October 5, 2015

Interior Designer Shawn Henderson Creates an Elegant Getaway

Skype and e-mail enable designer New York-based interior designer Shawn Henderson to bridge 10,000 miles and disparate time zones to work with clients halfway across the globe, ushering their New York getaway from virtual concept to an elegant reality in subtle shades of beige

by Jorge S. Arango interior designer Shawn Henderson photographer Steve Freihon


Modern technology takes the rap for everything from the paucity of children's analytical skills to the lack of commitment in relationships. But for designer Shawn Henderson and his Australian clients (who found him online), it proved an invaluable tool for realizing their Manhattan pied-à-terre in the sky. "I never actually met them until the first phase had been completed," recalls Henderson. "We did everything by Skype, e-mail and FedEx."

An antique wall-mounted console welcomes visitors in the foyer.

That wouldn't be unusual in other contexts. But the scope of the project, the touchy-feely nature of the process, and the stumbling blocks Henderson encountered make virtual design seem, well, virtually impossible. For starters, at 6,000 square feet, the four-bedroom, five-bath apartment was no small undertaking. To accommodate the needs of this thirtysomething couple and their five young children, Henderson planned to convert one existing bath into the husband's study, another into a butler's pantry and bar. But that particular late summer the West Side tower, which also accommodates a hotel, was upgrading its hotel bathrooms, so management restricted what could be done in the residences. "We ended up decorating everything and doing as much construction as we could," says Henderson, noting this first phase was completed in five months to be ready for Christmas. "We even bought them a tree and wrapped presents."

Aesthetically, he says, "They were keen on the detailing of prewar apartments. They tasked me with translating some of that detailing so this wouldn't look like a plain modern white box." Henderson's solution? Cleaner, stripped-down iterations of traditional wainscoting executed in wire-brushed cerused white oak, and a chevron-patterned floor of the same wood, installed during phase two. Four columns in the entry hall and built-in bookshelves throughout provided other classic prewar touches.

Decorative painter Eric Beare blew up details of Kathryn Ireland’s window fabric for the wall of the girl’s bedroom.

"She wanted everything very neutral," remembers Henderson. "By default, the incredible views stand out." He set the tone in the living room and study with a pale beige mohair bouclé rug. Then Henderson built upon it by covering his signature mix of custom and vintage mid-century furnishings with a tactile olio of woven fabrics, leather, and durable synthetic textiles that could withstand the cavalcade of children. The neutral palette covers everything from 1940s club chairs, Karl Springer ottomans, and an early Dunbar sofa (living room), to the faux bois-striped wall covering, silk carpet, and linen sheers.

When the family decamped back Down Under, everything was stored or covered so Henderson could finally tackle the bathrooms and kitchen and lay the oak floors. Details, again, were key. For instance, using a honey-toned marble in the master bath and a gold-flecked decorative wall plaster united it in feel to the discreet glamour of its companion bedroom.

A technological model for the future of design? That remains to be seen. But for Henderson, modern communications erased distances, making the consummation of his casually elegant vision a reality.