With unlimited talent—but just three colors—designer John Barman offers an updated take on modernism.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
When asked to describe the design strategy behind his tony Park Avenue aerie, John Barman replies with a question of his own: "What is modern?" It's a question Barman asked himself repeatedly over the course of renovating the 2,800-sq.-ft. apartment, and sought to answer by delving into the history of mid-20th-century design. With a flair for formalism and a dose of levity, Barman offers a playful, luxurious corrective to the seriousness and modesty so often associated with the period.
"With every client, I begin with a particular point of view, then find a specific piece to give me inspiration," says Barman. In this case, the inspirational "piece" was the apartment building itself, a 1980s high-rise with a distinguished provenance. The 40-story tower, built by James Polshek, was conceived as a cantilevered addition to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's aluminum-and-glass low-rise office building designed for Pepsi-Cola in 1960. Although the tower exterior—sheathed in aluminum, glass, and granite—harmonizes with the elegant minimalism of the modernist jewel box below, the interior was another story. Barman's unit was originally the model apartment for the building, and the former owner had left the '80s embellishments (i.e. mirrored walls, excessive marble) untouched. Barman's plan of attack was "to update the space to what I thought the architect had in mind when he built it": simple and unfettered, in keeping with the landmark structure's International Style roots.
Barman streamlined the interior architecture to its bare essentials. He squared off rounded perimeter columns in the living room, removed ceiling mouldings, and did away with a two-step marble platform that wrapped three walls of the space. Although the basic proportions of each room were left alone (save for the bedroom, which he enlarged), Barman made small adjustments to maximize square footage. "There was a lot of dead space that wasn't needed," explains Barman, who converted leftover corners and crevices into extra storage and display area. In the hallway to the bedroom, flush doors with concealed hardware replaced a messy jumble of closets. Barman also reconfigured the entranceways to the library, bedroom, and bath to create a more unified master suite. Poured-concrete floors in the public areas and a coat of glossy, warm white paint throughout capped the major architectural interventions.
Improving the architectural envelope was a matter of reduction—of unnecessary ornamentation, visual clutter, and anything that detracted from the 21st-story views in all directions. The interior design scheme, however—a collaboration with associate Kelly Graham—is expansive, a veritable celebration of over-the-top decoration. The restrained lines of the architecture, says Barman, keep the mélange of mid-century modern classics, lipstick-red glass pieces, zippy artworks, and '70s details from looking "too kitschy." A limited palette of black, white, and red ("I grew up with this color scheme," Barman explains) helps pull together elements from disparate decades and styles. The apartment is a veritable cross-section of 20th-century design—but please don't call it eclectic. "Eclectic is just a buzzword for mess," insists Barman. Mess is certainly the last word one would use to describe the exquisitely ordered space.
In the loft-like living room, a retro Angela Adams rug anchors a rectilinear Holly Hunt sofa, a coffee table of Barman's own design, and vintage Barcelona chairs reupholstered in a strident red. Knoll lounges throw a curve against the otherwise architectonic furniture, while reflective surfaces—a groovy mirrored screen, glass tables, a Castiglioni lamp—refract city views and establish a strong tie to the building's architecture. The artwork, which includes paintings by Jack Goldstein, Karen Davies, Lisa Milroy, and Peter Dayton, is "non-representational, but in a similar mood of abstraction" as the rest of the apartment, concludes Graham.
Until recently, the dining room housed Barman's company headquarters. Now that his base of command has been relocated to a separate unit on a lower floor, the room is a showcase of '70s high style: cream-colored shag carpeting, a Tommi Parzinger white lacquered sideboard, Italian chrome sconces, and Barman's custom stainless-steel-topped table and acrylic chairs. Clusters of Venetian glass are the sole touches of color in the otherwise white-on-white room. The décor demonstrates the formalist's keen eye for juxtaposition: the pinpoint hardware of the sideboard, the ball detail of the sconces, and a Karen Davies composition featuring drops of molten glass echo one another. Windows are adorned with beaded-metal string shades inspired by those in Philip Johnson's iconic Four Seasons restaurant. "During the day, they capture light from outside," maintaining privacy while permitting gauzy city views. "At night, they reflect interior light," Barman describes. Restaurant style also informs the stainless-steel kitchen, an installation purchased from an industrial supply company on the Lower East Side.
Barman painted the bedroom walls a dark charcoal grey, "so they recede and focus your attention on the view" through the low, wide windows, embellished with simple wool curtains. Pin-stripe carpeting and grey flannel-upholstered chairs add a touch of Wall Street tailoring to counterpoint "the '60s hippie bed thing"—a velvety black headboard backed by a mirrored wall. Unafraid to tamper with vintage pieces, Barman customized two Herman Miller bedside tables, darkening the stain and removing the brass trim so they meshed better with the established aesthetic.
The bathroom is spare but luxurious. The room's centerpiece is an enormous, mosaic-tiled shower with an eye-popping westward view toward a cluster of midtown skyscrapers. Those same skyscrapers presumably have their own eye-popping view of Barman's shower, since a curtain is conspicuously absent. "The window fogs up in about a minute," Barman assures. Function, it seems, follows form in the designer's updated take on modernism.
We would love your feedback!