Design Notebook: This year's Kips Bay Decorator Show House is set in a modern Manhattan high-rise with sweeping views. Here's a look at some of the rooms.
NEW YORK — Wearing snug khaki shorts, a white button-down oxford shirt and a pair of Alden desert boots, Todd Alexander Romano paced a West Side penthouse apartment looking stricken.
A compact, energetic Texan, Romano is — typically speaking — the type to take the view not merely that the glass is half-full but that it would look a lot prettier if only you moved it over there to the lacquered table next to the reproduction Louis XV fauteuil from Maison Jansen.
“My first thought was to paint it gray and fill it with corn,” Romano said glumly of a dining room whose daunting proportions — about 13 by 17 by 21 feet high — were more suggestive of a silo than an elegant multimillion-dollar penthouse with panoramic views of the Hudson and whatever they call that place on the other side.
This was in late April. Roughly 10 days earlier Romano had been invited to participate in the 40th annual edition of the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, one of 30-odd members of that underrated profession who volunteer each year to work wizardry on rooms in houses donated for the purpose, all to benefit the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club.
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For most of its history the Kips Bay Decorator Show House has been staged in one or another Manhattan brownstone or town house. But this year there were no town houses to be found. And so the developer of the Aldyn, a 40-story condominium building at the south end of the former Trump development above the old Penn Central rail yards, offered the charity the use of two adjacent unsold duplexes, each more than 6,000 square feet (priced at $15.9 and $16.9 million) and each equally unpromising in architectural terms.
There are the views, of course. But a person cannot live in a view. You need a sofa.
The first time she saw the room allotted her at the show house, she felt like Mary Poppins, the decorator Susan Zises Green said: “I felt you could fly right through the windows.”
Romano entertained similar notions, although the flight he contemplated was in the opposite direction, straight out of Dodge.
But, as previously suggested, Romano is no quitter. And his is not the kind of profession anymore — if ever it was — whose practitioners can afford to turn up their noses at awkward, boxy high-rise developer apartments, places with bump-outs, overhanging soffits and air-conditioning vents located, for no apparent reason, in the middle of dining room walls.
“I almost threw up my hands,” Romano said, throwing up his hands. “I stood in the space and thought, ‘I don’t get it.’ And then it came to me, which nine times out of 10 is what happens. I walk into a room and the space, the geography or the architecture gives me a path and a story.”
The narrative that suggested itself to Romano involved a gallery. He would treat the ungainly dining room as a space well suited to die-hard Manhattanites of a type that, as Marlene Dietrich once noted, tend to be hungry for everything except food.B
He would alter the proportions and the mood of the too-tall room by painting the walls a nocturnal hue, a color he called aubergine.
Aubergine, of course, is French for eggplant, and one of the enduringly charming traits of those in the decorating trade is that, being in the fancying-up business, they seldom prefer a dull English word when a swanky-sounding foreign one is ready at hand. (Take, for example, that Louis XV armchair — uh, fauteuil.)
Romano knew instantly, or semi-instantly, that he would cover the walls with big modern paintings by Rachel Hovnanian and Marc Van Cauwenbergh and hang a faceted poison-green 1960s Italian mirror, and that he would place in the middle of the neutralizing sisal rug an octagonal Alessandro Albrizzi table, with room to seat six to eight people, an ideal number for dinner because, he said, “Less is boring and with more you get no general conversation.”
He would arrange around the table French Empire chairs because, he said, referring to himself in the third person in a way that somehow seems unstudied, “there will always be a French chair in a Todd Alexander Romano room.”
He would borrow from Guy Regal at Newel Antiques an immense 42-arm 1940s Venetian chandelier, using it to anchor the space. He would add a pair of ivory “Bunny” porcelain lamps from Christopher Spitzmiller atop a white-painted, 19th-century English console table. For an added touch of whimsy, or possibly madness, he would mount a monumental brass giraffe bust by the Mexican sculptor Sergio Bustamante high on one wall.
He would accessorize the space with amethyst geode cathedrals and a bomb-sized hunk of terra cotta in the shape of a pineapple and, when he was finished with all that, the imaginary family Romano conjured up to inhabit the room might feel when dining as if they were appearing nightly in a remake of “Boom” and not merely sitting down to General Tso’s chicken eaten straight from the container.
This, perhaps, is the place for a reporter to declare himself. I love decorators. ). I admire their skills, their professional lore, their gifts as psychologists and mind-readers called on to enter strangers’ houses and help those strangers feel somehow more at home. It must take moxie to convince others you have better taste than they do, since taste, after all, is little more than habit and can be acquired.
There is something else. The decorators of this city, people tend to forget, keep thousands of local crafts and tradespeople employed, not the least of these the woman who lives in Far Rockaway and makes by hand the paper lampshades Romano places in the houses of clients around the world.
I love, too, the element of a decorator’s ability that is innate and cannot easily be explained.
“The regular Joe or Carol doesn’t have the magic,” said Mario Buatta, an industry stalwart who for years was a Kips Bay Decorator Show House regular. “It’s great that everybody can go to Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn and buy the furniture, but how to make the proportions right and put it together is what most people just don’t get.”
Years ago, Buatta said, the decorator Albert Hadley — a beloved industry eminence who recently died, at 91, and to whom this year’s show house is, loosely speaking, an homage — visited the apartment where Buatta then lived, above Swifty’s.
“There was a tub chair in the room,” he said. “And after we were there for a while, Albert said, ‘Do you mind if I do something?’ And he got up and moved the chair two inches and it completely changed the feeling of that room.”
Before going out on her own years ago, Bunny Williams, the chairwoman of this year’s show house, spent more than a decade learning the trade as an associate at Parish-Hadley, the decorating firm of Hadley and Mrs. Henry Parish II, universally known as Sister.
“When I first started, all of us worked for firms,” Williams said. “We trained. We were assistants. It never occurred to us to just begin decorating.”
Now, in this age of self-promotion and dubious stylists and the dreary reality of DIY, “everyone wants to be a famous decorator by the time they’re 30,” Williams added. “That has diminished our profession tremendously.”
The gluttony and greed of a bygone boomtown era also took a heavy toll on the profession. “Nothing was harder hit than the interior design industry,” she said, by both the recession and by widespread suspicion of business practices throughout the industry. “And now we’re in a more realistic time.”
Reality, however, as Williams conceded, is hardly what visitors pay admission to see in a decorator show house. They come for the “fantasy, the playfulness, the flair of artistry.”
They come to project themselves, in an altogether pleasurable and voyeuristic manner, into Romano’s aubergine dining room.