Designer Shamir Shah combines classic forms with exotic tones and textures at a pop star's New York loft.
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 11/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
Remember the Norwegian pop group a-ha's 1985 video for "Take on Me," where a black-and-white comic strip comes to life? Though guitarist Pal Waaktaar's 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. have long passed, he remains a high-profile figure in Europe. As a refuge from the limelight, he bought a New York loft where he could entertain friends and write music, calling on Manhattan designer Shamir Shah to revamp the 4,000-sq.-ft. space.
Practicing on his own for only two years, the Yale-trained Shah has already completed several downtown Manhattan commissions—trendy potter Jonathan Adler's shop, hotelier Ian Schrager's apartment, and a series of luxury residential developments including a ten-story building that opened last month—as well as a Long Island boutique hotel, the Andrew, for former Schrager collaborator Philip Pilevsky. But despite the designer's varied portfolio, clients are drawn to him for the same reason: At a time when the general public equates "modern" with sleek mid-century classics or futuristic, free-form blobs, his work embodies a warm, timeless aesthetic. "Modernism has a lot to do with an underlying palette. It can be aloof, but that's not what I'm into. It's important to me that spaces be completely livable, that the clients are comfortable," explains the designer, whose upbringing in Kenya gives his work an exotic, luxurious undercurrent.
Waaktaar's Soho loft, which he shares with his filmmaker wife, Lauren Savoy, and their young son, perfectly captures Shah's complex but comfortable sensibility. Located on the fifth floor of a former industrial building, the space started out as a white box, delivered by the developer with the barest legal essentials, what Shah calls a "c. of o. kitchen and bath." In New York, most floor-through lofts in old factories are long and narrow with windows at the two short ends; Waaktaar's had a rare commodity, three pairs of French doors along one side, overlooking a courtyard. Running the length of the loft, parallel to the windows, a rough wooden colonnade supported a hefty, slightly sagging beam.
Shah immediately fell in love with the colonnade and decided to leave it exposed, preserving its rough, unfinished character as a focal point. "The contractors were kind of baffled," recalls the designer, who turned the rustic structure into a divider of sorts. He placed the living and dining areas and a luxurious master suite to one side, with access to the coveted French doors, and relegated the kitchen, the second bedroom, a studio for Waaktaar, an office for Savoy, and a laundry room to the other. This way, the enclosed, private rooms requested by the clients are balanced by unobstructed, airy spaces—loft living's whole point.
The renovation was what Shah calls a "blood-and-guts job," requiring electrical, plumbing, and HVAC work. When it came to the finer grain of furnishings and finishes, he played clean lines and surfaces against the roughness of the colonnade and the exposed brick in Savoy's office. His own love of rich, dark colors worked well with his clients' request for moody tones. Staining the existing oak floors a deep brown, he worked with grays, nutty browns, and cocoas as well as wood and other natural materials. The kitchen has limestone countertops and custom cabinets of cerused oak; in the living room, cherry-wood shelves wrap a fireplace; in Savoy's office, walnut cubbies hold linen-wrapped storage boxes.
Shah creates custom furniture for nearly all his interiors, and he mixed Christian Liaigre and Chris Lehrecke pieces with his own chairs, coffee table, and drum-shaped side table in the living/dining area, bar-height chairs along the kitchen counter, and a pony-skin ottoman and boxy club chair in Savoy's office. The inspiration for his furniture comes from such sources as Jean-Michel Frank's designs, expressive 1930s objects, and African furniture, in the case of the drum-shaped table. A piece in the master bedroom cleverly overcomes an ongoing design challenge: how to hide the obtrusive television. Shah placed it at the foot of the bed, in a simple wood box with leather panels. With the flick of a button, the TV rises on a motorized lift and pivots to face either the bed or the adjoining sitting area.
Attention to comfort is also evident in the spacious master bathroom, where a plush armchair awaits the owners after a shower. "I love having an upholstered piece where you can sit and dry your toes," Shah says. Radiant-heat coils beneath the floor—Waaktaar and Savoy's suggestion—keep the stone and mosaic toasty, even on bare feet. And beyond these amenities is perhaps the greatest comfort of all: Shah's emphasis on meeting deadlines and staying within budget. In today's image-conscious design environment, that's a rare commodity indeed.