A TriBeCa Apartment is a Study in Cosseted Minimalism
In the mid-nineteen-twenties, the Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife, Marie-Laure, discerning patrons of the arts, hired a young decorator named Jean-Michel Frank to redesign the drawing room of their hôtel particulier at 11 Place de États-Unis in Paris. The results — a master class in bold minimalist glamor — helped to make Frank one of the most talked about decorators of his time on both sides of the Atlantic. (He went on to decorate the ground floor of Nelson Rockefeller’s New York City townhouse.)
Nearly a century later, the hugely influential Frank continues to hold design connoisseurs in his sway. The interior decorator Jessica Gersten counts herself among them. When longtime clients of Gersten hired her to inject their roughly 3,300-square-foot condominium in lower Manhattan with character, the Noailleses’ drawing room became one of the project’s touchstones. To be sure, Frank isn’t the most obvious guiding spirit for an upper-story unit that features a long run of curved ultra-modern floor-to-ceiling windows in a tower building of recent construction. But what is interior design if not the art of dreaming? Gersten brings it off nicely, in part because she doesn’t imitate Frank so much as take his work as a point of departure for her own.
Consider the curvilinear furniture that is featured throughout the apartment. Frank favored rectilinear forms, but Gersten, who has a background in fashion design, takes a more sensuous approach, choosing pieces that suggest a congruence with the natural curves of the apartment’s windows and other architectural forms. Then there’s the parchment-clad niche in the living room and a white plaster bar of Gersten’s design, which divides the kitchen and dining room in high style (replacing a wall that Gersten took down to provide the common areas with unobstructed views of the Hudson to the north and west). That piece, she says, was made off-site and involved “multiple trades and was a labor of love.”
The way in which Gersten deploys parchment and plaster evokes the Noailleses’ drawing room, after a fashion. But whereas Frank’s design was a bit chilly, Gersten aimed for a warmer vibe, or, as she puts it, “super-sophisticated custom bespoke.” She elaborates: “The clients wanted the apartment to feel very soothing, so I backed into that with layers of cream colors and textures and parchment and wood and plaster. I just knew I wanted to use a lot of natural materials to give the space an earthy feel.” The overall effect is at once light yet grounded — remarkable for an apartment that perches high above the city. She achieves this through attention to form and shape, a palette of cream-colored hues, nubby textiles, and furniture that begs to be touched.
The latter includes a gouged oak console in the foyer with dozens of finger-tip-sized hollows on its surface. Making it was an onerous process she says, “that took a lot of tries to get right. I didn’t want it to look like a honeycomb. I wanted it to be more irregular and less machine-like.”
“Machine-like” is a phrase that could apply to many designer homes these days. Some clients aspire to live in places that have the look and feel of hotels and there is no shortage of high-end decorators who are willing to oblige them. But that’s not Gersten’s style.
As to how a modern apartment in lower Manhattan ends up engaged in convivial conversation with a centuries-old hôtel particulier in Paris, she says, “It’s hard to put into words. There’s no formula for what I do. Each project is unique. But the one constant is trust. A designer has to gain the client’s trust immediately and because these were repeat clients they trusted me to do what was right for the space from the start.“
In this case, that meant fitting out the apartment with made-to-order pieces, down to the beds and headboards in the bedrooms. “Their previous apartment wasn’t as bespoke,” says Gersten. “When the clients told me they wanted to up the ante, I knew just what they were looking for.”