Brightening Up an Upper East Side Townhouse
Lofty and filled with light, this 1901 townhouse on the Upper East Side looks anything but old-fashioned
The young family that bought this 1901 townhouse on the Upper East Side were set to move right in, making no architectural changes and only a few upgrades to the still-intact decor. But after thinking it through, the couple—he in finance, and she a freelance writer—enlisted a friend, designer Jenny Fischbach, a partner at the venerable New York design firm Cullman & Kravis, to guide them. On first observation, Fischbach noticed that the townhouse’s subdued grandeur didn’t suit the lifestyle of the couple and their young children. “The house has great bones, and the previous tenants had done a beautiful job, but it was dark and somewhat somber,” she recalls. “I knew we were going to have to make changes if it was going to suit the personalities of the new owners. It’s a very elegant home, but they didn’t want the decor to be so formal. They wanted it to look younger than what the house projects.”
Decorator and clients started small, attempting to layer pieces—the couple had amassed a hodgepodge of furniture and accessories over the years, including items left over from college and family castoffs—on top of the existing flooring, walls, and window treatments. But nothing really jelled, and something felt off. “The clients kept coming to me with stuff they liked that absolutely did not fit,” says Fischbach. “They were pushing to get their personality through on top of someone else’s look. I knew it was never going to feel like their house without a fresh beginning, and realized we needed to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.”
“The house is very elegant and has great bones
but it was dark and somewhat somber”
The turning point: The clients brought a magazine tear sheet—heavy on pink—to Fischbach’s attention. An employee of Cullman & Kravis for 15 years, she was accustomed to a more traditional color palette, but “they love pink and wanted it to feature prominently in the decor,” she says. “It’s my job to take that vision and translate it into a cohesive environment they wouldn’t tire of. You can always have a crazy idea on a project, but it has to be implemented correctly.” So Fischbach went for pink, but reined it in by offsetting it with a serious—though not stuffy—backdrop of silvers, grays, whites, and lavenders. “The color palette was a new direction for me, and it’s not what you’d typically expect from a stately townhouse like this one. It’s young and totally fresh.”
Not only do pops of pink keep the palette lively, but innovative accents add another layer of surprise throughout. In the library/office, for instance, rough meets refined courtesy of bold taxidermy pieces that tower above shelves lined with matching book covers in white, gray, black, and purple. In the adjacent living room, walls are treated in a striated metallic silver paint that gives a hint of shine but doesn’t overwhelm, particularly such standout accessories as the hot-pink Yves Klein cocktail table.
“The clients love pink and wanted it to feature prominently.
It’s young and totally fresh”
Anchoring the design scheme is the clients’ considerable collection of fine-art photography. In the living room, Candida Hofer’s enormous portrait of a palace in Portugal faces two Lawrence Beck landscapes, while another Hofer hangs upstairs in the media room. In the entry foyer, an image from Robert Polidori’s Versailles series takes center stage. The couple has always been interested in contemporary photography and began collecting when they were engaged. “They had a nice selection of pieces before moving into this house,” says Fischbach, “and with all the new wall space, there was room to add more.” To build their collection further, the clients enlisted the help of another friend, art consultant Rachel Carr Goulding of Ruth|Catone. “They respond to color photography and architecture and water prints, so we focused on that,” says Goulding. “It’s tricky to find a balance, as the images they responded to the most offered many different points of view. But in the end, they bought what they loved, and it works.”