White Noise

Client: Kelly Behun and her family
Designers: behun ziff design
Location: Midtown
Space: 4,600 square feet

Doing an entire apartment in white is treacherous for even the tidiest. For a young family with two sons under 5 and an intrepid miniature dachshund named GI Judy, it seems positively masochistic. But when Kelly Behun moved into this 52nd-floor midtown apartment, a complete white-out was the only conceivable approach. “We’re all the way up here,” she says—indeed, her boys wave to helicopter pilots and watch storms rumble through the Palisades and down into the city—“so I just thought it should be like a cloud.”

Behun is half of behun ziff design, the interior-design team she founded late in 2001 with Natasha Ziff. Doing her own apartment, she says, “has definitely made me much more sympathetic to the process” of working with clients. “I’m much more in touch with how agonizing all these decisions can be,” she says. She’s also much more in touch with how disconcerting it can be when things go wrong.

The Apartment’s Biggest Asset: The view.

The Developer’s Big Mistake: When Behun and her family first looked at the 4,600-square-foot space—laid out by the high-rise’s developer—the living room, den, and dining room were all discrete spaces divided by thick, yellowish walls. Visitors were greeted not by a sweeping eastern panorama but by a big coat closet.

De-Developing the Space: Behun and Ziff immediately decided to remove the offending closet and walls. The entrance to the den was widened, and the door between the living room and the den was removed. One large structural column remains, but now views stretch east over Central Park through the den and north up the Hudson River through the dining area. The living room has both exposures, which can give, at night, the twinkly effect of looking out from the top of Mulholland Drive (see page 33). It feels more like Julius Shulman’s L.A. than like Manhattan.

The White Way: The white-on-white strategy was devised to make the view even more striking—drawing one’s eyes straight to the windows. The walls were painted “by a bunch of guys in hazmat suits,” says Behun, and the floors were painted and lacquered white. The window mullions had to be spray-painted, which required extensive, meticulous taping. “Once we started going with the white,” says Behun, “it was hard to stop. It was a domino effect of white.” The kitchen cabinets had to be done in white, and then the countertops, and then, of course, the kitchen floor. “But that was the hardest part,” Behun says, “keeping white. Because I would see all these things I loved that were in colors, and I just had to be strict with myself.”

Her Poor Housekeepers: Behun is adamant that white is not harder to clean than colors—in fact, her country house in Watermill is all-white too. “Everything winds up getting dirty,” she admits, “but if there’s enough variation of texture, you don’t even notice the dirt so much.” She was, however, careful to pick easily cleanable fabrics: “Kids,” she swears, “can throw up on ultrasuede.”

The Couch Crisis: Naturally, the furniture had to be white, too, as well as low-to-the-ground and resolutely modern. (The worst thing one can do to a space with a skyline view is to clutter it up.) “I saw them in a magazine, and I wanted them right away,” Behun says of the low, custom-made Vladimir Kagan couches, “but bigger.” So she ordered them, at a cost of $10,000 each. “But there’s always that one call you dread,” she says. In this case, it came when the couches arrived downstairs. Behun had assumed they would be made in pieces; Kagan had assumed they would fit in the service elevator. They hadn’t, they wouldn’t. And when you live on the 52nd floor, hoisting is not an option.

The Couch Solution: “In the end, they had to saw the couches into three pieces, and then reconstruct and reupholster right here,” says Behun. It took three solid days, but she was insistent on it: “I would not have a big honking seam up the middle of my couches.”

Bad Goats: A 17-by-25-foot swatch of goatskin, the living-room rug was originally ordered from a store that the designers hadn’t used before. “It was a foot off,” says Behun. “And it was sort of … yellow,” adds Ziff. After a credit was issued for the mistaken rug, Behun reordered, this time from Intérieurs in Tribeca, which carries rugs from Paris’s Modenature. It could accommodate those dimensions for $20,000; the store had made her first goatskin rug, which now lies in the master bedroom. “Sometimes,” Behun says, “you should just stick with what you know.”

Good Goats: What she hadn’t known, but learned fast, was quite a bit about the grazing habits of goats: “These are French goats,” Behun says of her new rug. “It’s all about the altitude where they graze.” Apparently, if goats graze too high up, their hair can be discolored a bit by the sun. “These goats are the right color,” Ziff says proudly. “And they’re so soft,” adds Behun.

Scan Me Tender: The apartment is shaped like an L, with a playroom and an office reaching off one axis, and the family’s kitchen and three bedrooms off the other. And for all its whiteness, Behun “wanted a burst of color at each end.” So on one end, the children’s playroom is supersaturated in greens and blues, with an entire wall devoted to a surfing Elvis (“My son”—the 4-year-old—“loves Elvis”). Duggal, in Chelsea, does custom wallpaper, and so it was enlisted, at a cost of $10,000, to turn a painting of Elvis that Behun and her husband had found in a Miami gallery into a 15-by-22-foot mural.

Scan Me True: “It’s quite a process,” says Ziff, who is in the middle of having a world map done in this same method for her own son’s bedroom. The image has to be scanned and blown up, bit by bit. Getting the color right is the hardest part, as it looks different onscreen than it will on paper.

Scan Me Completely: After weeks of daily trips to Chelsea, Behun and her son watched anxiously as Elvis was stuck to the wall. “I was having a party for all of the class parents that night,” Behun says, “and I just wanted it up so badly.” Slowly, Elvis was unfurled, from his glistening, blueish pompadour down. It took two men five hours. But when they were done, Presley was cut off right below the knee: The mural’s proportions were off.

Elvis, Take Two: “I went nuts,” Behun says. “They said, ‘But you can still tell that he’s surfing!’ ” The entire mural had to be ripped immediately from the wall, before the adhesive set. And Duggal had to start again from scratch. As for those class parents, well, they can see it now. But Behun lives in some trepidation of her children’s changing tastes. “I’m really afraid my sons will hit a phase where they want a truck up there or something,” she says.

Swaying Apartment: “If there’s one thing you should splurge on, it’s definitely the lighting,” Ziff says. Behun agrees. That said, the first night in the apartment coincided with a great windstorm that sent her carefully assembled collection of chandeliers swinging back and forth. Like other skyscrapers, the tower is designed to sway. “I had never anticipated that,” Behun says. “Those first few nights, it was like being on a ship.” But she insists that the family has acclimated: “I don’t get motion sickness anymore.”

See photos of the penthouse >>>

The Designers’ Education

Starting Out: Behun and Ziff joined Ian Schrager’s design team in 1994 and ’98, respectively—even though neither had any design training. “I knew they had the eye,” Schrager explains.

Big Break: In fact, he soon asked them to do his own Soho loft, a rental—without any supervision. “I didn’t want my designer calling me to look at fabric samples all day. I told them, ‘Just do it. All I want is to move in.’ ” “Our initial reaction was, He must be joking,” says Behun. But Schrager insists that when it was done, he “didn’t change a thing, and that to me says it all.” He also taught them to work with a budget. The apartment is clean and spare, done in whites and browns, with flea-market finds, a tree-trunk coffee table—and a chaise from Ikea.

Selective Practice: Behun and Ziff were encouraged by Schrager to go into business on their own. And unlike most designers, they have the immense luxury of being able to work on their own terms: one client at a time. One of their first jobs was a country home on Long Island for Rupert and Wendi Murdoch. The next may be back at Schrager’s apartment: He has bought it and is thinking of hiring Behun and Ziff for an upgrade.

White Noise