Think of New York, and what immediately springs to mind? The incessant beeping of yellow cabs? Steam venting from pavement grills under a lowering grey sky? Joggers on a clear spring morning in Central Park? Personally, I always have an image of Carrie Bradshaw in a frilly tutu, smoking furiously on the steps of her brownstone.
And it is just such a brownstone, one of New York's most recognisable icons, that we bring you this month. However, this one is different. This one, in Harlem, has been transformed inside by Bruno Guélaff of Dubai-based collins + guélaff interior architects into a haven of clean lines, space and tranquillity. Bruno, the first recipient of the B.F.A. Travel Prize which gave him the opportunity to tour the globe stopping in 15 countries and over 22 cities (an experience that has greatly influenced his design flair), takes us on a tour of this home, one of his pet projects and one he says is "close to my heart."
Harlem is an infamous district of New York which previously had a rather grim reputation. However, over the last few years, it has been undergoing gradual gentrification, as is so aptly demonstrated by Bruno's transformation of this home's interior. "As you know, the neighbourhood has changed. Drastically. Harlem used to be a very low income area. But now all the violence and the old guys are gone."
Of this particular brownstone, he says, "All these are just old Italian rowhouses which have been sold and completely gutted." As far as the project goes, "the owner is in the medical field and wanted an ultra clean look. So that's what we did, although little bits of character popped up. It's kind of rustic and modern at the same time."
Moving in through the entrance, one is immediately struck by the double-volume ceilings, rising up to an atrium where the serene, peaceful bedroom is located. Bruno continues, "This is the entrance, You can see the old structure of the building itself which spans both heights, and through the openings above, and through the staircases and the glass partitions you can see angles. It's kind of an angular, fun system." The main reception area is cool and airy, a predominantly white space with touches of natural colour and materials. "You can see a little bit of a duality here, a whole white envelope and then all of a sudden the communal spaces have more punch and colour. The floor is made from gum tree wood which is very hard and has live patterns and colours and reddish tone and then, looking upstairs, the white envelope theme continues."
At the end of the entrance stands an eye-catching sculptural piece, which, in common with many of the fittings used in this home, is made of wood. "This is actually a piece we got in Thailand. It's from the 1930s and is called a ‘shuofa'. They put it above old buildings like a good luck gargoyle. In Thailand you see all these odd shapes and carvings above buildings - made of gold, or metal or painted wood. This is just an old piece that kind of guards the entrance. You notice it just stands a little bit above the two-height ceiling environment."
Moving further into the house, into the living area, you cannot help but notice the floor to ceiling curtains. "The concept of the curtains is kind of like a wedding puddle, floating from top to bottom and coming down and puddling around. It's just very gracious and clean."
The bronze and wood chaise longue is by John Houshmand. "He has a wood farm in Pennsylvania. He actually cuts pieces of his own wood and makes tables and everything. " On the living room wall is another eyecatching artwork, entitled Architecture Of A Cataclysm by New York artist, Stephen Pusey. Bruno sourced this from Michael Steinberg Fine Art, New York City and is undoubtedly a fan. The painting looks, from a distance, uniformly coloured, but get up close and you see a different story. "Its actually a really intense picture - if you stand close you can see how many hundreds and hundreds of hours he spent on it. You start looking at all these lines and then things start popping up in your imagination. Its quite funky!"
Duality in the meeting of rustic and contemporary is a recurring theme throughout the spaces here. The staircase, constructed from slabs of wood, glass and steel, is just such a case in point. "The staircase is another element of duality. The stairs are white epoxy, ultra clean, with some hidden fluorescent lights behind and a slab of glass set right into the wood, and floating gum tree steps on custom brackets. And then going upstairs you have a steel beam that was ground down. It's kind of like a tree-house feel with all the reflections and the shadows. So it's modern, but at the same time it has a bit of quirkiness to it and a little bit of earthiness as well."
The bedroom is flanked on one side by waist-height glass panels topped with a steel handrail that Bruno had hand-ground to produce in interesting wave, or spiral pattern.
"The room has whitewashed bamboo floors, I made the bed from reclaimed support joints, whitewashed and glazed. We made the room very serene with whites and blues. It's very peaceful, just a bed - no TV, no nothing." The idea was to just keep it simple. "The bed is raft-like and everyone asked me if it was dangerous, but of course it's not at all!" All the doors in here are, again, floor to ceiling. A large blue glass panel leads into the shower, and daylight filters through the glass into the bedroom, adding to the serenity.
"I kept everything else in this room monochromatic with white and glazed wood - again keeping this clean envelope." All the air conditioning, and even the drains in the walk-in shower are hidden between the floors so there are no grills anywhere, and nothing intrudes to jar the eye. And talking of eyes, Bruno has a lot to say about the attention-grabbing piece of artwork above the bed.
"This is an amazing piece of artwork. It's by Konstantin Khudyakov and is named Moscow in Ultrachrome. You can stand for hours and look at all these tiny little bits of digital art. One eye is old Moscow and the other is new Moscow. And if you look closely in all these little ripples, you can see reflections of the old city and the new. Amazing! I wanted a set of eyes over the bed, and I walked down the street, wandered into MimiFerzt Gallery and there it was!"
There's is even a story behind the guest bathroom. "This bathroom is quite fun - the unit is actually an anti-suicide toilet unit as used in prisons. Again, ultra clean, ultra modern, and you've got the chiselled walls with fluorescent lighting."
Fun is a theme running through Bruno's life, it seems. "I really enjoyed doing this project. It's not finished yet - there are another two floors still to do, and a huge extension on the back of the building."
"My job is fun! As long as you and the client get along and have the same vision. We even had fun with this photoshoot, shooting triangles and triangles. This was a safe environment, but we gave it a little kick here and there with the artwork. Not everyone would have a raft-like bed…"