Cherchez La Femme
When Agence Andrée Putman designs a duplex for a Brussels heiress, it's clear that women rule
Judy Fayard -- Interior Design, 10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
"It's like a helicopter taking off in the living room," Olivia Putman says, laughing as she describes the white spiral staircase at the core of a Brussels apartment completely transformed by Agence Andrée Putman, the firm headed by her mother. The 8,600-square-foot duplex comprises the top two stories of a building from the early 20th century, plus a semi-enclosed roof terrace, and all three levels are connected by the swirling white-painted staircase—a compact, contemporary take on the Renaissance double helix found in such French châteaus as Chambord and La Rochefoucauld. The apartment's sleek and slender version, actually a single helix, features a distinctive handrail of dark wengé wrapped by a delicate ribbon of stainless steel.
The renovation, begun four years ago, was subject to multiple stops and starts because of permit problems and the extensive structural work needed to support a new swimming pool on the roof terrace. Olivia Putman, a landscaping specialist who used to have her own namesake firm, was initially called in to consult on the terrace and later joined the family firm as artistic director. The client, a young woman with definite tastes and a penchant for contemporary art and design, made certain stipulations regarding the pool and a number of other essentials. But she was also "very open to new ideas, very ready to consider anything," Olivia Putman says. "The original apartment was somber. It felt small and enclosed, so the first thing we did was bring in the light." With the interior gutted and entirely restructured, large windows and portholes are now everywhere, and the walls are a warm off-white.
On the upper level are the entrance and, on the street-front side of the floor plate, the living and dining areas and the library sharing one long, open space. The kitchen, naturally off the dining area, also has seating at the end of the central island's glossy white counter. Perched on one of the stools, you face a wall of chiseled gray granite reminiscent of Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals spa in Switzerland.
The upper level's final amenity, right by the front door, is a mini spa with a massage cabin, a hammam, and a shower. Almost directly overhead is the swimming pool, protected from Belgium's chilly winters by a glass barrel vault. In a whimsical touch, an artist was commissioned to etch a pattern of stylized fish into the west-facing end wall of translucent glass. As the setting sun shines through the etching's clear lines, the fish shapes are more and more clearly projected into the pool, as if they were swimming underwater.
On the apartment's lower level, the open-plan master suite occupies the entire rear side of the space, with a long central dressing area between the bed in one corner and the large bathroom in the other. (The suite's smaller bathroom and secondary bedroom are off to the side.) In place of a four-poster, there's an inset ceiling track above the bed, so white organdy curtains can be drawn around. A separate guest room and bath, along with a study, compose the rest of the plan.
Most of the apartment is fitted with built-in cabinetry and furnished with handsome custom pieces. The latter include curved sofas, silk-upholstered armchairs, and a splendid pair of dressers that a Vietnamese artisan in Paris lacquered white with bands of dappled gray eggshell lacquer. Overall, the palette leans to subdued shades of gray, beige, ivory, and brown. One high note, in Andrée Putman's signature black-and-white: a customized limited-edition baby grand piano with a checkerboard music stand and starry constellations inside the lid.
Bright splashes of color are provided by furniture and decorative objects by top modern and contemporary designers. Among the more notable pieces is Martin Szekely's wengé dining table, paired with his chairs covered in suede printed to look like elephant hide. Eero Aarnio's Ball chair is vintage, while the Eileen Gray mirror was reproduced by Putman's former company, Ecart International. Garouste & Bonetti's white ceramic geisha floor lamps sport splotches of gold. And an Alessandro Mendini table lamp is completely covered in gold-leafed glass mosaic tile, shade and all.
Probably the most important decorative element in the apartment is the cylindrical chandelier that spirals 13 feet down from the vaulted ceiling of the living area, echoing the helix staircase nearby. The chandelier's 1,905 giant rectangular crystals are lit from the top and bottom by LEDs, which change colors from a rich blue to a warm or cool white controlled by a computer program. Suspended from the very bottom tip, a droplet molded in English silver is engraved with the words "Love, Andrée Putman."
Photography by Eric Laignel.
FROM FRONT BISAZZA: LAMP TILE (HALL). SWAROVSKI: CHANDELIER CRYSTALS (LIVING AREA). PLEYEL: CUSTOM PIANO. TECTA: PENDANT FIXTURE (DINING AREA). MARTIN SZEKELY: CHAIRS, TABLE (DINING AREA), PEDESTALS (DINING AREA, KITCHEN). LIGHTYEARS: PENDANT FIXTURES (KITCHEN). SCHOTT: CUSTOM CABINETS.