NYSD House

Karl Kipfmueller

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


There are lots of naked men in Karl Kipfmueller’s Clinton Hill townhouse—really good ones, painted, sculpted and sketched. He studied art and design at Pratt Institute nearby but he is also one of the go-to furniture restorers for many of the top decorators in New York. The one discipline informs the other as he re-finishes furniture with an artistic sensibility that guarantees the piece will never look over-restored. He answered our questions with gossipy stories, gossipy without malice that is, which always makes for a fun interview. He was one of Brooklyn’s early settlers, never imagining that his house would become an example of the much-desired types of real estate that have boomed due to the Great Brooklyn Shift—it’s not real estate though, it’s a home.

I was looking at something online about you and you said that after the 2008 crash, things were slow and you had less high-end work, but since then Brooklyn, including Clinton Hill itself, has become full of posh people and celebrities – are they supplying you with work?

I do a lot of work for neighbors—it’s never the great stuff but it’s like the social service aspect of what I do. But I’ve never done a shagreen coffee table for anyone that lives in Brooklyn.
The facade of Karl and Dan's 1861 Clinton Hill house.
[Sian] Well I have one … and I live on the Upper East Side!

You know with shagreen and parchment, there’s always, like, a steady market in them. I mean, nobody comes up with that without their decorator.

A lot of people don’t even know what shagreen is, I don’t think.

A lot of people think it’s sharkskin – it’s sting ray.
The dining room is filled with a mix of furniture, much of it purchased at junk stores or flea markets and then transformed by Karl in his workshop. The walls are in Farrow & Ball Etruscan Red and the ceiling is in Chinese Blue. The mirror over the fireplace is oak and shagreen with a reverse gilded glass from the Workshop.
Above a vintage cabinet by David Stypmann are hung, prints and photographs by David Sokosh, Louise Dahl Wolfe, Norman Parkinson as well drawings by Karl and Ryan Robinson.
Hand blown glass pumpkins by Karl's niece Hayley Theisen are mixed with fall squashes to create a colorful centerpiece atop the dining table. The 19th-century chandelier is Italian.
A drawing by Aleksandar Duravcevic hangs behind a pair of American Empire chairs in a corner of the dining room.
Silver ice buckets and a pitcher upon a 19th-century mahogany English table.
Light from the oversized windows fills the dining room. The chest is covered with a salvaged embossed leather wall covering from England. A small serving table with a parchment tray holds a group of silver pitchers. The ceramic wall pieces are by Kelly Driscoll. The bust is by Karl.
When you tell people that, do they get “environmental” on you?

Um … I say it’s raised, you know. The other thing is that because of the weird transitional thing that’s happened in the neighborhood here, I opened up my shop here in 2001. It’s right down the street, it’s a little storefront—it looks like a dump. The only businesses on the street then were the dollar store and the dealers on the corner and we all got along fine. Now it’s Choice Bakery and fancy restaurants --it’s a totally different world now. Anyway, my doors at the shop are open and a couple of years ago I was covering wall panels in zebra and this woman came by and she had like, her four-year-old son with her. So I’ve got these huge panels and I’m laying down these skins and it’s really beautiful. And she just was like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this. It’s horrible.” And I said, “Well, they’re ranch bred and you’ve got a leather belt on. And it’s what I do for a living.” I’d been cutting up the skins and there was a pile of tails in the corner—and her son, you can see, was, like, completely fixated on these tails. You know she looks at me and she looks at her son. I mean she wasn’t going to say no! Five minutes later she was walking down the street with her four-year-old son carrying a zebra tail. I was like, you know? I am not going to be the bad guy in this!

[Lesley] Well, I grew up in Africa and I was perhaps too used to seeing all that stuff in the tourist shops. But people have pony skin shoes and so on … it’s hard to say that there’s a difference.

Exactly! I have had pushback on parchment a couple of times because [lowers his voice to a whisper] it’s a goat, or a sheep.
Peeking in the living room. A pair of English club chairs faces a 'Barcelona Coffee Table' by Mies van der Rohe. The 1950s Italian chandelier was purchased at South Portland Antiques and the round table and lamp are from junk shops.
A photo by Herb Ritts hangs above a German clock that belonged to Karl's parents.
A painting and a cabinet, both by Karl fill a space next to the marble fireplace mantel. The child's bust on the fireplace is a 19th-century Grand Tour souvenir that is a copy of a Desiderio da Settignano sculpture that is now in the National Gallery in Washington.
A chaise lounge, a street find, was recovered in fabric from Silk Surplus. The painting on the bookcase is by Bob Goldstrom.
Living room bookshelves are filled with an array of art and furniture books.
Karl's paintings surround a parchment cabinet by his Grand Avenue Workshop.
Looking out to the foyer and dining room. The wing chair belonged to Karl's grandmother.
Karl and his partner Dan Myers converted a separate ground-floor apartment into a downstairs kitchen in 2009. The stainless steel countertops, as well as the cabinets, are by Galesi Design; the cabinet hardware is from Whitechapel. On the far wall is a Warhol wallpaper fragment that was originally part of a roll that was a gift. Its twin is at the other end of the kitchen.
The Wolf stove came with the house.
That’s interesting because I think a lot of people think parchment is paper.

I don’t do construction in my shop and there’s like a commune group of builders in the neighborhood that work out of a garage—you know they all look like they’re from Seattle—they’ve all got tattoos and beards and they wear plaid shirts and they’re all really, really nice. I do a lot of finishing projects for them. One of them came in one day and needed a parchment door done. I pulled out one of the skins and he was like, “I didn’t realize it was an animal!” He was like, “Um … I’m a vegan!” Well, I just said, “I’m sorry … I don’t know what to tell ya! You’re committed to the job!”

How did you get into this particular line of work? You’re a painter, as well, aren’t you?
 
When I was a grad student at Pratt, I started working for a restoration shop called Antique Furniture Workroom. I can match color really fast and I learned about furniture in a really weird way—I built my sister a dollhouse when I was in high school. And my parents had a friend who got Antiques magazine, which to me was like the most exotic thing in the world … I mean it was Michigan. Anyway, when I was working at the restoration shop, it was sort of the height of the 80s, everybody’s apartment on Park Avenue looked like something out of “Brideshead Revisited” and I swear to God, everybody’s poodles were eating the legs off of their 18th century French chairs. I did nothing but restore 18th century chair legs chewed by poodles for a year.
An Anglo-Indian glass globe fixture hangs near the townhouse's main entrance.
Peeking into the master bedroom. The painting to the right of the door is by Karl.
Karl covered the cracked plaster walls of his bedroom by washing them in a raw umber paint then applying a coat of wax. The bed is custom. The ceiling gilded border was replicated from a scene in "Wings of the Dove".
An early 20th-century rocking chair stands near a chest of drawers that Karl found on the street and wrapped in leather at his Grand Avenue workshop. The oak-and-cherry floor is original.
A pastel by Karl hangs above a small stool from Grand Avenue Workshop that is an adaptation of a bench by Jean Michel Frank.
A clock that belonged to Karl's grandmother stands near a photograph by Judy Hansen and a toy cable car. The fireplace is original.
Lush back garden views from Karl and Dan's bedroom.
Looking across Karl and Dan's bed toward the staircase landing. The pillow fabric is from a Donghia sample sale.
What did the dollhouse look like?

One of my nieces still has it. I didn’t know anything about this kind of stuff so it was pretty crude but the interiors became more and more sophisticated. Like there was a dining room and I bought balsa wood and I carved bricks. There was slate floor that I made out of real slate. So it was this crude structure with these frighteningly sophisticated interiors!

And you said you when you paint, you like painting naked men? Why?

Robert Mapplethorpe’s show ... it made me completely re-think what could and couldn’t be art. I was still at school and I started doing these large scale of sections of men. There was this group of sort of radical feminist students at Pratt who really didn’t like what I was doing. We used to call them “The School of Flying Vaginas” because they all painted these big abstract paintings with like, ovid forms flying through them. And it wasn’t just the guys calling them that either. Anyway, their whole argument was: “You’re painting men the way that men have painted women for hundreds and hundreds of years.” I was like: “Exactly!! You got it!!”
Karl hand-stenciled the fleur-de-lis pattern on the walls of his bedroom hallway inspired by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The 19th-century American armoire is out of mahogany.
Karl added a wall of built-ins for additional storage space in the study/dressing room. The painting is by Karl and the chair and ottoman came from the now defunct Ochre that was once on Thompson Street. It is covered in a violet-colored velvet from the former Silk Trading Company.
A series of pastels by artist Kelly Saxton hangs above Dan's desk in the study/dressing room.
Karl painted a bold geometric pattern on the walls and floor of the master bath. It reminds him of Siena.
The main staircase. The walls were hand painted by Dan in a Pratt and Lambert brown and the series of prints, images of teeth, are by Aleksandar Duravcevic.
Well, it is interesting, a man objectifying another man. You didn’t paint naked men for the nuns at your Catholic school?

No, I wasn’t really thinking of it then. But the nuns would have been great about it.

When you say you can match color, do you mean wood stains and subtle wood finishes?

Yeah. If you had to carve the leg of a chair, I could match it. And I was trained by old Italian guys, basically, who never wanted anything to look re-finished. Like the whole point was that it should not look like this has happened. You know I’ve got this really small crew of decorators I do a lot of work for and a lot of people who spend a lot of money to have something re-finished want it to look bright, shiny and new—and I am not that guy.
The top floor landing: Karl's oil of a male nude hangs above a vintage willow chair that belonged to Dan's great aunt. The metal wall piece was a roofing section from an abandoned building that reminds Karl of a Brancusi.
Karl's top floor painting and sculpture studio.
Works in the studio.
Clearly, his focus is on the male nude. " I am interested in the traditional concepts of beauty as applied to the male object instead of the female,"says Karl.
The landscape is the courtyard from Santa Croce in Florence outside of the Pazzi Chapel.
Palette covered in oil paint.
Supplies including oil paints, varnish, and stand oil.
A study after Velazquez.
More works in the studio showing drawings, pastels and paintings.
Karl studied sculpture at the New York Academy as a way to learn about anatomy.
The guest bath door is inset with vintage stained glass.
You’re not tempted to fake antiques, you know like the Hobbs guy? What do you think of that “scandal”?

You know there is a tradition of taking ordinary 18th century furniture and making it look fabulous. The difference between John Hobbs and Elsie de Wolfe was that she was honest about it.

Do you remember Gene Tyson? This is going back again to the 80s … Gene was a great guy. He had two townhouses on the Upper East Side and one had a shop in it that you would walk into, you know, beige linen silk on the walls, and there’d be like, four objects and they were all stupidly expensive. And then next door there was stuff piled to the ceiling … and I know he’s dead so it’s safe to talk about this. Anyway he brought in a Russian armchair, and it was just when Russian furniture was taking off, you know Lee Radziwill had completely taken over the Upper East Side of New York … anyway, this armchair had Davis, Grand Rapids stamped on the bottom. He had a bunch of rolls of colored tape to show what he wanted ebonized or gilded. The first thing was to take off was the damned stamp … I mean I was not even 30 at the time and I wasn’t gonna say anything. So we re-did this chair and by the time it was done it looked amazing. About two weeks later I walked into the Winter Antiques Show, before it was being vetted, and it is being sold as 18th century Russian and it’s been sold! I look at the chair and I look at Gene, who was just the quintessential Upper East Side New York, New York. And he pulls out a bottle of vodka and a bunch of plastic glasses. He pours me a shot, gives it to me and he goes, “Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?!”
A view of the neighborhood surrounding Karl's workshop showing Pratt's architecture faculty building.
The storefront of Karl's Grand Avenue Workshop.
Peeking in through the front door.
Notes for delivery and pick up, just in case.
Karl in his Grand Avenue Workshop.
The Grand Avenue Workshop, filled with projects in various stages of completion. Parchment, shagreen and wood samples cover the walls. "As usual it is chaos," says Karl.