Decorating the Modern Penthouse: The Essentials

Soaring ceilings.  Dramatic windows flooded with light.  Views across Manhattan to the rivers.  Today’s ultra-luxurious penthouses, like those you’ve seen on Million Dollar Listing New York, have a wonderful Master of the Universe feeling to them:

Tamarkin Co. project at 550 West 29th Street; courtesy Tamarkin

But in fact, they’re quite challenging to furnish correctly.  The angular walls, metal casement windows, and double height ceilings can feel cold, generic, and even a bit too industrial.  These spaces are begging for the right finishing touches to make them soar and feel like home.

To decorate these spaces correctly, you first have to take a step back and study them.  What does a space like this really say?  How do you want to feel when you’re living here?  Imagine yourself standing there underneath 20-foot ceilings.  At the corners you have huge structural columns going up.  Surrounding you are metal windows with rhythmic angular lines.  You look down and see rows and rows of old buildings crammed together.  You look up and see to the limitless horizon.

In a word, it wants you to feel “This Is What I Have Wrought.”  That you have brought this world at the top of the city into being with your own strength.  None of it existed before.  None of it was given to you.  But as you stare out into the distance, the world still beckons with even further opportunities.  There are no limits.

Now what would happen if you filled this space with pastel colors?  Or gilded furniture and damask curtains?  The riot of colors and patterns would quickly take away the views and the strong envelope of the space.  On the other hand, if the space only had the predictable modern furniture, it would feel unimaginative and probably uncomfortable.

This is the basic dilemma of such a space: How do you capture spirit of the space, while lending it the richness of your life?

I found a really great example of this with architect-turned-developer Cary Tamarkin’s newest building on West 29th Street.  The marble walls, hardwood floors, and soaring space really came to life with the right furnishings:

Tamarkin Co.; courtesy Architectural Digest

This space came together well because it followed these important guidelines:

Stay within a narrow, neutral color palette.  The City is a serious place, with glass and steel buildings and people in grey and black.  You don’t see neon signs outside.  Don’t put them inside.

Reference all the major materials in the space: the marble surfaces, the concrete, the wood floors, and the white gallery walls.  That way your design feels like it naturally belongs here.

Keep it abstract.  Your space is forward thinking.  Just like you.  And your art and furnishings.

Do not compete with the views.  Keep furnishings low and sleek.

Choose objects that are large enough for the space.  Remember, you are working with soaring ceilings, so you want to highlight that.

Make the space comfortable, but edit yourself.  Choose tailored furnishings.

Layer in antiques.  You did, after all, exist before this penthouse.   You’ve traveled and collected, and those pieces belong here.  They should just look like they belong in this space, not like there’s been an abrupt turn in your life.

If you’re decorating a space like this, here are a few pieces to get you started:

1. Large, minimalist low pile rug in a neutral color.  The rug defines a comfortable seating area.   It also helps to muffle noise, which could be an issue for such a large space.  The minimalist design, low pile, and neutral color like taupe, grey, or even charcoal are perfect for a space like this:

Palazzo Silver Rug

2. A sofa like this one is sleek, neutral, and comfortable; the low profile maximizes your views.

Dana Left Arm Chaise in Cream Leather

3. Bring in the various textures of the space in the accessory pieces, like this coffee table with a stone top that complements, but not exactly matches, the marble on the wall:

Camilla Cocktail Table in Arabescato

4. Similarly, echo the warmth of the floors with wood and leather furniture.  Get extra points for finding quirky, sculptural shapes.

Cluny Leather Stool

5. Add a few, carefully chosen accessories to the space.  Starting with the coffee table, bring in interesting books, layer in dark details (to pick up the soaring metal windows) and add height with sculptural forms.

Cubisme Black and White and Gold Candle

6.Warm up your sofas with pillows and blankets in cashmere, wool, and faux fur, again in subtle neutral colors:

Riptide Truffle Long Lumbar Pillow

7. On the walls, add interesting mirrors and artwork with simple lines:

Round Charlotte Mirror

8. For lighting, pick pieces that have clean lines, but are not too contemporary.  The space is already modern enough; a more transitional piece will make it feel timeless.

Hardy Chandelier

9. Add greenery or modern florals.  They’ll soften the space.

Bamboo Tree in Cube Concrete Finish Container

10. Don’t forget a bit of whimsy.

Philippe Sheep Sculpture in Ivory

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