neighborhood was very different, very quiet and out of the way.” The interior of the loft was what he describes as “high tech” with “lots of gray and Formica.” That was whisked away with the help of crafty friends, one of whom, Paul Ludick, designed many of the interior fixtures. Russell’s inspiration for this screen of ceramic pieces (which separates the dining area from the entrance) was the work of a friend, the late sculptor John Risley, who made beautiful room dividers. Russell was also inspired by the collages of Karl Blossfeldt. Photo: Wendy Goodman
I was intrigued by the backsplash in the kitchen, and Russell told me that it consists of 6,500 individual ceramic pieces of simple dots made with his thumbprints. “I made a lot of tiles when I first got involved in ceramics,” he says. “I was inspired by Henry Mercer and his house, Fonthill, in Doylestown.” He also said that he used ten different glazes on the tiles. He carted them from his studio to the loft after making them over a couple of months and, he says, “poured them out on the floor and stuck each one into the wall, into mortar that I just smeared on. It took about two weeks to do that.” Photo: Wendy Goodman
You can see the individual thumbprints in each tile here. The two ceramic lidded cooking pots are Japanese. “Most of the nice antiques are from Gina’s grandmother.” And, he says, “I often give Gina little silver things — like spoons or salt cellars — as gifts.” Photo: Wendy Goodman
As we proceeded to make our way upstairs, Russell showed me something I had never seen in a New York spiral staircase: storage drawers. He also pointed out that a dumbwaiter was designed to fit in alongside the stair, built by their friend, Jeff Benjamin, a sculptor-woodworker. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The lower stairs have been outfitted with storage drawers built by Ludick and with dividers made by Benjamin, who also built the interior of the upstairs cabin we were about to enter. Photo: Wendy Goodman
We climbed to the top of the stairs, where the dumbwaiter opened, and a Lilliputian wonderworld was about to be revealed to me. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The 70-square-foot room designed by Benjamin with built-ins and rift white-oak-veneer plywood paneling, felt very much like the cabin of a boat. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Benjamin’s designs include a compact desk made of cherrywood with a top that slides open to reveal storage space. Photo: Wendy Goodman
A bench with lots of cushions designed by Anta invite cozy curl-ups. “We talked to Jeff about what we imagined doing there,” Russell tells me as we swivel around the space. “We wanted it to be the country house you didn’t have to drive to or keep snow-plowed. We fantasized a lot about long winter afternoons watching mystery shows together.” Photo: Wendy Goodman
The structure was there when the Russells bought the space, but it was a standard Home Depot affair surrounded by a tar roof and some basic wood pellets. It has since undergone just the right amount of gentrification, which includes a new door and window frames designed by Benjamin. The outdoor furniture is from Crate & Barrel. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The views of the city are enjoyed from a green roof, designed with the help of Benjamin. Photo: Wendy Goodman
One of Russell’s magnificent ceramic sculptures (Tooth and Claw, 2014) was getting its finishing touches when I made my visit, and this is the final piece. Russell’s work can be found at Julie Saul Gallery. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Another wonderful ceramic piece (Arrangement, 2015) from Julie Saul Gallery. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Bees and honeycomb are a recurring theme in Russell’s work. One of his projects, Bees for Sunset Park, a permanent sculpture installation in bronze, was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design (formerly Arts for Transit and Urban Design). The pieces pictured here (left: Beework: Malus, detail, 2009; right: Beework: Hive #1, #3, #5) are glazed white terra-cotta. Photo: Wendy Goodman/Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
How a New York Artist Created a Cabin in the Sky