May 30, 2021Ernest de la Torre knows how to make his clients happy. This duplex penthouse in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood is the seventh project he has done for its owner, a Philadelphia-based media mogul. The relationship began about 15 years ago, when the client was a bachelor with a pad overlooking Soho and a nascent collection of black-and-white photos.
Now married with two children, he lives in an apartment as big as a suburban house, with most of the same amenities (including a lawn for the kids to play on). But when he bought the 7,000-square-foot glass box atop a 19th-century industrial building, the space was raw. So the homeowner brought in de la Torre and architect Edward Siegel to create what the designer calls “a collector’s apartment with a family-friendly twist.”
De la Torre, who grew up in Chicago, received a master’s degree in fine and decorative arts from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. In New York in the 1990s, he worked for Ian Schrager, on the redesign of Midtown Manhattan’s Morgans Hotel, and for Ralph Lauren Home, as a creative director. He opened his own office at the end of 2001. “After 9/11, I decided it was time to get on with my life.”
Since then, he has established relationships with many artisans to whom he turns again and again. Given its size and complexity, the Tribeca apartment drew on almost all of those relationships. “It’s a culmination of work I’ve done in the past,” de la Torre says, “and the client understood that right away.”
Here, the designer takes us on a tour, starting with the public rooms on the upper level and then heading downstairs to the bedrooms and TV room of the private family quarters.
Main Foyer & Stairwell
Before de la Torre came along, the apartment’s dramatic central stairway was open to the living room. Siegel had a translucent glass wall added that, de la Torre says, “lets you be present in the living room while knowing that there’s more space beyond.” Elsewhere, he covered walls in resin panels by Italian artist Alex Turco containing a “silver drip” pattern.
De la Torre says, “If you go into a room and you don’t know why it makes you feel good, it could be the textures. I like to layer as many as I can. That’s what I learned working at Ralph Lauren: Layer, layer layer.”
He took this lesson to heart in the living room. The custom sofa is upholstered in hand-loomed chenille, which is “super soft and comfortable.” So is the Campana Brothers’ chair swaddled in plush panda bears. The Karl Springer coffee table, from Cain Modern, is wrapped in leather, and the end table (really a faceted sculpture by a Chinese artist) is polished metal. The silk rug is a shag, so it has some depth, says de la Torre. The plaster walls are “raked horizontally.” In other words, each item brings a distinctive texture to the room.
Both the fireplace surround — a work in nickel-plated bronze — and the mirror hanging above it are by the Spanish artists Juan and Paloma Garrido; de la Torre acquired the pieces through Maison Gerard. He designed the drapes with horizontals at the same elevation as the mullions on the translucent glass wall. “The architect is always making sure I line up everything, so I anticipate it now,” he says of Siegel, with whom he has worked on all seven projects for this client, while the architect was a partner and design director at Cooper Robertson.
On the wall of the dining area, just beyond the sofa, hangs a George Condo painting.
Open to the living room, the dining area centers on a marquetry table that de la Torre had made in Indonesia. The chairs surrounding it are vintage Ico Parisi, from MORENTZ, upholstered in a bespoke fabric. A collection of Anish Kapoor works on paper hangs on a long wall over a pair of tubular steel cabinets by Paul Evans, from Donzella.
Why two cabinets? “If I use something that’s out there in the market, I like to find a way to make it unique,” explains the designer, who pushed the two pieces together so they read like one long sideboard. “It becomes, essentially, a custom size.” The pieces’ cylindrical forms echo those of the living room fireplace at the other end of the space. The light fixture of curved wood and fabric, from Todd Merrill Studio, is by artist John Procario.
In his office, which is also on the upper level, the client wanted an adjustable-height desk, so he could work standing or sitting, but “the ones on the market are not beautiful,” de la Torre says. So he bought a well-made Steelcase version and had it re-covered in gouged and ebonized oak. “Why try to reinvent the wheel?” de la Torre asks, referring to the desk’s hydraulic mechanism.
The Pierre Chareau club chairs are covered in a Ralph Lauren suede, and the sofa is upholstered in a Holly Hunt cashmere. The rust-and-navy area rug is custom, as is the light fixture, which is draped in Clarence House horsehair. The work on paper is by Richard Woods.
Next to the office is the kitchen, which Siegel had outfitted with white oak cabinets made by Henrybuilt. The lighting and pot rack are from Urban Archaeology. The Charles and Ray Eames stools are indestructible, the designer says. Almost as sturdy is the runner on the floor, composed of pieces of laser-cut cowhide. “It’s amazing how resilient cowhide is,” says de la Torre. Made by Kyle Bunting, one of de la Torre’s frequent collaborators, the piece brings a shock of color to the mostly pale room.
In the breakfast area, the designer used a plastic-laminated Josef Frank fabric — depicting a map of Central Park — both for the chairs, which surround an Eero Saarinen Tulip table, and for the front of the custom credenza.
De la Torre says he can “have fun and go a little over-the-top” with powder rooms, because no one spends long periods of time in them. For the one off the upstairs foyer — which opens to a pair of outdoor showers on the terrace — he designed a very shallow cement sink and found the mirror and light fixture, made by an Italian artist, at DRAKE.
The apartment’s 2,000-square-foot outdoor space, north and east of the upstairs living areas, was bare. It needed to be organized into open-air rooms, and the clients needed sun protection. So architect Siegel designed a series of arbors, which establish separate areas for cooking, eating and lounging.
De la Torre brought in seating from DEDON, and he designed the “split surfboard” coffee table, made in Holland, of a resin that he’s certain will survive outdoors. In a corner of the terrace, a small lawn of fake grass — the realistic kind, which even has little pieces of “dead” grass in it — gives the kids a place to play. Before the photo shoot, “there was a tricycle and all kinds of toys out there,” de la Torre says.
Downstairs Foyer & Hallway
De la Torre designed the bench at the bottom of the stairwell, and he chose hooks made in Germany with animal faces on them “to delight the kids when they hang up their coats.” (The apartment has an entrance on this level, too.) A niche in the curved part of the wall contains a light fixture by Mark Brazier-Jones, which is seen dead-center from the parents’ bedroom. An arched ceiling and large artworks by John Rosis help make the approach to that bedroom dramatic.
“I usually upholster bedroom walls, to absorb sound,” says de la Torre. Here, the designer used a celadon-colored Holland & Sherry wool felt, framed in mahogany. He paired the wall covering with a headboard made in the Philippines by artisans who specialize in the delicate art of straw marquetry. The night tables, made in Bali, are inlaid with shell that resembles mother-of-pearl. The artwork over the headboard is by Liz Markus, while the piece above the low bureau is by McDermott & McGough. The client, de la Torre says, fell in love with the gold-plated, 3-D-printed ceiling light by Finnish artist Janne Kyttanen.
This room had been more completed by the developers than the apartment’s other spaces. De la Torre was happy with it, but he didn’t like the bare walls above the marble panels. More marble, however, “would have been too much. And you can’t hang wallpaper in a bathroom with a steam shower — it’ll peel right off.” So, he chose to install resin panels patterned with raindrops that “glitter as you walk by.” He also added the Ralph Lauren lighting. Siegel, meanwhile, created new trim, hidden mirrored medicine cabinets and custom Henrybuilt vanities.
Her Dressing Room
This room couldn’t be more feminine: Cabinetry is surfaced in a mix of clear and antique mirror; the knobs are gold and mother-of-pearl. De la Torre used a whimsical pink-and-turquoise fabric from Élitis for the roman shades, and a female symbol is embroidered into the felt rug.
His Dressing Room
Lots of oak cabinets, with leather pulls, ooze masculinity. For the window shades, de la Torre had slivers of tobacco wood sewn into abaca (a woven fabric from the Philippines). On the walls are works from the homeowner’s black-and-white photography collection, including works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Irving Penn. The photos had hung in the study of his previous apartment. “Things from former homes end up in unlikely places,” de la Torre says. “But the client loves having the photos where he can see them every day.”
A passageway perpendicular to the barrel-vaulted hallway leads to the kids’ bedrooms. The clients purchased the crib for their son’s room; de la Torre placed it in front of a backdrop of Phillip Jeffries wallpaper. The hanging pendant light is a reissue of an Isamu Noguchi design.
For the daughter’s room, de la Torre designed the custom trundle bed and commissioned the gemstone mural from Flavor Paper. The chair is upholstered in a unique vintage material, and the sculptural artwork above the dresser is by Carson Fox.
The Flavor Paper wallcovering is based on Andy Warhol’s flower paintings — a fun way to introduce kids to art, de la Torre says. The extra-wide Moooi chairs, in purple chenille, let parents easily sit with their kids for storytime. Moooi’s Common Comrades side tables and a light fixture by Ayala Serfaty for Aqua Creations make the room pop.
Asked for the biggest difference between the first apartment he designed for the client and this one, de la Torre points to a distinction that’s largely invisible. “This one had to be childproof,” he says. “The other didn’t.”
Get the Look
Channel the look of this Tribeca penthouse with items handpicked by designer Ernest de la Torre.