Unlike Paris, London and Rome, New York isn’t a beautiful city. There are beautiful stretches, of course, and beautiful blocks, but it’s not a place where the architecture is going to stop you in your tracks every few paces — it’s a town meant for hurrying, not meandering. The city’s allure comes instead from its rhythm and unpredictability, how any street can at once become a stage for a drama big or small, played by people from any number of nationalities, races, genders, ages or sexualities.
It’s in part because the city’s public spaces can be so vibrant (or enervating, depending on how you’re feeling) that New Yorkers spend so much time thinking (and complaining and worrying) about where they live. Most of us live in apartments, and small apartments at that, which means that very few of us will turn down the opportunity to see where and how one of our fellow New Yorkers lives; we all want to be able to imagine ourselves in another space, another life. We all have buildings or apartments we pass on our walk to the subway that we’ve wondered about for years — what does it look like inside? What would it be like to live there?
In T’s fall Design & Luxury issue, we visit three New York homes — two in the city, and one out on the beach on Long Island — owned by three creative people, all of which are testaments to another essential New York trait: resourcefulness. Even the most renovation-minded New Yorker will be forced to use elements of what already exists, though these occupants were lucky enough to find 18th-century wood-paneled walls in a snug parlor-floor apartment on Washington Square in downtown Manhattan, tall, skinny windows in a former rectory in Harlem and a wild, stepped field of grasses overlooking the sea in Montauk.
We also visit Manhattan’s Chinatown, a neighborhood that few people — whether out-of-towners or New Yorkers — truly know, no matter how often they’ve visited. As the T writer at large Ligaya Mishan notes, “For tourists in search of an easily accessible exotic within an American city, there is the Chinatown of myth and surfaces, of paper lanterns and dragons, stone lions and ceramic lucky cats waving their paws, dumplings and noodles. That these items have genuine cultural value does not rescue them from the reductiveness of an outsider’s gaze.” Chinatown is both an enduring myth and a lived reality; easy to exoticize even as it remains a point of entry for hundreds of new arrivals — new New Yorkers, new Americans — every year. Now, though, it’s also becoming something else: a prime zone of real estate bordered by two of the most expensive districts in Manhattan; a prime candidate for redevelopment and gentrification. At the same time, Mishan finds, it’s being reclaimed by second- and third-generation Chinese Americans whose parents and grandparents left it for the suburbs. In their return, there’s an announcement of self — This is our home. We belong here. For that’s New York, too — every day, a new wave of arrivals; every day, a new displacement. The tension and the difficulties of living here never end. Neither does the joy. — HANYA YANAGIHARA
IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT to move stuff around a lot — even your books,” says Justinian Kfoury, the founder of a creative agency that represents photographers, stylists and other artists who make fashion imagery. He’s positioned two tattered Hans Wegner Papa Bear chairs near the French doors of his parlor-floor 2,200-square-foot two-bedroom rental on Washington Square Park. It’s a rainy April week so, instead of the students and downtowners who usually crowd the lawn, all we can see is wet grass, drooping pines and the sun creeping behind the midrise N.Y.U. buildings across the green. As dusk approaches, the low, crepuscular light seems to collect inside Kfoury’s cavernous, wood-covered living area, reminding him of the boarding school dining hall of his New England youth. He’d told his real estate agent Trish Goff, a ’90s model, that he wanted to live on a park and have a fireplace: “But no one wanted this place, if you can imagine.”
This was a decade or so ago, after Kfoury, now 50, had left an East Village home and the ex-husband with whom he shared it: “Mr. Minimalism,” he calls him now, since the man would go into a panic whenever Kfoury rearranged the rooms. “So when I moved into this big haberdashery,” he says of his current place, “I went into storage and brought all the knickknacks out.” Indeed, we’re surrounded by bric-a-brac: carved wooden Bhutanese fertility penises on the mantel; centuries-old wooden ships’ gears, found at a Parisian flea market, which now function as side tables; mildewed books; nature prints; and blocky blond oak tables and chairs made by Marc Hundley, an artist and friend whom Kfoury represents.
Along one wall is a sloping 19th-century twin bed partially shrouded by a ceiling-hung raw-silk canopy — “a new concept,” Kfoury says. “I call it ʻthe nonchalant’ because it’s kind of the opposite of that.” The “gay sleigh,” as he named it, is part of a pair; the other is in what he refers to as “the friends’ room” in the back of “the inn,” the apartment’s unofficial moniker. The beds are two of the many pieces he inherited from his family. His father, a Boston real estate developer, was a second-generation American with roots in Lebanon, his stay-at-home mother from an Italian banking family; they raised him and his sister mostly in small towns throughout Maine and Vermont: “My mom dragged me around as a kid to these auctions,” he explains, reminiscing about the ones at big old Kennebunkport mansions. “She was eccentric, grand, but not afraid of making weird decisions about design.”
AS IN THE homes where Kfoury spent his childhood, none of his things necessarily go together, nor do they belong in this building. Among the oldest townhouses in Manhattan, it was constructed in the 1830s as part of a series of Greek Revival residences along Washington Square North distinguished by their wide, deep lots and stately proportions. (In 1882, Edith Wharton lived down the block, in a stretch of townhouses east of Fifth Avenue famously known as the Row.) Only a few of them remain privately owned today, and the brick dwellings still possess “the look of having had something of a social history,” as Henry James writes about them in “Washington Square” (1880).
The landlord’s family has owned the building for generations — his grandparents lived in Kfoury’s apartment a few decades ago. Before them were countless unknown residents whose marks can still be seen, most impressively in the coffered oak paneling that covers many of the walls and the ceiling in the oversize 25-by-50-foot main room; according to a conservator that Kfoury once invited over, the wood was likely stripped from a European castle and dates to the 18th century, meaning it’s older than the house, although it probably wasn’t installed here until the 1880s or so. Despite its age and provenance, Kfoury’s not precious about it: Sometimes, he and his boyfriend, a 36-year-old designer named Paul van der Grient, give large parties at which they still let their guests smoke cigarettes inside, finding that the thick cladding seems to magically absorb the lingering odors. “When you’re in here, there’s this old energy of people and time,” Kfoury says. “I feel like the guardian of the house.”
Perhaps that’s why, in a city of constant and often soulless renovation, the apartment seems like a special kind of palimpsest, a place that both adheres to and refutes its own history. In the jumble of small rooms near the entryway, Kfoury’s resisted removing any of the more dated elements, like the midcentury brown floral tiles in the galley kitchen, or the white- painted scalloped shelving and garishly patterned silver-and-blue wallpaper in the double-height hallway closets. He’s also constantly adding more contemporary items, from the collection of queer art in his bedroom — a 2014 nude photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans; an undated postcard-size Paul Cadmus drawing of a man sleeping — to the set of scattered snapshots of him and his friends from the days when they’d go dancing at Twilo.
Kfoury’s made some more lasting changes, too. “My real big thing I believe in is carpeting your bathroom,” he says, showing off a powder room where the floor is covered in a water-resistant wall-to-wall solid burgundy rug originally intended for yachts. “It’s just very cozy. Some of my friends think it’s disgusting. The boys, especially, are freaked out.” But for now, the place is his. And like all those who’ve come before, he’ll do with it as he pleases.
IN 2016, AN artist in need of a space in which to make two monumentally large paintings began working in a deconsecrated church in Harlem. Not long after, she began looking for somewhere to live. The developer who owned the church had previously shown her the empty neo-Gothic rectory next door: a dark, dilapidated four-story brick townhouse with crumbling decorative columns and dramatic arched windows. The property was irresistibly spacious (7,100 square feet, including a basement level), and she wanted to remain in the neighborhood, where her family had been based for over a decade. So she made an offer. “None of us,” she says, referring to the team she soon assembled to help reimagine the place, “knew what we were getting into.”
Some buildings are diatribes, a person trying to prove a point, and some say very little at all, but the most interesting ones are conversations: between past and present, comfort and utility, privacy and community and, most important, the building itself and its residents. Despite its water-damaged interior — a warren of cramped bedrooms and leaky bathrooms once occupied by priests — the artist felt strongly that the rectory, which dates to around 1907, should remain standing, as a part of the area’s history. But she also aspired to give it a new life, as a welcoming, modern and light-filled home for herself and her two school-age children, with space in which to make work. And she wanted to be part of the process.
After meetings with several well-established architects left the artist feeling both daunted and uninspired, a neighbor mentioned her friends Tal Schori, now 43, and Rustam Mehta, 42. The two architects had met as third graders in Westchester County, N.Y., and founded their own New York-based practice, GRT Architects, in 2014. Their relative youth made the artist nervous — they’d only completed a few projects — but she was instantly excited by their use of color, their merging of contemporary and traditional elements and what she calls their “small details of invention,” for example the way Schori had improvised a pixelated wavelike effect on the bathroom floor of a Brooklyn townhouse using dusty blue and sand-hued penny tiles. “A lot of architects have their vision and they want to convince the client of that,” says the artist. “These guys were really interested in investigating things all together.”
That shared spirit of adventure was tested quickly and often. Once the contractor’s team began peeling back layers of plaster, they found that the joists were rotten and the whole interior had to be demolished. But the artist and the architects came to see this discovery, a prelude to later pandemic-related disruptions, as liberating. It freed them to create an entirely new layout, one that would perfectly express the artist’s hopes for the space: on the garden level, a simple one-bedroom apartment for visiting friends and family; above it, a three-story family home with as many bedrooms and generously sized spaces for entertaining; and on the top floor, a guest suite and a 700-square-foot studio with a ceiling high enough to accommodate very large, if not quite monumental, canvases. Though they would still let the rectory’s history speak on the outside, it was as if the building were inviting them to have their say, too.
TODAY, A NEW Yorker walking briskly past might not notice that the structure, set on a quiet, mostly residential block, looks different than it did a century ago. At street level, Schori and Mehta’s interventions are discreet: Where they repaired the brownstone around the ogival front door, they used cement with a more reddish-brown hue, creating what Schori refers to as a map of old and new. “Sometimes,” he says, “modifying a building does more to celebrate its history than perfectly restoring it.” Only by looking up can you see the more dramatic changes. To flood the home’s interior with light, the architects made an 18.5-foot-tall window by vertically connecting the existing easternmost windows on the second and third floors, leaving sections of their original sills intact, as if they’d been sliced through cleanly with a knife. And at the very top of the house, rather than reglazing a small, bricked-up round window, the artist decided to fill its shape with a symbol of personal significance, a signature of sorts: She had the architects commission the Italian artist Constantino Buccolieri to create a classical-inspired mosaic of the snake-haired mythological creature Medusa.
Inside, the house is the culmination of six years of meetings, emails and texts between the collaborators, a group that also included the designer Michael Kirkland, a friend of the artist’s who worked with the team on the home’s interior decoration. And as a result — though it incorporates various contemporary design trends (a plaster fireplace and a bulbous leather Camaleonda sofa by Mario Bellini in the roughly 20-foot-high sitting room on the second floor, a terrazzo-clad guest bathtub on the fourth) — its texture is entirely its own, a long and personal group chat come to life. The architects and artist exchanged images of rooms by the midcentury Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, which partially inspired the recurrence of simple materials like white oak and cork throughout the house. The artist shared a photograph of the painter Cy Twombly’s studio in Rome, a city where she spent summers as a child, which informed the decision to cover the floor of the open-plan living area on the parlor level with geometric black-and-white tiles. The kitchen on that same floor — a compact bay of gray and blood red stone counters and white oak cabinets tucked between a hangout zone and a dining area with a pink cast-concrete-tile-clad fireplace — echoes the color scheme of the dressing rooms at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, from which the artist had sent a snapshot during a visit. And the final design for the staircase was influenced by pictures of the Korean artist Do Ho Suh’s diaphanous sculptures of staircases, seemingly weightless sets of stainless-steel steps wrapped in sheer red polyester. The home’s version, cut from white industrial steel perforated with thousands of tiny holes, similarly appears to waft weightlessly upward before disappearing into the brilliant white glow of the skylight above it.
The builder and woodworker Mark Ellison (part of a construction team that also included Adam Marelli and Bob Chan) helped engineer the staircase and created a bespoke contraption for winching heavy canvases up its center. Another collaborative innovation: the 30-foot-long string of Isamu Noguchi Akari lanterns, connected to suggest an endless column, around which the staircase winds. The idea came from the Berlin-based artist Danh Vo, one of many friends of the owner’s who shared their input over the years. The Iranian German sculptor Nairy Baghramian designed amorphous rocklike bronze handles for the building’s doors. (“She said, ‘Your house is going to be so beautiful. I’m going to make you something really ugly,’” recalls the artist.) And the thin black bricks that pave the garden — bordered with walls of bamboo planted by the landscape designer Laura Mac Donald, 59, the neighbor who first introduced the artist and the architects — were inspired by similar ones produced for an exhibition by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates; he shared his recipe and the name of his manufacturer in North Carolina. “On a project of this scale,” says Schori, “multiple voices enrich it.”
Nowhere is that chorus more audible than in the lounge on the second floor. The primary bedroom, just down the hall, is purposefully quiet but for a patchwork curtain by the California-based artist Adam Pogue. (Schori subscribes to what he interprets as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that a bedroom is, essentially, where a person goes to die for eight hours.) And the two narrow kids’ rooms, one flight up, are minimalist, with angular plywood furniture sourced by Kirkland from the Brooklyn studio Lichen. But the lounge, illuminated by the towering double-height window, is a vibrant union of disparate influences. Contemporary pieces, including a globular powder blue cast-concrete coffee table by the Brooklyn-based designer Misha Kahn, harmonize with personal relics, such as a room-spanning burgundy Persian rug from the apartment where the artist’s family stayed in Rome during her childhood, and classic pieces of postmodern design like a black egg cup-shaped Ettore Sottsass side table. And hanging from the cream-painted walls are works from the artist’s collection: a majestic hot pink-accented abstract canvas by the painter Sojourner Truth Parsons; a hazy midnight blue screen print of a woman’s face by the photographer Lorna Simpson; a lithograph by the painter Jasper Johns depicting his friend the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Where the paintings end, halfway up the room’s height, the plaster gives way to reedlike white oak cladding that runs up the ceiling and across an undulating mezzanine balcony — on its railing, the narrow bands of wood take up a syncopated rhythm of alternating short and long bars, conjuring the pipes of a marimba or, maybe, a church organ. If the most interesting houses to live in are conversations, perhaps the most joyful ones are songs.
ON A BALMY afternoon this past July, Julianne Moore wanders barefoot through the open field next to her home in Montauk, N.Y., a once-quiet fishing town at the eastern end of Long Island. Butterflies and other pollinators flutter above the tall grass, and the bumblebees from her apiary hover among stalks of chamomile and milkweed. Her dog, Hope, pants contentedly in the heat. And yet the actress looks distressed. For weeks, she’s been anticipating the arrival of the Queen Anne’s lace, whose long, thin stems and delicate white flowers had last summer transformed the meadow into what Moore, 62, describes as a “fairyland.” It’s still early in the season, but her optimism has been challenged. “Yeah, maybe it’ll come,” she says, smiling to mask her doubt. “It’s a little fickle.”
If Moore seems unusually patient for a movie star, it’s because she and her husband, the filmmaker Bart Freundlich, have had practice. About 10 years ago, the couple’s friend Tomas Maier, Bottega Veneta’s creative director at the time, told them about a 10-acre property for sale several miles from their modest cottage on Fort Pond. Moore had dreamed of building a home in the modernist style of Andrew Geller or Norman Jaffe, both known for their residential projects in the Hamptons, but Freundlich became “obsessed,” Moore says, “with this lovely, very traditional house from the 1990s.” Although she was charmed by its proximity to a rocky purple-sand beach, the property, which came with a circular driveway, felt a little fussy. “There were transoms everywhere,” recalls the Manhattan-based architectural designer Oliver Freundlich, Moore’s brother-in-law and frequent collaborator. “And beadboard,” adds Moore, landing on the word as if it were the spooky part of a campfire story.
In the fall of 2019, after years of false starts — the original owners kept removing the listing — the pair finally bought the house and started making it their own. That part required patience, too; when the pandemic brought the renovation, and Hollywood, to a halt in 2020, Moore and Freundlich moved temporarily from New York City into their 1,100-square-foot cabin on Fort Pond, which they hadn’t yet sold, with their daughter, Liv, then a high school senior. (Their son, Caleb, a musician and composer, decided to stay in North Carolina to complete his final year of college.)
Now that she was living out east full time, the decorating choices Moore had made in the city about the new house suddenly felt like mistakes; although she admires the marbled interiors of the French architect Joseph Dirand, slabs of Calacatta Paonazzo make more sense in Manhattan than Montauk. “I wanted everything you see on the interior of the house to be reflected on the outside,” she says. Moore kept the two-story, 4,000-square-foot structure intact, but eventually replaced the facade’s light gray shingles with red cedar, stripped the interiors bare and implemented what Oliver calls “the three-material rule”: clay-finished walls, white oak floors and Belgian bluestone (mostly in the kitchen and bathrooms). “I’m really consistent,” says Moore. “I cannot bear a variety of material, and I don’t like a lot of colors.” Oliver, who has now overseen six projects for Moore, grins. “It’s the greatest challenge to edit something to one’s personal perception of perfection,” he says, especially because they weren’t starting from scratch.
MOORE, WHO DISAPPEARS into characters as complicated as they are diverse, seems like her most authentic self when talking about design. She inherited her passion for objects from her mother, Anne Love Smith, a Scottish psychologist and social worker who sewed her own slip covers and regularly took Moore and her two younger siblings on historic house tours as children. “I don’t think I really saw it growing up, how much my mother cared about what was beautiful,” says Moore. “She was always telling me where to look.” As Moore’s knowledge about furniture and interiors has become more refined — owing in part to her friendships with architects and designers such as Massimiliano Locatelli, Daniel Romualdez and Vincent Van Duysen — so, too, has her taste. And yet she’s careful not to intellectualize her aesthetic. “Talking about something while you’re doing it stops it cold,” she says. “Why do you have to tell us what it’s about? Why can’t it just be a thing?”
Upon entering the home’s double-height foyer, one immediately notices the view of the ocean through the dining room. Moore has eliminated most clutter, choosing instead to let the coastal light cast shadows on “big shapes,” as she puts it. “This was the largest Noguchi I could find,” she says, pointing toward the ceiling at an oblong paper lamp by the Japanese American designer Isamu Noguchi. A bronze ring by the American sculptor Alma Allen is displayed on the floor across from a woven bench by the midcentury French architect Charlotte Perriand. Beyond a set of sliding pocket doors — which stay open except when they want to create a cozy environment for family meals — a smaller Noguchi lantern hangs above an imposing circular elm dinner table by the French furniture designer Pierre Chapo and one of Moore’s two metallic cabinets by the Belgian Modernist Willy Van Der Meeren (she keeps the other one in her office upstairs). A 2014 painting by the German artist Friedrich Kunath depicts a woodland scene at dusk. The title of the piece, “We Better Stop Pretending,” appears across the canvas in capital letters. “But I’m an actor,” says Moore. “That’s all I do.”
To the right of the dining room is the living room where she and her family watch movies or sports on a pair of puffy brown Le Bambole sofas by Mario Bellini. Some objects of personal significance are scattered on and around snakeskin side tables by Karl Springer and a gypsum coffee table by Rogan Gregory: a bronze cassette tape by Nancy Pearce (a gift from Moore to Freundlich, who made mixtapes for her when they first started dating); a turtle shell from the owner of a sushi bar in Japan. The best actress Oscar she won in 2015 for playing a linguistics professor with Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” is hidden at the very back of a bookshelf between an Alexander Calder monograph and “The New American Cottage” (1999).
On the far side of the ground floor is the kitchen, which abuts a screened porch overlooking the swimming pool and the vegetable garden where Freundlich, who enjoys cooking, grows kale for their morning smoothies. Above the bluestone sink and counters are rows of clay bowls by the California-based artist Andrea Zittel and ceramic cups by the American sculptor JB Blunk. A separate set of stairs off an adjacent mudroom leads to Caleb’s bedroom, where the house’s first patriarch used to make fishing lures and where Freundlich now writes his screenplays. When Moore walks in on him, Freundlich throws his hands in the air. “I was just about to solve the issue I’ve been working on for years,” he says with mock exasperation. Moore rolls her eyes and laughs.
THE MOST PEACEFUL room in the house isn’t really a room at all. At the top of the central staircase, flanked by the primary bedroom and two others, Liv’s and a guest bedroom, sits Moore’s office, a sort of in-between space with the water on one side and the forest on the other. Atop her teak desk by the Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret are scripts: one for a film that shut down nine days early due to the Writers Guild of America strike (a couple of months later, when SAG-AFTRA joined the labor dispute, Moore picketed in solidarity); another for “Case 63,” a fictional podcast that follows the therapy sessions of an alleged time traveler.
When it’s nice out, Moore takes Hope down to the water. Sometimes she uses the walk to memorize her lines, playing back the dialogue she’s recorded into her phone. But most of the time, she takes advantage of the silence. It’s been 18 years since she and Freundlich started renting in Montauk; now that her children are grown, Moore has found new ways to enjoy her home at the end of the world. Well, mostly. “My mother used to tell me, ‘You’re never finished with a house,’” she says. “It’s like an organism that keeps going.”
The sun beats down as Moore makes her way back, past her newly refurbished pool area — a pair of modernist structures with teak Skagerak lounge chairs and an outdoor shower — and the rugged field where rosebushes and fluffy wisteria once bloomed. She stops to inspect something. “Huh,” she says, holding out her hand. In her palm is a burst of intricate flowers that look a lot like lace.
Video (Washington Square, Harlem): Blaine Davis. Video (Montauk): Stefan Ruiz. Edit and color: Jordan Taylor Fuller.
Digital production and design: Nancy Coleman, Danny DeBelius, Amy Fang, Chris Littlewood, Carla Valdivia Nakatani and Jamie Sims.
Washington Square artwork: © Adriana Lara; © Nicholas Krushenick.
Harlem artwork, from top: Sojourner Truth Parsons; © Lorna Simpson; Miriam Cahn; © Paul Pfeiffer; © Frank Bowling, all rights reserved, DACS 2023; sculpture: Huma Bhabha; © Nairy Baghramian; © Coco Fusco