Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
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Home & Garden

Kips Bay Decorator Show House

A recap of the best and worst of New York’s annual Kips Bay Decorator Show House.
By Virginia Bauer |
ART GLASS: Designer Miriam Ellner’s entry featured verre glomis walls with a tree-of-life motif. (photo by Dennis Krukowski)

The Big Sleep

This year’s Kips Bay was a multimillion-dollar rest stop. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If you’re like me, you enjoy the house-tour circuit, checking out new decorators works or that neighbor’s house you’ve always been curious about “all for a good cause. Here in New York, the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, benefitting the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx, is the it event, drawing 15,000 people over the course of a month, along with national press. Even the most jaded New Yorker views the event with almost-giddy anticipation.

Getting a room assignment at Kips Bay is sort of a coming-out party for young decorators and a Hall of Fame for the big names. Once selected, the decorators have carte blanche and six weeks to conceive and install their rooms. This year, for the second time running, they did it in an Upper Eastside townhouse with six claustrophobic flights of stairs and one, tiny service elevator.

I took architect Charles Muse, an alumnus of Parish-Hadley, along on the media tour. I can honestly report that the moment we stepped into the foyer of the 7-story townhouse we were stopped dead. The walls and ceiling in the small anteroom were made of glass, smooth and reflective, with a tree-of-life design that echoed the graceful lines of the ironwork on the doors to the formal entry hall. Miriam Ellner lined the walls and ceiling with glass panels and pliable acrylic, transforming them with verre glomis, the art of gilding precious metals on the reverse side of glass and delicately painting specific areas. (You’ve seen the more brutish version of verre glomis in old, 19th-century brewery advertising.) Miriam has truly embraced this rediscovered art form, applying it to everything from shower doors to coffee tables to grand dining halls “and her work is genius.

The entry was one of the most remarkable efforts I have seen at Kips Bay, and it set Charles and me up for some decorator spectacle, which is exactly what this year’s showcase did not deliver. Despite all I’d heard about the revival of bold, bright color, at Kips Bay there was virtually none. It was as if the decorators conspired and took an I-won’t-if-you-won’t pledge. Grays, browns, and taupes abounded, with an occasional dash of red or orange. And it was soon apparent that this year’s home was going to be a collection of sitting rooms, in one form or another. Selecting names such asMy Retreat, Receiving Salon, A Room for Conversation, The Study, A Small Study, and A Study in Texture, the decorators signaled a heightened need for quiet and nurturing. Maybe this is some sort of haute homeland security. Maybe they’re all exhausted. In any case, the mood was low-key and, in the end, quite lovely.

James Rixner’s receiving salon on the second floor landing was the most polished of all the retreat rooms. His deco silk-covered sofa beckoned us with sweeping arms. As a backdrop, James stitched a large harlequin pattern onto icy blue-gray upholstered walls. He polka-dotted the ceiling with white-gold leaf and finished it off with a 1940s Murano chandelier. Small, recessed halogen projectors in the ceiling illuminated a trio of Venetian paintings, giving them a surreal glow. For me, these lights were the technological highlight of the show.

Keeping score as we moved through the house, I found that only five of the 19 rooms were designed for ordinary activities such as cooking, eating, or bathing. Sleeping, the endgame for retreat-niks, was, strangely, underrepresented “not a bedroom to be found. However, we did stumble upon Robert Schwartz and Karen Williams tiny, updated, bistro kitchen for St. Charles. The space was completely paved with floor-to-ceiling honed marble tiles. Charcoal-hued Italian limestone-schist sink and countertops and stainless-steel-and-white cabinetry were crowned by a fleur-de-lis-patterned tin ceiling and an antique crystal chandelier. Bathrooms throughout were luxuriously appointed with the usual suspects “Waterworks and Ann Sacks—but it was Monique Gibson’s embroidered French chair that raised the bar for decadence in bath furnishings.

The room with real punch was Larry Laslo’sDinner at 8 dining room, where walls were lacquered in shocking, Barbie pink for ultimate pizzazz. Larry created a room with depth, character, and humor. From silk curtains, stitched top-to-bottom with flat-ruffle trim, set against a modest sisal carpet to a lavish, couture-appointed tablecloth, trimmed with crystal beads and hundreds of yards of looped-ribbon fringe and topped with primitive wooden sake squares used as salt and pepper bowls, he never pulled a punch. He was fearless. I gave him double points for stretching my imagination and making me smile.

Eschewing color, designers looked to texture to give definition; we saw chunky sisal area rugs, stenciled burlap walls (they looked fabulous), and sleek silk sofas. The window treatments were generally simple: shutters, roller shades, hinged sheers, even light-filtering coated glass and textured glass. Traditional furnishings dominated, but with an almost universal nod to modernism by way of art deco accent pieces. Artwork was reminiscent of those old English paintings by second-string artists “you know what I mean, serious portraits, brooding landscapes, and hunt scenes. The house was surprisingly low-tech; no laptop props and nary a plasma TV to be found.

I had hoped that this year’s Kips Bay decorators would counter the world’s woes with some provocative concepts, but, instead, they retreated to mute neutrals and safe symmetry. Still, I, for one, am determined to dig out of this somniferous rut. Grab a spoon, if you’re with me!

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