The model apartment of today is a rather sophisticated piece of work: Not only does it come with an aura of a projected future, but with pre-made, manufactured ghosts.
Two examples at 995 Fifth Avenue—a conversion of the former Stanhope Hotel across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, built in 1926, now with some 26 half- and full-floor homes—gave a sense of humans who were about to come back, even though they never existed in the first place. They are two imaginary families who are, of course, rich and have never failed in any way.
Their creator is New York City designer Eric Cohler, who designed the building’s interior finishes. Sitting in Five North, the “Traditional Apartment” (with a piano that looks right out on the museum, which is the most stable institution in the world and who wouldn’t want to face it always?), Mr. Cohler said of his fictional tenants: “He’s a Harvard M.B.A., mid-50’s. She’s 38, from Paris, and grew up in the 16th Arrondissement. They have two children from his first marriage—a boy at Princeton, a daughter at Spence. His former wife lives on Park and 88th. They have a little boy together. He goes to the Lycée because his mother’s French …. ” In the Smallbone of Devizes kitchen were the little boy’s basketball hoop and the mother’s herbs from Provence. Photographs of the imaginary family were scattered around the apartment. One was borrowed from a grandmother whom Mr. Cohler knows.
His story continued: “The Coromandel screen is a nod to Coco Chanel, one of her grandmother’s dear friends. You’re sitting on her grandmother’s Louis XVI chair.” Where did her grandmother live? “She lived on the Bois de Boulogne. She was a, ah, hat designer; she was married to a former member of the French Resistance …. ”
There was more, but the couple in the “Contemporary” apartment next-door, all full of Roche Bobois, and a Hermès sheared yak throw, were even better. “She’s editor of a major fashion magazine, late 40’s,” Mr. Cohler said. “He is a physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, heart surgeon. They met at the University of Michigan. They are very conscientious about greening. They drive a hybrid car. The concierge parks it in the Metropolitan Museum lot that comes with the apartment. They used to have a Jaguar convertible; she made him give it up. They go to the park. They hold hands.” We looked at her Chanel cosmetics in one of the bathrooms—one a gripping pale-green glass tile—and in the closet, the Asprey bag. In one of the guest rooms, the Lichtenstein they bought in college. “African art, they love,” Mr. Cohler said. “She went with him to Kenya when he was working in a hospital outside Nairobi with some tribal members …. ”
What tribal members? Watching Mr. Cohler in his Paul Stuart jacket, Oliver Peoples aviator sunglasses, fingering a copper bowl with a gilded lining, was like watching Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects make a story out of the bottom of a coffee cup.
It is not unusual for architects and designers to prepare a brief for design after interviewing existent clients, or for students to be given a “prospective client,” but Mr. Cohler—master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia, constantly picking up lint from the carpet—takes it to its furthest point. “I really tried to make it real,” he said. “Why shouldn’t it be real? I do that with my client. I have to have a conceit. It is as though I’m an artist. I’ve been given raw clay.” Mr. Cohler, who also created the model apartments for another development at 8 Union Square (three packages there: “Fashionista,” “Collector,” “Gourmet”—apparently a person has to be one of the three) believes in the detailed study of the client, for “the past is prologue; life is filled with clues.” He showed the signature lamps of his own design in the model’s guest room—large, empty glass jars out of which rise the lamps. “I call them ‘U Fill It.’”
Unfortunately, real people were moving in and out of the model apartments, and it was rumored that the real man sitting in the dining room with the Corcoran Sunshine salesperson was buying one of the apartments for his wife as a present. Like Topper, the ghosts should have pushed him out.
New York’s other empty rooms are not quite the live-across-from-the-McKim-Mead-White Met experience, with halls leading to rooms leading to halls, though the conversion of 823 Park with 12 full-floor homes may well be even grander. All one can see now are watery drawings on the Web site, which make the rooms look even more elegant: part of someone’s Bachelard dream of violets in childhood, trembling columns and wing chairs on a snowy night—perhaps for a middle-aged couple in French clothes with a preference for Straub and Huillet films.
Further east shines the Lucida, “clear and easy to understand,” said salesman Jared Randolph in the sales office on Lexington on East 85th Street. The Lucida’s imaginary inhabitants are not as fully formed, though they are apparently those who like to live inside of the sun, receive fresh piped air the way people do in Battery Park, stare at handbags in store windows (photos in the lobby) and gaze at “recyclable cork behind the concierge desk.” Mr. Randolph’s tour of the model in the sales office began with a horticultural lecture: “The hydrangea will bloom and then, once the hydrangea die, the ivy will be exposed.” Later, Mr. Randolph became a sky captain as he showed the flat-screen video of the upcoming apartment views. His favorite part of the tour is when he rings the doorbell and opens the door of the model apartment with lots of cream and bone and bathrooms reminiscent of the ones in the just-opened Trump Tower New Jersey booklet. It has a black cover—long and black like a liquor bottle—that feels greasy and gold pages and copy that speaks of Labrador polished granite or Latte and a bathroom with a shower with a tranquil rainfall feature but it doesn’t look like a rainfall, it looks like a nice but desultory, lonely bathroom.
The sunny pink-and-blue building at 246 West 17th has a model apartment and, of course, a companion book—they all do now—with drawings of imaginary families, the most prominent at 246 an interracial family and, of course, the mother is a psychologist wanting only goodness and reasonableness and for the children, too. All these tours in sales offices begin with the salesperson standing before a scale model. The world is a big, empty dollhouse. We’re all just trying to fill it.
Sheffield57’s “re-envisioned condos” at 322 West 57th should win a Nobel. Following are excerpts from the press release about the different apartments: “The Attorney,” who is “about power and sophistication” and has “embossed ostrich” and “shelves crafted in Macassar ebony.” He sounds rough but he likes the water, as evidenced by the white sailing photography. “The Fashion Shoe Designer” has “bright snakeskin pillows” and “glow-box nightstands.” No more need be said.
The “Elegant Woman Writer … ,” a lady of a certain age “with grown niece and faux tortoiseshell tables.” (But what about the Woman Who Is Screaming At Everybody on the Phone and Throwing Scouring Powder on her Pasta? Just what does that apartment look like? Is there a Persian carpet soaked with vermouth?)
Then there’s the new 21-story Gramercy going up on East 23rd Street (contracts for 70 percent reportedly went out the weekend after the office opened last week), the Michael Shvo and Philippe Starck extravaganza of a showroom with a rhinoceros head, and a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, a bowl of green apples and Mr. Starck on flat screens flying around the city, for he is the ultimate fictional resident in his own designed interiors.
All these apartments have big art books or storybooks that expand the geography of the rooms that people are buying. If you bought at 141 Fifth (a sales office with flat file cabinet made upstate and a model apartment where the imaginary resident is reading Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico), you would believe that you are getting the Arch in Washington Square and a little girl holding loaves of bread.
For people who have the money and know the neighborhood, all this fiction is like the key chain the automotive dealer gives you, or the ballpoint pen with his name on it. But for the rest, they are terribly effective, containing somehow all the hope and promise of the 1964 World’s Fair.
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