March 5, 2015

Architect Lisa Dubin Crafts a Modern Residence

A contemporary renovation in a prewar penthouse on the Upper East Side brings a warm 1960s modernism fully into our millennium.

by Jorge S. Arango interior designer Lisa Dubin Architect photographer Mark Roskams architecture Lisa Dubin Architect


Design in the 1960s was pluralistic. So while we might remember groovy pads outfitted with plastic and psychedelic color, another strain-showcasing warm woods, handwork and occasional Japanese-inspired forms-proved more resilient. Think Danish Modern, George Nakashima, and the American craft movement. That is what architect Lisa Dubin wanted to translate into a renovation of her and her husband's Upper East Side apartment that was occasioned by their recent empty-nester status.

Doing this in a circa 1929 "classic eight," of course, was no walk in the park, Central or otherwise. Dubin craved the indoor-outdoor relation of modernism. Fortunately, because the penthouse was set back from the façade by a wrap-around terrace not visible from street level, she didn't require landmark approval for floor-to-ceiling windows that made the terrace an extension of the interior.

Alape sinks and Dornbracht fixtures from AF New York adorn the master bath’s sycamore vanity

But, she says, "with penthouses of this era, there are few [construction] records, so you never know where the plumbing and ductwork is located." Surprise one: her desired position for a skylight was precisely the spot where plumbing ran into the building, which meant that pipes would be an inevitable element of this feature (she clad them in stainless steel). Surprise two: herringbone floors had been nailed right into concrete, so they shrank where hot water pipes were concealed underneath. Up came the floor, replaced by insulation pads and new cherry planking.

There were fortuitous discoveries too, such as a foot-and-a-half deep space to the left of the fireplace that Dubin repurposed as a bar and display shelving. The fireplace itself was stripped down and reimagined as a clean, thoroughly up-to-date hand-troweled box. To give the main living space a more loft-like demeanor, Dubin collapsed the former living room, kitchen, and maid's quarters into one open-plan main room and converted the formal dining room into a modern kitchen.

Millwork throughout now indicates the outer boundaries of the apartment. Instead of 1960s darker-stained varieties, however, she employed light-colored sycamore, imparting a more 21st-century mood (white plaster comprises the remaining walls, a neutral background for art by Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, James Rosenquist and others).

"I like very minimal design," she says of her furniture choices, "but I like the tactility and sensitivity of woods, and the fact that a person, not a machine, made something." A Nakashima dining table, pieces by Chris Lehrecke, hand-blown glass and hand-enameled Laotian vessels all exude that aura, as do a spirit house finial from Papua New Guinea and the Asian inflection of occasional tables from her own Wabi series of furnishings.

The fruition of Dubin's labors is a soothing modern interior that carries with it all the warmth and grace notes of the 1960s without the dated crafty kitsch of its earnest, back-to-the-land intentions.