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In the hallway, the camelback sofa is vintage, the 1940s lantern is French, and the cabinet is from Parma, Italy.
A good photograph is a powerful thing: It can transport you instantly from wherever you happen to be right now to, say, a sumptuous suite in the Plaza Hotel. But, having gotten you there, the picture’s potency abates. It cannot describe the way daylight moves through the rooms, for example, or the delightful feeling of spying an undulating expanse of treetops through a sequence of windows. It can barely differentiate between a ceiling that has been hand-finished in plaster and rubbed with wax, and one treated to a contractor’s quick skim coat. And an image is altogether incapable of expressing the sensual deliciousness of heavy Belgian linen curtains that fall like columns of molten ivory to the floor; of soft wool-silk rugs that pad your footsteps; of muscular leather, cool marble, and plush velvet.
Such distinctions matter when it comes to the fifth-floor apartment in the Plaza Hotel designed by Steven Gambrel for a European couple. Every surface has been meticulously considered to allow for greatest sensory impact, so that the satisfactions of walking through the completed space are due as much to a lyrical orchestration of textures and volumes as to the composition of visual elements. “Everything is very tactile,” says Gambrel. “Everything was meant to have a patina—worn, authentic, and mellow. This works terribly well with the outside of the building, and with the colors and the spirit of old Manhattan.”
The patinas Gambrel created for this residence are an homage to the history of the Plaza itself. Designed in French Renaissance–château style, the hotel opened to the public in October 1907, quickly becoming one of New York City’s toniest addresses—and, indeed, one of the most iconic hotels in the world. Alfred Vanderbilt, the railroad heir and celebrated sportsman, was the first guest to sign the register; he was followed, in due time, by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles on their first American tour, Ronald Reagan, and Michael Jackson. The ballroom has witnessed the comings-out of countless debutantes, as well as the inimitable black-and-white ball hosted by Truman Capote, and, of course, the entire hotel was the playground of a precocious six-year-old named Eloise.
Gambrel’s clients adored the building’s storied past, but they were not intimidated by it. “Coming from Europe, we are used to living with history,” says the wife. To her, an illustrious pedigree does not in and of itself confer greatness. “It isn’t something you can wear on your own shoulders,” she says, adding that she appreciates America’s more in-the-moment approach to merit.
In Gambrel, she found a designer well matched to this sensibility. His designs have a reputation for evoking earlier eras while remaining squarely attuned to the practicalities of the present. For this project, says Gambrel, “we were inspired by the idea that this luxe environment had aged in a regal way, so we approached it like a stage set, where you create a relic, but with a twist.” The result is a suitably sumptuous envelope in which modern-day life can unfold in a historic landmark. The wood wall panels and moldings were designed and fabricated piece by piece, hand-painted with multiple layers of glaze, worn and sanded on the edges to give them an aged appearance, and then waxed. And the library was constructed entirely of native oak in Oxford, England, then shipped over in pieces. “Although the apartment is brand new, it has an old spirit,” says Gambrel, “as if it has been there a long time, beautifully maintained, and has mellowed over the years.”
For the wife, her apartment speaks of a time when craftsmen used materials and techniques that “aged with grace,” she says—unlike now, when “they do things fast and cheap.”
The intentional mellowing also serves a quotidian purpose: It allows the apartment to feel simultaneously grand and approachable. Because it has a sense of being comfortable and broken-in, one walks in the door and immediately feels at home. “It feels real, like you can use it,” says Gambrel. “I’m not a big fan of luxury that seems so overly rich that you can’t live in it.”
He’s also not a fan of predictable gestures—which is why the hammered-leather wall panels in the bedroom, inspired by a Spanish chair, are done in an unusual chalky citron, the ecclesiastical-style table in the foyer supports a bronze American eagle, and the chunky 1940s oak dining table by French architect Jean-Charles Moreux is attended by vintage leather high-back chairs beside a huge contemporary pixelated portrait of Queen Elizabeth. “To me, surprise comes from something familiar used in an unexpected context,” he says. “You see things you may have seen before, but the way they’re used is very fresh.”
It all adds up to the perfect environment for old-world residents of this new-world city. “When you open the windows,” says the wife, “you can watch the taxis and smell the horses and even see the expressions on people’s faces.” For her and her husband, the apartment may be picture-postcard worthy, but the moment you walk through its doors, you can’t help but want to kick off your shoes and breathe in the irrepressible vitality of the city that surrounds you.
This article originally appeared in ELLE DECOR. Article by Celia Barbour. Photography by Eric Piasecki. Produced by Anita Sarsidi.