From A to Zeff
The word eclectic just begins to describe architect Mark Zeff's apartment in New York
Suzanne Slesin -- Interior Design, 1/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
All is relative, in life as in design. Architect Mark Zeff describes the rather grandly proportioned rooms of his 1920s apartment in New York as the "simplest they've ever been." During the 14 years he's been living there, he estimates that he's redecorated the place four times. It had a palette of mossy greens and taupes in the early 1990s; later, off-white walls, black doors, and a lot of texture predominated. "It's always a reflection of my life at that particular moment," says Zeff. As of two years ago, he's shared the rambling apartment with his wife, real-estate broker Madeleine, and their chocolate-brown cocker spaniel, Polly.
For his latest redesign, Zeff took a rather courageous step for someone known for his dramatic color sense. He painted the walls white-with the exception of a guest room in glorious tomato red-and stained the floors ebony. Although Zeff called the effect "sobering," it allowed him to concentrate on what he refers to as the apartment's architectural "icons": heavy moldings, generous baseboards, transom windows, oversize doors, and vintage brass hinges and crystal doorknobs, all now restored.
Zeff applauds to the project, which took a lot of debating, as the "best collaboration I've ever had with my wife." The couple did not have one disagreement-especially, Zeff says, after he agreed to renovate the kitchen and pantry as a "decent place to cook." The work also involved moving several rooms around. One wing of the apartment was altered completely. An eat-in pantry replaced a study; a small office became the kitchen.
Then came time to bring out the things-the many, many things-that Zeff has collected over years and years, around the globe. Born in South Africa, he studied industrial design in Johannesburg, then attended a British polytechnic to study furniture design, ending up in an architecture program at the Royal College of Art, London. "I chose England because of its superior design education programs," he says. After graduating, he visited Australia-and stayed for two years.
He came to New York in 1982 with only two suitcases and the intention of visiting for a couple of weeks. Instead, he spent a total of three years working first at the Walker Group, then at Robert Gerson Industrial Design, now defunct. He finally opened his own office in 1985. Almost two decades later, he employs a staff of 15 involved in branding in addition to architecture services. As Zeff puts it, "It took me a long time to get where I am today."
He could say the same thing about his apartment. After its numerous permutations, the high-ceilinged white rooms provide a background hospitable to the architect's wide diversity of objects. "Is it a coincidence that all the things I've collected over the last 20 years seem to be interesting to the design world at large?" he asks. Maybe.
In any case, he appears to love them all with a similar passion, from Fornasetti plates and 1950s Murano glass decanters in a hallway bookcase to the dining room's sideboard-full of antique silver knickknacks. In many of the rooms, he turned Moroccan carpets upside down to show a more subdued pattern. They might be partnered with an unusual early 19th-century Northern European blond-wood cabinet or a 1930s French stand for hats and umbrellas. Anchoring the dining room are a large copper-colored French mirror, which he bought on a trip to Fez, Morocco, and a pair of bronze sculptures depicting men on horseback in the throes of a battle. "They've always been with me," says Zeff. "I think they're really hilarious-they're so bad they're great."
To a certain extent, that comment defines his sure yet iconoclastic viewpoint. In the dining room, he mirrored the top of a 1928 Le Corbusier glass table to give it a 1940s French allure, then added eight of his own steel-framed chairs. He contrasts the black leather of a pair of Eileen Gray's Bibendum armchairs in the living room with the vanilla-hued brushed-cotton upholstery on a sofa he designed last year. Nor did he hesitate to position a pair of elegantly curvy 1950s Italianesque porcelain lamps in the vicinity of a gutsy patchwork rug in cowhide and a huge rusty sculpture in the shape of a giant fly-fishing fly.
The renovation also gave him the impetus to relocate many possessions to his new country house and put others away in closets. "Clean out, pare back, make space to breathe, keep the nicest pieces, and show them off." That's Zeff's mantra now. And he did find working within the old-world vernacular rather daunting. "The idea was to amplify the apartment's sense of history," he explains. "The combination of the big white spaces with all my things somehow makes me think of Last Tango in Paris." Maybe the self-avowed modernist is a romantic after all.
PROJECT MANAGER: DANIEL ESTES. DRAFTSMAN: IRVING YEE. CHAIRS, TAGRE (DINING ROOM), SOFA (LIVING ROOM), LAMP (STUDY), BED (MASTER BEDROOM), BED, BEDCOVER (GUEST ROOM): ZEFF DESIGN. CERAMIC LAMP (LIVING ROOM): THROUGH CHAMELEON ANTIQUE LIGHTING. ARMCHAIR (LIVING ROOM): THROUGH SOTHEBY'S. WOOD STOOL: DESIGN WITHIN REACH. THROW RUG (LIVING ROOM), BEDCOVER (MASTER BEDROOM): RUG COMPANY. RUG (DINING ROOM): EINSTEIN MOOMJY. FURNITURE IRONWORK: CASSON LESSARD. GLASSWORK: ZECCA MIRROR GLASS. PAINTING CONTRACTOR: BB PAINTING. GENERAL CONTRACTOR: FOUNTAINHEAD CONSTRUCTION.