Design Taxi: Kips Bay Decorator Show House Design Taxi: Kips Bay Decorator Show House

What if you could walk into a stripped-down room in a 19th century mansion in one of the priciest neighborhoods in Manhattan and have a free hand in designing it from top to bottom, without any restrictions except those imposed by your own imagination?

This would be a dream assignment for any designer, and this is what a select few in New York are invited to do each spring at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, as a benefit for the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club. Each year, for the past 30 years, the organization has invited about 15 designers to redesign a room, from floor to ceiling, in any style. The result is a seven-story home that is an eclectic mix of everything from Deco to Venetian, and that showcases the talents of some of the country's top designers of the moment.

Sheffield Dean Thomas Saxon found this year's show particularly provocative in that the designers, who presumably did not consult with one another, seemed to be drawing away from contemporary looks.

"There seems to be a trend now in many of the designs toward Art Deco," he said. "The colors were soft, muted colors, with lots of neutrals."

While the rooms of the house may not appear as a unified whole the way a real home would, what the end result lacks in coherence is made up for in imagination and creativity. The house stands as a testament to the variety of designers' styles, as each room bears the inimitable mark of the designer who put it together.

Starting with the marble and wrought-iron front hall, ascending the winding staircases, and ending at the rooftop garden, one gets a sense of the waterfall of creativity poured into the remake of this Neo-Italian Renaissance limestone townhouse on 74th Street on Manhattan's prestigious Upper East Side.

Some of the rooms were simply beautifully designed, traditional sitting rooms, such as the formal front room by Susan Zises Green, titled "A Study in Texture." In this room, the designer works with white, vanilla, khaki and other neutrals and near-neutrals, allowing the varied textures to become the predominant focus of the room.

In this photo, a visitor first notices the soothing effect of the neutrals, from the deep camel-colored sofa, which is covered in Rawlston textured cotton fabric from Hinson and Company, to the pair of armchairs covered in "Fossil" beige cotton fabric with celadon leaf patterns from Grey Watkins. The striking oil painting of dogs above the sofa draws your attention, but does so without dominating the room.

A closer look reveals just how this room is a study in texture: note the carved box topped with fruit, the rope basket, and the antique cut velvet pillows.

The other side of the room continues the theme of playing with textures, with the carved mirror over the carved fireplace, and the myrtle topiaries on the mantelpiece.

Other rooms show off the skills of a designer challenged by having drawn a small room in the event's lottery, such as "Cabin 17" by Charles Pavarini II Design Associates. For this room, Pavarini made the 15' x 9' room into a replica of a stateroom on a yacht, complete with a recessed DVD player showing a movie of whales in the Arctic and Baccarat listing crystal. A 1925 Leleu "fan" armchair in striped fabric and a silver-leaf sculpture complete the deco look.

"This was a highly unusual way to treat a small space and make it exciting," Dean Saxon said.

Michael Simon chose to use the opportunity of working on the show house to show off his skills at decorating an opulent 18th century sitting room. To create a sitting room that doesn't sacrifice style for coziness, he used silk velvets and a narrow-width damask, originally woven in the 18th century by Prelle for Bregentved, a castle in Denmark.

Humans weren't the only ones whose needs were taken into account in the design of the house. Eileen Griffin, of Eileen Griffin Design, included an alcove to suit the needs of a resident cat, complete with a swing covered in striped fabric matching the window seat across the room. This room has a casually bright feeling, even though it was tucked into the back of the house, with its hand-stenciled burlap walls and walnut tiled floor in a basket-weave parquet.

The kitchen in a home this stately would be expected to carry a heavy load in preparing for guests, and the kitchen designed by St. Charles of New York was clearly up to the task. Like many of the other rooms, this kitchen seemed to come from another era, except for the decidedly precision-run contemporary appliances. The cabinets were done in stainless steel, with five-piece doors for an old-fashioned, country look. This look was mirrored by the checkerboard effect of the chopping block, built into the Pierta Condosa countertop.

While the bathroom is often the most neglected room when it comes to haute design, in the Kips Bay Show House, one of the baths, designed by Gail Greene, of Green & Company, Inc., was a centerpiece of the show - literally. This fourth-floor bath, titled "The New Serenity," featured a glass wall dividing the shower stall and the sink area. One wall held a glass doorway with a view into the next hall, making the whole space feel bright, open, and very modern. Effectively, this is a pass-through bath, giving a whole new definition to creativity in bath design.

Like so many things in life, such as dessert, the real treat came at the end of the house tour. The last staircase, which narrowed from the broad, grand curving stairs on the lower floors, was decorated with a trompe l'oeil painting of a gray landscape background pocked with flowers, insects, birds and butterflies.

"The idea was to start with colors of winter and then blast in some spring flowers," the artist, Glenn Palmer-Smith, said.

Palmer-Smith has been in the business of fine wall decoration for 25 years, and now he's brought his son, Austin into the family business. For the show house, the pair worked from library reference books on nature and wildlife.

At the top of this impressive seven-story home perched "The Rooftop Suite," designed by Etienne Coffinier, a small two-room suite decorated to bring the outdoors in, with preserved lemon leaves as crown molding and a doorway dressed in preserved boxwood.

The Kips Bay Decorator Show House stands as a fine example of the range of decorators' talents, and should serve as an inspiration for anyone out to press her own stylish mark upon the world of design.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Interior Design

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