How this Upper West Side apartment designer made his palette his punctuation.

Legendary interior designer Dorothy Draper once said that “[there] seems to be within all of us an innate yearning to be lifted momentarily out of our own lives into the realm of charm and make believe.” A brash, unapologetic applier of bold color at a time when subtlety was the keystone of interior conception (never mind that she was among the first women to even have a seat at the then- male-dominated construction business), Draper came to mind when we first saw the wonderfully-diverse color palette of this Upper West Side residence, designed by John Willey of Willey Design, Inc. Willey has designed projects both residential and commercial in the city and its surrounding areas, and is known for a playful and inventive mind.

The apartment is a home almost dream-like in its dovetailing among reds, greens, and browns (amidst other colors), and that diversity – with a judiciously modern furniture and arrangement sentiment – makes a not overly large space seem at once intimate and a part of its own landscape. We think Dorothy would have been proud.

What did the space consist of prior to design?

The apartment is in a new luxury residence building on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson River… a compelling view. As in most recent buildings, the space and finishes were top quality, but designed neutrally to appeal to everyone, though the downside is that you get a very blank white box, devoid of much character.

Was this your vision alone, or a collaboration with the clients?

These particular clients were the youngest I’ve renovated for: both professionals. In our early discussions, they described themselves as not being “fancy enough” for this sort of attention. Once they realized that my job is to solve architectural and design problems – providing function and personality to an interior – they were very hands-on and loved the process, though like many clients, they’re always amazed at the level of detail and complexity a renovation demands. Style-wise, she came with a few inspiration images, and my job was to interpret them, read between the lines, and provide approaches they hadn’t considered.

What was your vision for the space?

All of our projects are collaborations with each client, and every one is approached differently depending on their personality, but my clients come to me for polished, comfortable, relaxed glamour: provocative and playful with an edge.

Did the clients have any particular use for the space that needed to be addressed (business meetings, entertainment space, etc.)?

Well, they have two rambunctious dogs, so it had to both look good and be practical. They wanted a fun yet adult space they could kick back or entertain business colleagues in. At the time, the clients were anticipating the arrival of their son, so I designed the apartment to be both beautiful and child-friendly. Since then, I designed a very “un-nursery” nursery: modern cloud wallpaper, with strong reds and blues. It’s a nice departure from the expected: a room the son can grow into, not out of.

To what extent was budget a consideration?

Budget’s always a consideration… every client has a budget. The smaller projects can be quite rewarding, because I think of them as a game to see how much can be achieved within the financial allowances, though it’s considerably more work to do that… to find the right inexpensive lamp, for instance.

It’s a fascinating color palette; what inspired it?

I always respond very positively to color in many things, whether it’s interiors, fashion, or graphic design. I like to take unexpected color combinations and put them into the blender so that they’re not too “match-y.” To me, what creates interest and energy is one or two disparate elements or patterns in a room; this gives a more youthful approach by not being too fussy or overly anticipated – there’s far too much of that in every aspect of design, and a common affliction among designers is to marry themselves to too few color options. I prefer to create a subtle rhythm with color, so there’s a thread of continuity between rooms.

For this specific apartment, my clients were immediately drawn to the sumptuous red wallpaper I proposed in the TV area. I continued this color throughout many areas in the home, which gives bursts of energy throughout the space. As for the other colors, I wanted to combine happy, vibrant colors like citrus green, pale aqua, and some orange accents. It just works, though there’s no real philosophy behind it.

What prompted your choice of furniture?

Well, the husband is tall (6’4″), so the majority of furnishings were customized accordingly, from the extra-long sofas to the taller proportioned dining chairs. I didn’t want to get the phone call that it was a good-looking apartment, but he couldn’t enjoy sprawling on the sofa! I don’t really have a preferred furniture designer, most of the upholstery and case goods are custom-designed by my team or myself. In this case, I also commissioned some art, including a textural wall sculpture by Dan Schneiger, custom-colored to complement the palette. I found a wonderful TV credenza in striped ash and mahogany, and that began a unifying motif with stripes throughout: certain drapery trims and upholstery… an area rug. It’s subtle, but provides a sporty, effortless effect.

Did available window light play a factor in the design?

The apartment faces east and gets amazing morning light from its nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. The goal was to create a more open loft-like layout, so I removed the wall between the living room and family room, which was originally a separate area attached to the kitchen. Opening up these areas helped to greatly expand the space and bring in more light, but I wanted each room to have a separate identity; I created a division between the living room and dining room by using semi-transparent drapery, allowing the diffused light to shine through.

What was the biggest challenge in designing the space?

No major challenges, other than a very tight deadline! One always starts with the shell of the interior, and you can have the best décor, but if there are flaws or problems with the architecture, you can only disguise so much. The goal is to have the architecture serve the décor, and not the other way around. From a practicality standpoint, the clients were living in the space for a portion of the renovation, and that in itself is a stressor for me, as you want their lives as uninterrupted as possible. It takes a certain pioneering spirit when your brand-new apartment is being dismantled for the sake of improvement!


© 2011 Industry Magazine