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 split the column into Part One (which ran last week) and Part Two (running today) 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 was 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.
A rendering of a French interior behind curtains “sets the stage” for the master bedroom.
The master bedroom palette of gray-blue, taupe and ivory is incorporated into the cotton prints designed for the bedroom. The prints were inspired by Howard’s collection of batiks and are divided into three different patterns: a large scale print on the walls, a stripe composed of a combination of borders and a small scale print for the dado. To give the prints an extra dimension Howard had the fabric embroidered by the workroom of Jean-Francois Lesage.
A Russian chair and desk stores stacks of hand-printed stationary behind its glass doors. “If it were buried in boxes in a draw or a closet, it would be a bother to get to,” says Howard.
Stacks of art and design books have been placed atop and tucked under a bench at the foot of the mahogany-and-brass Russian bed.
Art collected over the years hangs on the walls and at the foot of Howard’s exquisite mahogany-and-brass Russian bed.
Looking across the bed, landscape paintings hang upon the multi-patterned walls. The bed linens are Porthault’s faux-bois pattern; the cashmere blanket is from E. Braun and at the foot of the bed is a hand-crocheted mink throw made by Gilles Mendel.
A Louis XVI canapé is upholstered then hand-quilted in an emerald green silk-velvet from Le Manach. Draped over the back is a blanket made out an old sable coat by Gilles Mendel that belonged to Howard’s mother. The lampshades flanking the canapé are made out of a mid-1950s cellulose.
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.
Looking across the master bedroom.
Above the fireplace mantel is a mirror that slides aside to reveal the TV.
Even the furniture in the master bedroom has patterns on it. The Louis XIV fruitwood desk is inlaid with a wild assortment of scrolls and swirls.
In the master bedroom photographs of family and friends are everywhere ...
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.
Entering the dressing room. Howard carved the room out of existing space from other rooms in the apartment. In order to plan the room properly he taped out everything the room required on the lawn of his garden in the country.
For easy access, suits are hung on pullout rods that are two rows deep, so off-season clothes can go in the back.
The Russian mahogany-and-brass cheval mirror is both useful and handsome. Behind it, a door panel conceals a window that looks out at the apartment across the street.
Ties are displayed above a Regence commode. The walls and ceiling of the dressing room are covered in an assortment of real wood veneers, hand-painted trompe l’oeil areas and photocopies of veneers made on the office copier. “ I don’t care how I get the effect I am after – as long as I get it,” says Howard.
Lightweight striped voile curtains serve as a dust cover for the shoe collection.
Folded shirts are displayed on open built-in shelving.
Coins, foulards and other various sundries are stored in bowls and open baskets.
A coat closet lined with wallpaper from Gracie stores and some of Howard’s blanc de chine porcelain objects.
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 master bath the vanity made by Tony Victoria is forty inches tall so “I don’t have to bend over to wash my face,’ says Howard. The side panels open to reveal medicine cabinets. A shelf above the vanity holds family photos that make Howard “smile in the morning.”
A pair of hurricane lamps, a miniature chair and more family photos are displayed near the master bath window.
Small watercolors of interior spaces hang near a 19th century Dutch cabinet from the Luton Hoo estate in England.
In order to make the room as utilitarian and as suitable as possible, Howard installed a urinal in the master bath.
A recessed TV can be viewed from the shower.
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.
Looking into the kitchen from the gallery. The wood floor, the tiles on the walls and ceiling, and even the armoire were all newly made for this room. Howard says, “Not for me the conventional antiseptic kitchen with white cabinets, white marble countertops, white subway tile.”
The cabinets are painted forest green and stenciled several shades of gold and black by Stuart-Creal Studio.
“One can never have enough bookshelves in a room and that includes the kitchen,” says Howard. Painted Delft-style tiles by Sasha Solodukho covered not only the walls and ceiling but are inset into the door casings and even the grills in front of the air conditioning and heating units.
When planning the kitchen Howard decided that the two-step-triangle layout works best: the sink, range, and refrigerator should be no more than two steps from one another.
A dedicated flower room is off the main kitchen. The counters are teak and the stainless-steel sink is twenty-six inches deep to accommodate flower vases and big tin buckets for conditioning the flowers that Howard brings in from his garden in the country.
Everything has its place.
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.
For quick reference, kitchen closet doors are filled with photographs of table settings and flower arrangements from dinner parties and celebrations over the years.
Bed linens are stored in the laundry room. Each ensemble is tied with a ribbon, to prevent pieces from being mislaid.
Assorted table linens are organized in glass-fronted drawers where they can be easily seen and selected for table settings.
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.
The elevator vestibule connects with the back hall leading to the guest suite, screening room and candle room.
In the back hall, Howard transformed a narrow, dark space into an interesting amber-hued backdrop for his collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. (Howard’s housekeeper uses a hairdryer to blow dust off the pieces.) Each of the hexagonal panels in the mahogany doors has an ebony border that is set with hardstone from the Urals. The center of the panels is veneered in old tortoiseshell found at a workroom in Paris.
Howard replaced the clear glass in the 19th century tole-painted lanterns French with amber-colored restoration glass.
The walls of the back hallway are alternatively covered with antique paper and bark paper that were stenciled to be more harmonious with the pattern of the embossed paper panels from Paris.
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.
18th century Chinese wallpaper was the inspiration for Howard’s guest suite. “As soon as I came upon a few panels of the wallpaper, I knew I wanted to create a room in which my guests would feel that they were spending the night in a magical garden,” says Howard.
A 19th century French painted-iron table is filled with a collection of porcelain fruit and vegetable forms and fabric flowers made by artist Carmen Almon.
The French Empire steel and gilt-bronze ‘Lit a la Polonaise’ has a canopy of Indian printed printed-voile scarves.
A hand-painted Chinese coverlet, made for the French market in the 18th century, covers the dressing table and echoes the paint in the flowers that are embroidered on the under-curtains.
At the foot of the bed Howard placed a Louis XV painted bench that came with a marble top, convenient for placing books, a plant and more objects.
The walls of the guest bath have a marmorino finish, which entails mixing the paint into plaster and then applying it with great care. This was expertly executed by Stuart-Creal studio. The Chinoiserie-style lantern that was refitted with amber restoration glass and is suspended from a silk rosetteand tassel from Scalamandre.
The guest bath basin is a carved marble Indian birdbath, found at a flea market outside Paris. The hardware was custom made by P.E. Guerin.
The bathtub alcove is lined with colored old marble from a hotel that was being torn down.
Peeking into the guest room from the bath.
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.
The screening room, which Howard now admits that he never uses for anything but “talking with friends”, is an exotic amalgam of various Eastern influences and Howard’s own orientalist fantasy. Patterned walls, antique textiles and supremely confortable seating help achieve this end, as does candlelight.
The walls of the screening room are actually printed cotton bedspreads, which Howard had tea-stained and hung on the reverse side. To add interest and fill in wall areas he added Le Manach printed cotton as a border.
As the screening room is used after dinner (and sometimes for dinner), The grog table beneath the portraits holds liqueurs and port.
The dado of the screening room (seen behind another stunning arrangement by artist Carmen Almon) has been painted in colors taken from the Indian cotton fabric used on the walls.
A comfortable and inviting chair stands in front of a Russian bookcase that holds art books. Nearby, triangular Chinese lacquer tables are stacked for convenience.
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.
Looking across the screening room. Lighting comes from several sources: wall sconces and floor lamps as well as a chandelier and of course, lots of candlelight.
One of Howard’s reasons for the design of the screening room was to create a welcome setting for an array of things he has collected over the years such as the shells, Chinese porcelain and Russian candelabra seen here on a Louis XVI gilt-wood console.
The miniature pieces of furniture flanking the Louis XV ‘Cartonnier’ are 18th century Anglo-Indian, ivory-veneered, from Vizakhapatnam.
Some favorite objects are displayed on a marble top table near the screening room windows. Howard designed unusually deep window reveals to allow for space for the Imari urns and to accommodate hidden lighting.
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.