March 3, 2016

A Chelsea Sanctuary by Messana O'Rorke

Multidisciplinary firm Messana o'Rorke transforms a downtrodden Chelsea apartment in a prewar building into a light-filled sanctuary

by Nicole Haddad interior designer Messana O'Rorke photographer Eric Laignel architecture Messana O'Rorke


For two masters of minimalism, walking into a client's newly purchased two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a prewar building in Chelsea caused quite a shock. "In terms of renovation, it had not been touched in years," says Brian Messana, one half of the design duo behind multi-disciplinary firm Messana O'Rorke. With his partner, Toby O'Rorke, and their team, Messana set about reimagining the "dark and gloomy" space.

"Our work is about creating well-proportioned spaces that use natural and artificial light to make rooms feel bright and cheerful," says Messana. Considering that the apartment does not get direct sunlight (most of the windows face north) and that its existing layout was a bit discombobulated, establishing a light and airy space took some serious ingenuity—especially because the redesign included hiding all the plumbing running through the apartment from the five floors above.

In the entry vestibule, the designers had Zerolux fabricate an artistic fluorescent lighting installation created as a nod to one of their favorite artists, the late Dan Flavin. "It's a place where you can decompress from the rest of New York City," says Messana.

In the ensuing renovation, the team had the floors ripped out and replaced with engineered, European oak wood that showcases a wire-brushed finish; the walls in the main areas painted a bright white; and new windows installed to mimic the original designs and add sound insulation And that was just for starters.

To open up the space from the moment of arrival, Messana and O'Rorke changed a long dreary entry hallway into a lofty vestibule. Occupying the interior's core is a large living space that hosts an open dining area on one end and a sunken living room on the other. The two bedrooms nestle at the apartment's east end.

While the client had originally wanted to open up the existing galley kitchen to the living room, the designers convinced him otherwise. The sleek, refurbished space—one of the few they did not change in form—is visible directly from the vestibule. The wall that forms a partial separation between the two rooms not only adds an intriguing element of abstraction, but also functions as a place for storage and hides unsightly plumbing.

Firm believers of creating layered spaces that unfold artfully from one to another, the designers have celebrated the transitions. The only true doors they added were to the bathrooms. Elsewhere, they installed pocket doors, which allow for interesting glimpses of the various spaces—each outfitted with mid-century modern furnishings—as well as a view of the apartment's whole breadth.

To highlight the architecture, the designers used recessed cove lights. Exposed linear fluorescent lighting, inspired by the work of Dan Flavin, the late sculptural lighting artist, adds character throughout. Inconspicuous cabinetry, closet space, and more help camouflage the complexity of the design. The result is a fantastic transformation: a cohesive, light-filled interior that is striking in its simplicity, as only true minimalists can achieve.

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