October 18, 2016

Villalobos Desio Designs a Gramercy Park Apartment for an Art-Loving Couple

The design firm Villalobos Desio ushers architect Emery Roth's prewar aesthetic into a new era.

by Jorge S. Arango interior designer Villalobos Desio photographer Joshua McHugh


The reasons to seek out a residence designed by Emery Roth—one of New York's preeminent apartment house architects in the 1920s and 1930s—were clear to designers Mercedes Desio and Alberto Villalobos of the eponymous firm Villalobos Desio. "There were already a lot of architectural details," says Desio of the Gramercy Park three-bedroom she and Villalobos outfitted for a young art-collecting couple.

These included handsome moldings and trim, an elegant marble fireplace and a tray ceiling extending inside from the entry hall. Desio and Villalobos emphasized Emery's characteristic trims by painting them a sultry dark gray. But to avoid overwhelming the art, Desio adds, "We wanted to make the walls like a white box." The contrast resulted in a more modern, boldly tailored aesthetic.

Less felicitous were the 9½-foot ceilings, probably a restriction placed on Emery by the developer in 1928, when the building went up. Rather than ignore it, Villalobos says they embraced it in the living room, applying a gray grasscloth with silvery fibers woven into it for subtle shimmer. "That was our disco moment," laughs Desio. But it also brought more texture and reflectivity to a north-facing room with good, but not generous, natural light.

With the envelope complete, explains Villalobos, they sought lower-slung furnishings that "emphasized the horizontal middle line of the room." Going against tradition, they ditched the expected furniture grouping around the fireplace, using it instead as a device to separate the living and dining spaces into distinct areas. The graphic impact of the painted moldings and trim was ramped up considerably by a grouping of black-and-white gun photos by Marc Valesella. "They're all old guns that reference a point in history," notes Villalobos. Desio adds, "It's about the machine aesthetic, not the purpose."

That machine aesthetic shows up again in the family room's Harold Reddicliffe painting and in vintage metal light fixtures. But the designers also wanted to make every room comfortable so they would all be used, so they balanced the hard metal vibe with an inviting textural mix—sisal and hide carpets, warm woods, velvet upholstery. They also leavened the moody grays and indigo blues with playful splashes of color pulled from various artworks.

It's definitely not Roth's New York. But his sense of sophistication comes through by providing a classical prewar frame for interiors suited to a more contemporary lifestyle.

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