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Her Serene Highness

Fashion designer Vivienne Tam’s airy retreat combines high style and Asian influences. Just like its trend-setting owner.

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The apartment's pièce de résistance is the master bath, sheathed in three different marbles—rusty Breschia de Vendome, green Cippolino Verde, and gray Carrara—all from Ionian Marble, Inc. (2470 49th St., Astoria; 718-274-1997).  

Designer Vivienne Tam has lived in her lower Fifth Avenue penthouse since 1990 but, like most New Yorkers, wasn’t ready for a renovation that was more than skin-deep. “It is so expensive when you move in, I didn’t have the money to decorate or renovate,” she says. Born in China, raised in Hong Kong, and Catholic-school-educated, Tam moved to New York in 1983 to launch a fashion business, one that melded her Eastern and Western sensibilities. Since 1994, she has been producing her signature line of Asian-inspired clothing, sold at her Soho flagship store, as well as at boutiques and department stores throughout the U.S.

Last summer, Tam finally decided to give her apartment a makeover. Aided by designers Scott Crolla and Lionel Bourcelot of Ether, Tam took her 1,500 square feet down to the bones. Every concrete column was stripped and left exposed; the popcorn ceiling was peeled away; the tacky eighties parquet discarded and replaced with walnut planks. Walls disappeared between kitchen and living room, and a small guest bedroom turned into a meditation studio. She even expanded her living room’s spectacular view by removing a nonstructural column.

The light is so beautiful and the ceiling is high and the location is great, so why move to a new place?” she asks. “Just renew it so you get a fresh feeling.”

Her goal was to give the apartment a feeling of solidity despite its dubious postwar pedigree. “To get a solid, grounded feeling in a new building is hard—everything is so thin,” she says. The solution was a medley of textures and finishes applied to the walls—a smooth, striated plaster coating makes many of the walls look like stone; a panel on another shimmers like mother-of-pearl. “When the light hits there, it is silvery, which is very Chinese,” Tam says. “Also, with the lacquer red color by the entrance, I am keeping a Chinese feeling.” Chinese, yes, but convincingly blended with minimalist art and modern furniture, Tam’s apartment has the same leavening effect on the traditional as her designs do on Asian garb, making each element seem lighter, brighter, and more defined.

To see photos of Vivienne Tam's apartment, buy the April 28, 2003 issue of New York Magazine.

VIVIENNE TAM’S CITY GUIDE

PERSONAL STYLING: “Before I do a collection, I love to shop. I’m a designer—of course I like to look at clothes! In the neighborhood, Cheap Jack’s Vintage Clothing [841 Broadway; 212-777-9564] is great, and so is Cherry [19 Eighth Avenue; 212-924-1410] for secondhand clothing. Also, along 14th Street, there are all the new stores I shop at, like Jeffrey [449 West 14th Street; 212-206-1272].”

BOOKING UP:Revolution Books [9 West 19th Street; 212-691-3345] is wonderful. I get a lot of reference books there, fashion books, Asian books—all older, out-of-print books.”

EATING OUT: “I love to go to City Bakery [3 West 18th Street; 212-366-1414]. They have all my favorite cakes, the chocolate tarts. Marquet [15 East 12th Street; 212-229-9313] is really cute. I love to go there for breakfast. There is also a neighborhood place called Village Yogurt [547 Sixth Avenue; 212-929-3752]. They have little dumplings. It is so cheap. And sometimes we call for delivery from the noodle place Republic [37 Union Square West; 212-627-7172].”

FOR THE APARTMENT: “Of course, Bed Bath & Beyond [620 Sixth Avenue; 212-255-3550]. I have that grill, the George Foreman grill, from there. Also Bodum [413–415 West 14th Street; 212-367-9125].”

EATING IN: “Oh, the Union Square farmers’ market is great. I also go to Garden of Eden [7 East 14th Street; 212-255-4200] and Healthy Pleasures: I love it because they have organic food [93 University Place; 212-353-3663]. Whole Foods [250 Seventh Avenue; 212-924-5969] is a great place to get flowers. We get all our flowers there.”

PLAYING HOST: “Everybody who comes, once they see the bathroom, they say, ‘Oh, can I have a bath?’ They come over to have drinks and they sit in there. There’s a feeling of wanting to spend time in instead of going out. Right now I am enjoying having Chinese tea very much. It has a little ceremony. Sometimes we offer Chinese desserts. We make them—it’s easy. I learned from my mother.”


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