I forgot how much like couple’s therapy it can be,” says interior designer Olivia Song. Her married clients had bought this four-bedroom Park Avenue co-op, but were “polar opposites” in how they wanted to renovate it. “The wife really wanted a classic Upper East Side apartment” with “whitewash or ceruse everything, a grand piano in the living room, and gold leafing in the entry.” Meanwhile, “the husband loves contemporary art and collectible design.” And whatever they did had to work for the fact they had three young children.
The apartment had last been renovated in the 1950s; the couple are only the third owners. But the building had restrictions on how many months that work could take place–180 days was standard–so when Song took on the project in January 2020, after the apartment had been demo’d, the clock was ticking. Song, a modernist, teamed up with the already hired architect, Patrick Gerard Carmody, whose practice is steeped in a streamlined classicism. Song liked the results of the push and pull; there were things she did here that she never would have done had she not been “forced out of the bird’s nest.”
“I don’t ever mind being wrong or finding a better way. Good design is so iterative; we are always responding to new or traditional ideas.”
Given the tight schedule, Song enlisted designer Gillian Dubin to partner with her on the project. They dug in with furniture plans. “Every successful project starts with math and then science,” Song says. “Science is responsible for the magic on a project. You have to nail the proportions, egress, clearance, dimensions, and other unspoken measurements. Nothing early on is the romantic stuff. Aesthetics follow science.” What followed, with as much speed as the challenges of COVID-19, co-op rules, and the ensuing shipping problems allowed for, was the completion of the apartment that made everyone happy.
“The first item purchased was the dining chandelier from Bec Brittain,” in the dining room, Song says. “The project’s design dominoed from this first decision. With lighting up first, it set the stage for a lot of the story.” She learned a lot from there. “I had to use traditional decorating techniques to light a room, but I really enjoyed finding out that traditional methods are traditional for a reason. Tried and true.”
Take the paneling in the dining room. Song calls it “a Patrick Carmody special. It really gives the dining room a special presence.” Song says she helped navigate the styling and finish, wanting “the paneling to be natural in an ultramatte finish, making the wood appear to be raw and unfinished, creating a cool vibe and nod to the raw urban edge of the city.”
There were other constraints. The husband “didn’t want anything that referenced any animal body parts” — specifically, things like “lion’s-paw furniture legs, penguin cocktail shakers, animal-head coat hooks for the kids.” Also, “we couldn’t crane anything into the apartment.” He didn’t want to be “that guy” who shut down the avenue for a renovation.
In the end, “you’re a designer, not an artist,” Song says, “so the project isn’t about me and what I want; I am trying to give them the best of what they want, and sometimes that means it’s not exactly what they asked for.”
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