Go Inside Lee F. Mindel’s Masterful Renovation of One of His Own Designs
Two decades after renovating a family’s Manhattan apartment, the architect undertakes a dramatic reinvention spurred by their ever-expanding collection of adventurous art
At some point in our lives, all of us crave an “adult” home: a beautifully furnished, thoughtfully organized space that reflects our evolved tastes and more sophisticated style. For one New York couple, the urge to upgrade wasn’t just about reaching the empty-nester stage but also needing rooms better tailored for displaying art—lots of it. “Our collection had grown, our three kids were out of the house, and we both liked working from home,” explains the wife, who is a filmmaker. “We wanted a grown-up apartment.”
To be clear, it wasn’t as though the couple had been living with college-dorm decor. Two decades ago, when they purchased their five-bedroom prewar Upper East Side residence, they turned to the architecture and design firm SheltonMindel for a down-to-the-studs renovation, which included a glassed-in entry vestibule, separate dining and living rooms, and ample built-in shelves to hold their books and collectibles. Working soon after 9/11, when a desire to feel protected was paramount, the firm’s principal, Lee F. Mindel, paneled most of the rooms in warm anigre wood to create a sense of a welcoming retreat.
Three years ago the couple once again commissioned Mindel to reimagine the interiors, this time aiming for an airy, soigné vibe, all the better for entertaining and displaying their adventurous contemporary art. “I wanted everything white and calm for the living areas,” recalls the wife, a prolific collector of ceramics, sculptures, and large-scale paintings. “I always say, ‘Let the art and the guests provide the color.’ ”
“I always say, ‘Let the art and the guests provide the color’ ”
Mindel removed the many built-in shelves that had obstructed the hanging of art, eliminated one of the two hallways, and tucked additional storage space behind millwork. He crafted a sleek oak-lined banquette dining nook in the kitchen—an homage, according to the history-minded architect, to Edward Hopper’s famous diner painting, Nighthawks. He removed the walls entirely between the living and dining rooms to form a single, free-flowing space. Now distinct sitting areas at either end flank a dining area with two large custom-made tables on gliders, allowing them to be pushed together or separated. “During the day it can serve as a WeWork,” the wife says with a laugh, “and at night I can seat 20 for dinner.”
“People generally don’t use their living rooms and don’t use their dining rooms,” says Mindel. “Here, they use everything. The apartment is like a boat, because every bit of space is utilized.” Working with his interiors colleague Grace V. Sierra, Mindel updated the mix of furnishings, repurposing select pieces like the husband’s favorite chair, a 1955 Hans Wegner prototype, which they paired with a ’60s Serge Mouille table and a rare 1939 Märta Blomstedt sheepskin armchair and ottoman in one of the room’s seating areas.
Mindel also deepened window bays in a nod to prewar elegance and replaced the more typical crown molding with recessed paneling to do away with any visual distractions to the art. Presiding over one end of the living-dining space is a monumental four-panel work by John Armleder featuring chromatic striations he creates by pouring paint colors onto a tilted canvas. Nearby stands a figurative sculpture by Thomas Houseago crafted from plaster and hemp and too fragile to move during the renovation—when it was originally installed, an elbow broke, yet the piece doesn’t look worse for the wear.
Hanging at the room’s opposite end is a vibrant abstract painting by Gerhard Richter bought in 1999, when the couple started to get serious about collecting. “It was more than we’d spent on anything other than our apartment,” the wife recalls, “but someone once told me, ‘Buy the best you can buy and trust yourself. Buy with your eyes.’ ” A series of bronze figurines by William Kentridge situated above the fireplace, meanwhile, reminded them of Indonesian gamelan puppets they’d seen while living in Southeast Asia in the ’90s.
Elsewhere, Mindel refreshed the primary bedroom, using soothing hues of nude and pale pink to heighten the seductive effect of a vintage sculptural chaise longue by Hans Hartl, a colorful resin chair by Gaetano Pesce, and mesmerizing artworks by Charline von Heyl, Olafur Eliasson, and Rita Ackermann. He also fashioned a pair of art-filled home offices (in shades of pink for the wife, blue for her husband), and outfitted a powder room with a flamboyant blue Misha Kahn balloon mirror and walls to match. And because this is a grown-up apartment, after all, Mindel reconceived the dressing room with enough concealed storage for an abundance of high heels as well as a proper laundry room, filling this space, too, with art.
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2022 Fall Issue under the headline “Robust Refresh.” Subscribe to the magazine.