Daniel Cole will be the first to admit that certain neighborhoods in Manhattan have, over the years, come to feel a bit unfamiliar. The fifth-generation New Yorker, who now works in fine jewelry, grew up with the kind of passion for real estate only a native can ever really profess. “I think my mother could tell you the floor plan of every single prewar building in the city,” he says with a laugh. So when Cole and his husband, Nick Grinder, set about searching for their perfect apartment—their forever place—they were drawn to character as much as comfort and strong building stock.
Their hunt drew them to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they closed on a unit in the spring of 2020. Grinder, the senior vice president of sales for the lighting brand Apparatus, immediately pinged his industry peers for advice. “I had a picture of what I wanted it to look like but no idea how to make it happen,” he says.
When his request came through to Damian and Britt Zunino of the local firm Studio DB, it piqued their interest. “We can be more than a sounding board, if you want,” Britt told them.
The couple’s previous place was in Chelsea, where every weekend brought with it views onto a neighboring rooftop’s beer pong tournaments. This time, the couple was eager to settle somewhere a bit more adult. One caveat was kids: They don’t have any, and weren’t looking for a neighborhood that catered to them. “While I adore certain children, it is nice to go to a restaurant and have everyone there be over the age of 40,” Cole says. “It’s very quiet and genteel—and no one’s throwing pasta.”
Proximity to a smattering of mom-and-pop stores (not to mention low maintenance building fees) added to the apartment’s charm, but the interiors themselves “hadn’t been touched since the ’50s,” Grinder says, and lacked an architectural identity.
Studio DB sought to correct that with thoughtful details like shallow, Art Deco–inspired molding in the living room; herringbone flooring installed throughout the common areas; period-specific tiling in the bathrooms; and wood paneling in the den. “Because it is such a small space it was really about picking which moments could be bigger statements,” Damian says. “The rest of the work was about cleaning up and creating a cohesive vocabulary between disparate elements.”
The process was, pun intended, a homecoming for many of the brands and studios Grinder has worked with over the years. “A lot of projects feature Apparatus lighting, Temple Studio rugs, and Hudson Company wood flooring,” he says. Bringing them all together for his own home felt like a full-circle moment.
In the mix are the couple’s sentimental hand-me-downs and heirlooms, including Cole’s grandmother’s first piece of furniture, a Baker table “on a pedestal with lots of leaves.” The piece now sits prominently at one end of their living room displaying sculptures.
One room that demanded particular attention was the kitchen. While Cole had no concern for it “to have any practical use whatsoever” (his words), home cook Grinder found himself turning, for the first time, to Pinterest. “The board had every color, every configuration of kitchen,” Grinder says. “Then Daniel said, ‘No, I’ve figured out the kitchen. It’s this.’ And it was a Prada store.” (A self-avowed old-school Prada obsessive, Cole considers this his only real design contribution to the project.)
To further integrate the galley-style kitchen into the common areas, porthole windows were inserted into the dual pocket doors that separate it from the entryway; now Grinder can shut them and cook fish, a household staple, without the scent permeating the apartment. An adjacent closet was converted into a walk-in pantry to house canned goods alongside the microwave.
The den, at the back of the apartment, is paneled in walnut in a nod to the work of Dimorestudio and houses “the biggest TV we could fit on the wall,” Grinder says. “We kind of end every evening in that room before we go our separate ways to our bathrooms to brush our teeth.” The couple considers the two full bathrooms to be a “marriage extender.” “Every 40-year-old deserves their own bathroom,” Cole muses.
Now, after a delayed start with an unresponsive management company and, yes, a global pandemic, the apartment reflects its owners’ tastes, idiosyncrasies, and, of course, familiarity with a good floor plan. That fact that isn’t lost on Studio DB. “That’s the great thing about when you work with people who are so creative in their own right,” Britt says.
Sean Santiago is ELLE Decor‘s Deputy Editor, covering news, trends and talents in interior design, hospitality, travel, and luxury. He writes the So Courant! column for the magazine and elledecor.com.