What to say of a single apartment so lavishly decorated that its rooms and their contents fill the pages of an entire book? “Fifth Avenue Style” (Vendome Press) by the designer Howard Slatkin was published in part because of the pressure Howard’s late mother put on the reticent designer to make a record of at least one of his projects: his own New York apartment on what he calls “upper, upper, upper Fifth Avenue.” Creating the book was, he says “a whole new ordeal”.
For the HOUSE column the apartment was, in its exquisite excess, somewhat overwhelming—and we’ve seen a fair few apartments. We were, however, fortified by tea and perfect little cucumber sandwiches served by a white-jacketed butler. In order to properly give the space its due, we’re splitting the column into Part One and Part Two (to be run next Friday) because if we don’t, you’ll come away dizzied from it all—we certainly were.
We know that you mainly spend your time in New Jersey but I guess this was the only Manhattan apartment that met your needs …
I told my broker that this is what I would like: a “handyman special”, a real wreck that I could not hesitate to gut. It would have to be on upper, upper, upper 5th Avenue because I don’t come here often so it would be easier to come off the George Washington Bridge. Where I was before, in the 60s, it would always take an extra 40 minutes to get here. Between 83rd and 84th can take between 10 and 15 minutes.
Yes—I really thought it out. You know, what would induce me to spend more time here? That didn’t really work out but it is easier to get here now.
In the elevator vestibule, a Venetian mirror greets guests when they step off the elevator. A group of Chinese Blanc de Chine porcelain figures stand on small brackets mounted on gilt-decorated black lacquer panels. To illuminate the figures and ensure that the bulbs do not disturb the eye all of the brackets have a bulb concealed behind a gold metal-painted visor.
To complete the jewel-box quality of the vestibule, Howard designed a handmade inlaid floor that was inspired by Empress Maria Feodorovna's bedroom at Pavlovsk outside St. Petersburg. The floor was made by Alexander (Sasha) Solodukho and his team of craftsmen.
Howard's point of departure in the gallery was a series of early 19th century French scenic wallpaper panels that he espied at Mme. Gintzburger, a dealer in Paris. After much agonizing, and the urging of his mother, he decided to splurge and buy them.
In the gallery, a Louis XV clock is flanked by a pair of narwhal tusks.
To avoid reducing the height of the wallpaper panels Howard had the chair rail of the gallery placed unusually low. Candlelight and low-wattage bulbs in the sconces create a dusk-like ambience in the gallery.
A Russian rusted and patinated tole chandelier is suspended from a four-loop taffeta bow. To draw the eye upwards, the ceiling is ornamented with plaster rosettes surrounded by raised plaster squares.
An 'arrangement' of handmade tole prunus branches by artist, Carmon Almon are displayed atop the porphyry center table.
Howard immediately knew he wanted limestone floors. They would provide a low contrast to the gallery wallpaper panel as well as continue the color scheme and the feeling of being outdoors.
Looking across the gallery into the library. A box of caramels from Fouquet's inspired the palette of the room, including the mahogany doors.
Let me ask you, what is your definition of “Fifth Avenue Style”?
Um … oh gosh … that’s a very hard question to answer. And I’ve never been asked that before, so good for you for asking it. I will say that I don’t love the title [of his book, “Fifth Avenue Style”] … it was the choice of the publisher, who I love. One of [my titles] was “Imperfect Apartment” because in the book I talk about what I did wrong and what I would do differently today. It seemed all the other titles for the foreign market, which was a big market as it turned out, they need a title that immediately defines what it is.
So what is it that makes you uncomfortable with the title?
I think it’s pompous.
The library, while not a room that has any bookcases, is where Howard escapes to read and therefore, purposely kept it small, dark and comforting. In this corner, an assortment of 17th-to-19th century turned-ivory objects is displayed on a Louis XIV bureau Mazarin beneath a cartel clock of the same period.
Howard has two seasonal schemes for the room. During the warmer months (shown here) he chooses to cover the furniture in oatmeal linen, made from 18th-century bed sheets.
Peeking into the gallery from the library.
To create architectural interest in what was an 'ordinary room' Howard added gilt-wood Louis XIV-style pilasters (inset with patinated mirror) and incorporated horizontal and vertical strapwork into the leather wall covering.
The Louis XVI commode by Jean-Francois Leleu is topped with an array of objects, including a pair of bronze and gilt-bronze andirons.
Leather bound antique books are stored behind the glass doors of this stunning marble top cabinet.
Atop an 18th-century Ausburg ebony, brass and tortoiseshell bureau is an assortment of Ausburg rock crystal candlesticks and silver-gilt vessels.
To the left of the Ausburg bureau, a jib door with two drawings conceals the library's wet bar.
How would you describe this particular style yourself then?
You know I’ve always been so very private. This has been a whole new ordeal—which I think is maybe what my mother had in mind. The last thing she could do, that was within her power—and she was the best mother possible—was, okay: “I want to see what you’ve done recorded because you’re too reticent.” So what I’ve learned since the book came out is how people define it; I’ve viewed it through others. Some people say they love it because it’s so understated and so simple.
I find that very hard to believe!
I know I have very nice things, and I’m very blessed but there are people who have things that are in a whole different category, museum quality pieces. So for those friends and clients, they’re seeing it through their filter. And then there are other people who look at it and think it’s so grand, I couldn’t sit on the furniture. It is all where that person is coming from and it has nothing to do with me.
Looking across the library. The embossed leather walls are based on a pattern Howard had seen in a French chateau. The dado and doors incorporate antique Chinese lacquer panels incorporating beasts.
The coffee and side tables are filled with boxes and other objects Howard has collected over the years
"I wanted the library to be a repository for a catholic assortment of stuff I have accumulated over the years," says Howard.
The mahogany door to the power room is embellished with Japanese lacquer panels inset in gilt-wood, which are bordered with patinated mirrors.
The walls of the powder room are covered in thin veneers of marble, inspired by a favorite room at Schloss Favorite in Baden-Baden. The ceiling pendant, a "birdcage" of sorts, is made of glass rods and outfitted with hidden bulbs by David Klein.
A quatrefoil mirror is inset into a marble panel over the sink. The shelf displays perfume bottles and 18th-century Belgian pottery.
The walls of the powder room display Howard's collection of portrait miniatures.
A lot of people call it “ a little palace”.
Yes, I see that and my reaction is: “What palaces have they been to?” [laughs]
It is not as overpowering as I thought it was going to be …
I’m glad you say that because other people say that you couldn’t fit a person into the apartment because it’s so cluttered. It is cluttered and it is full of stuff … yet others say it’s spacious.
Well, as you say, people see it through their own filters … but we’re interested in your filter. How is your home in New Jersey different to this apartment?
Oh, it’s much more casual, much more lived in. I was born and raised on the same street where I live. My entire life’s journey has been three houses!
In the gallery, a Louis XVI canapé is covered in five different geometric patterns designed by Howard, each hand-embroidered on horsehair.
Peeking into the living room from the gallery.
In the living room an Impressionist painting of a view of Vernonnet with the Seine in the background hangs above a table filled with flora and fauna. "I like to think that the porcelain and tole flowering plants, as well as the Chinese export deer and hounds have tumbled into the living room," says Howard.
Winnie, Howard's adorable Norfolk terrier, sits next to a fellow friend. The living room floors are 18th century oak parquet de Versailles that Howard had installed upside down and glazed in a weather-beaten finish he had noticed at Versailles years ago.
I know you’ve had a lot of reaction to the book. Is that because there is kind of fantasy in this apartment? Why do you think people have had the reactions they have had?
Yes, I get marriage proposals … and it certainly isn’t because of my picture on the cover!
You are very private—there’s nothing much about you on the Internet.
I’ve never sought the limelight and I’ve never needed it. I like doing my work and I like leading my little life. I’m not very social and all of that.
The first glimpse of Central Park upon entering the living room from the gallery. Atop a parchment covered table by Jean-Michel Frank and under glass is Jean-Antoine Houdon's plaster study of Voltaire.
A standing easel displays some favorite works of art. It stands in front of a Louis XIV ebony armoire that is lined in black linen velvet. The fabric works as a backdrop for Howard's collection of Limoges enamels, 18th century bindings and Renaissance-style jewels, many of which were gifts from his mother.
Howard designed the living room to accommodate several seating areas, not just for variety but because, he says, "It's nice for guests to sit in small, intimate groups, or even with just one other person."
The canapé is covered in 18th century horsehair from Drouot in Paris; the tub chairs in a hand-painted fabric, and the French chair is upholstered in needlework in a branch design inspired by a Matisse drawing belonging to Howard.
Looking across the living room. The room, which Howard refers to as his "bowling alley", was originally on the small side. To create a larger space full of light, he combined the original living space with an adjoining sitting room.
The southern end of Howard's living room seats ten people. Howard placed a picture of the Seine between living room windows to echo the distant view of the Central Park reservoir.
A whimsical Russian Empire chair is covered in an embroidery by Jean-Francois Lesage. The design was inspired by a Klimt drawing.
The sofa, designed by Howard, is covered in cashmere with the arms in a matching plum-mauve colored suede and the back panel in a sheared mink. The designs on the pillows were inspired by patterns found on Japanese lacquer boxes.
An assortment of Russian steel objects, made in Tula, is displayed on a Louis XVI gilt-bronze console.
Are you shy?
Maybe you could tell me if you think I’m shy. I don’t think not wanting your name in the papers or the magazines necessarily means you’re shy. I don’t feel private. It’s just that I’m living a life that is not recorded. And it’s helped my career because the clients I have had I think greatly love that I understand privacy.
Privacy is commodity now—we sell it off in pieces to the marketing machine.
I really think the last luxury, the greatest luxury, now is that you can be private.
Tell us about your early days as a designer. Did you train?
No! In fact I was a designer for two years before I knew there was a D&D building. Mrs. Parish told me about it. I had always been interested [in the field] and my mother said the light bulb went off in her head when I was ten and we were in the Victoria and Albert Museum—she saw how excited I was looking at all the furniture in there. That’s what makes me think it’s just DNA and part of your genetic makeup. Mrs. Parish wanted to hire me early on. I was working in New Jersey back then.
A trio of pottery tulip bouquets in ceramic baskets by Claire Potter adorns a Louis XVI gilt-bronze console.
An ancient fragment stands on a south facing windowsill in the living room.
A haunting mask by artist, Robert Courtright stands atop a Russian bronze table.
The contemporary-looking black porcelain vases displayed upon the living room fireplace mantel are actually 18th century Chinese "miroir noir" made for the French market. The vases are interspersed with fresh plants that Howard likes to bring from the garden of his country home.
Peeking through the living room doors into the gallery.
Fireplace wood at-the-ready.
A Louis XVI wall clock from Hubert de Givenchy's collection (and before that, The Hotel Lambert) hangs above the drink table.
So you went the long way around …
Totally! But it also made me. It taught me to be very resourceful.
I remember you had a store as well.
You’re absolutely right. And you know I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in omens but I promise you that on the day we opened, the first person to walk in was Mrs. Onassis. Oh God, I could hardly talk!
Did she buy anything?
Yes she did. She bought a whole bunch of pillows for her son and her daughter. And that was the start of a lovely business relationship.
Looking across the living room towards the mirrored doors leading to the dining room.
A living room niche was formed when Howard combined the original living room and sitting room into one. It is home to a banquette that runs its full-length and a porcelain aviary. The Chinese export birds are perched atop gilt-wood brackets fitted with recessed lighting.
A Meissen parrot, modeled by Johann Joachim Kandler, sits atop a Louis XVI console with a Bleu Turquin marble top.
Howard covered the banquette in the living room niche with silk velvet from Le Manach. The ornamental trim on the hem and the cushions is in fact trompe l'oeil, embroidered right on the velvet by the workshop of Jean-Francois Lesage.
Album's made by Howard's niece, Ali, are arranged atop a Savonnerie-covered bench.
And your candle business—that became an enormous success, didn’t it?
I started doing that in my mother’s kitchen, making them all by hand. The reason I started doing it was to create a special scented candle for each client that I had. But you know, at 3 a.m. in the morning, when I was trying to get the wicks into the wax, I just thought to myself, there has to be a better way! [Eventually] my brother and my sister-in-law came on board …
You spend most of your time in New Jersey, as you say. What do you make of the way that people laugh at New Jersey and New Jersey style?
I think it’s lovely that people’s connotation of New Jersey worldwide is from television … the New Jersey Housewives, the Sopranos ... the Jersey Shore. They don’t think of the Essex Hunt, the gardens, the horses … and that’s just fine. For me I think that anything that keeps people away …
What’s the best of New Jersey for you?
My roots. It’s my home. I still take my shoes to be repaired to the same man and he remembers my late father who died when I was 15.
Looking into a corner of the dining room. Howard found the pair of Italian 18th century console tables in Paris and they were "miraculously, the perfect height and color for the room." Each holds Chinese export porcelain birds and a French candelabrum with a funny gilt-bronze pineapple plopped right in the middle.
A ceiling pendant is the same model as the lanterns in the dining room at Pavlovsk, a palace outside of St. Petersburg. The dining room table is arranged with fruit and flowers made out of tole by artist Carmen Almon.
Howard's points of departure for the dining room were Raphael's Loggia at the Vatican and a French Empire Savonnerie in a color combination and neoclassical design he felt was "just right" for the décor he had in mind.
What kind of projects are you working on at the moment?
Well one of them is an apartment on the [Park] Avenue and it’s being done in a sort of 19th century Balzac style, which is fun. And there’s a country house on Long Island, which is being done in a very cool palette and there’s an apartment in Monaco …
What would you do to make a Balzac room?
You know it was the first time in the 19th century where comfort at home of prime importance, that sort of deep, seductive comfort as opposed to the formality of the Empire period. They used cottons, velvet and needlework. For this particular place, they had a lot of serious contemporary art and now they just find it so cold and gallery-like. So we’re going the opposite.
Howard decided the dining room would be a convenient to display his vast book collection of the decorative arts. There was ample space to build bookcases and to place a large table upon which to spread out books. The colored spines provide another level of décor to work with the paint colors and other decorative elements.
The antique glass of the Louis XVI verre-égolmisé (gilded glass) and gilt wood screen reflects Howard's many candlelight dinners.
The dining room hand-painted panels, all done by Sasha Solodukho and his team, were executed on foam core. The man-made material has the advantage of not shrinking or sliding down behind the glass that covers them.
A Louis VXI console is inset with Sèvres Porcelain plaques painted with fruit, continuing the motifs painted on the wall panels and ceiling. Arranged upon the console is an assortment of Chinese export porcelain.
In the right corner, a Florentine Renaissance portrait hangs atop a panel that was originally another window. "I covered the window because it was off center and would have upset the balance of the room," says Howard.
So did you read lots of Balzac to get your ideas for this apartment?
I love Balzac. I get more inspiration for rooms from writers than anywhere else, particularly Tolstoy. That’s my source because your mind fills in the blanks … you read, “She just jostled the arm and the wine spilled on the silk …” so you’re imagining the damask … you just start visualizing the rooms and the lives lived in those rooms.
Yes, I wish shelter magazines had more people in the rooms. Martha Stewart used to always have people in the rooms when she did an interiors issue of her magazine.
She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Just think about it. She’s made an empire out of home keeping. She’s made it respectable; she’s made it honorable; she’s made it interesting and in a post-feminist world, it was a four-letter word. When I was in college, it was just heresy to say that you like knitting or say that you liked to do laundry! I think she’s been the greatest influence on interior design in our lifetime.
Light streams into the dining rooms from the apartment's Fifth Avenue windows.
Large tole plants by Carmen Almon contribute to the ambiance of dining in a countryside pavilion.
Mirrors inset into the windowsill recesses reflect the light and views of Central Park.
Yes, you’re right. And look at these little sandwiches you’re serving us. Martha would love them. My mother still serves these at tea time … but she lives in Africa.
I love the concept of the tea at 4:30 pm! But you say to an American, come over for tea and they just stare at you and say, “Do you mean cocktails?”
Oh dear … I’m eating this sandwich and now Winnie [Howard’s terrier] has drooled all down your jeans and they’re so perfect …
Oh, she can drool anywhere she wants. She’s my little doll.