Let there be Light
To bring sunshine into an Upper East Side duplex, Giovannitti clad a dark rear garden entirely in white Corian—there goes the neighborhood
Jessica Dheere -- Interior Design, 9/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
On the Upper East Side, cladding your entire back garden in yacht-white Corian is likely to provoke an upturned nose or a raised eyebrow. So when a Brazilian banker's neighbor sarcastically inquired when he was going to fill up the "swimming pool," its designer didn't take offense. David Giovannitti's design-build firm, called simply Giovannitti, has long enjoyed the appreciation of Maya Lin Studio and Tsao & McKown Architects—thanks to his fine touch and attention to detail—and he viewed the snarky comments as a sign that he was on the right track. A pool was just the kind of vessel he'd intended. Not for water, though, but for light.
Darkness was a problem because the banker's pied-à-terre is largely at or below grade, split between the basement and ground floor of a prewar building. The 4,000-square-foot duplex actually started out as two apartments—one of which Giovannitti had worked on before, when Maya Lin was renovating it for its previous owner, software entrepreneur and art collector Peter Norton. When Norton sold to the Brazilian banker, who already owned the adjacent apartment, Clarissa Strauss Arquitetura e Interiores was hired for the merger. Taking cues from Lin's side, Clarissa Strauss updated the combined interior by carrying through many of the same materials, such as sycamore and steel, and introducing contemporary lines and furnishings. The goal, she says, was to integrate the two spaces so they would look like they were "born that way."
The renovation completed, it became clear that the dilapidated garden's "funky wood planters and trellis," as Giovannitti describes them, were sapping sunshine from the apartment's upstairs living area and downstairs master bedroom. It would be up to him to find a solution for the L-shape 475-square-foot outdoor area. "It all had to be washable, waterproof, and weatherproof, like a boat," he explains of his all-Corian second-skin concept, which called for the walls and floor of the garden to be covered in white panels. He chose the white not only for its reflective properties but also for its ability to resist fading despite exposure to the elements. In addition, durable Corian is easy to clean with water and a Scotch-Brite pad.
Each thermoformed Corian panel, weighing 100 to 125 pounds, is fitted with aluminum tabs cut at a 45-degree angle and hooked onto a complementary set of tabs affixed to a horizontal aluminum cleat—like two cupped hands grabbing each other. The cleat, in turn, hangs on a mostly concealed armature of uni-strut tracks. In the corners, where the panels' seams are fused, it's hard to tell where the floor ends and the walls begin.
Higher up the walls, small gaps between panels reveal standards intentionally left accessible to support an extensive suite of whimsical furniture and accessories. These include tables, shelving, and even an ice bucket, all made of reflective polished aluminum. A legless elliptical table, for instance, allows for alfresco dining, while smaller tables encourage lingering over summer rosé—chilled in the wall-mounted bucket. Shelves and pedestals provide storage or display decorative accents.
Chaise longues of tubular aluminum are sheathed in snow-white neoprene that Giovannitti compares to an "Azzedine Alaïa dress." And a nylon hammock hangs from its own special hooks, ready to suspend its occupant in a state of rest. For not-so-lazy afternoons—which are frequent for the fitness buff banker and his 6-year-old son, who makes it his business to monkey around—the program also incorporates a climbing rope and pull-up bars. "The space is functional and playful in a way you don't often encounter in an urban setting," Giovannitti says.
Screening the garden and its users' exploits from peeping eyes, aluminum troughs planted with bamboo crown two of the three Corian walls. Up-lights in these containers provide soft illumination at night. During the day, the sun casts mesmerizing shadows as it filters through the leaves.
When the master bedroom's curtains are pulled back, and light reflected off the Corian fills the space, you could easily lounge in the steel mesh chair by the full-height window all day, Giovannitti observes. But with a pool of sunshine right outside, who would want to?
Previous spread, left: David Giovannitti's Corian-clad garden begins on the landing outside the living area of an Upper East Side duplex.
Previous spread, right: A shelf, table, and ice bucket, all custom designs in polished aluminum, are attached to standards accessible through 5/8-inch gaps between the panels.
Top: Aluminum stairs descend 12 feet to the lower level. Center: Overlooking the garden, the living area is furnished with a Jeffrey Bernett chaise chosen by Clarissa Strauss Arquitetura e Interiores, which renovated the duplex. Bottom: Terra-cotta and aluminum planters hold maiden grass.
Opposite: Custom chaise longues feature neoprene-sheathed seats and tubular-aluminum frames.
Top: Dimmers inside the apartment control up-lights interspersed with bamboo planted along the top of the walls. Center: A steel chair sits by the master bedroom's existing window. Bottom: The room's sliding glass door opens to the garden.
Opposite: Removable aluminum hooks support a nylon hammock. The ABS plastic table is by Giotto Stoppino.