Design Diplomats

David Barton recently saw what he calls “the most beautiful sink,” and can’t wait to talk about it. It’s damp and drafty in the formerly grand first floor of what was once the McBurney YMCA on West 23rd Street. Barton is there, in orange pants and a desert-camo overcoat, the arms of which are too long for him, with the young architects he’s hired, Dominic Kozerski and Enrico Bonetti, to turn the building that inspired the Village People’s catchy paean to low-cost male bonding into a lavish multilevel gym complex—a “fantasy of what the Y should’ve looked like.” And the right sink is an essential part of that fantasy.

“Just go see it. It’s on 20th Street,” he tells them. “It’s like cast concrete. The scale is big; it’s elegant, simple, beautiful. It’s warm, but it’s also like something you’d see in a Roman bath 1,000 years ago.”

His architects look the slightest bit troubled by this, so he adds, “I know it’s a different kind of thing than we were thinking about before.”

Bonetti ventures that “yes, we’re looking for something which is beautiful but not trying too hard.” But they agree they’ll check it out.

In the aesthetic diplomacy between an architect and a client, much is left unsaid that nonetheless has to be understood with draftable clarity. And it’s in this form of subtle, anticipatory customer service, as much as for their visual skills, that Bonetti and Kozerski excel—it’s one important reason why Barton hired them.

“They don’t have a lot of ego invested in it,” Barton says later in the sales office. “They’re not like, I have this idea, now I have to see it come to fruition. I know they don’t want to hear that I saw another sink. And we may not go with the sink, but there’s an idea with the sink. A sexy idea. And they’ll get that idea and incorporate that idea.”

Kozerski, who’s 34 and British, and Bonetti, who’s 40 and Italian, aren’t out to put any defiant, take-it-or-leave-it Howard Roark–like imprint on the world, at least not now. Instead, they solve problems—elegance crises for the sorts of high-caste clients who find solace in their style of bespoke luxury minimalism.

“They represent a next generation of the minimalism craze of the mid-to-late nineties,” says Mayer Rus, design editor of House & Garden. “And they take that aesthetic of gorgeous white planes and take out the more clinical aspects of it, pumping in a little soulful Zen sensitivity, with rough-hewn wood, more texture, sometimes more luxurious materials.” That craze found its fullest realization in quasi-religious retail environments, like Jil Sander’s and Calvin Klein’s stores. And so it’s appropriate that Bonetti and Kozerski design both boutiques and homes. They provide good, clean space—an Americanized East—for their solace-seeking clientele. Go to their Barton gym to escape into a more elevated world. And then go to a home they’ve designed and your immersion into their world of artfully arranged peace and quiet will be complete.

But their success as a young firm—Bonetti/Kozerski Studio was founded only in 2000—has less to do with their aesthetic than how they’ve met the challenge of client-architect relations. It’s about their get-along charm. Compromise. And good social skills.

“In our position, at our age, we can’t dictate to a client,” says Bonetti, the more droll and free-speaking of the two even through his accent. “You have to do that, you’re going to live like that. So it’s more of a collaboration.”

Bonetti’s old friend Paola Antonelli, a curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, concurs. “Some people have the patience and talent to interpret other people’s desires, even if you disagree with them,” she says. “That’s Enrico and Dominic. Others can’t—that’s me.”

They learned how to do that working for Peter Marino, the antic court architect for the home, office, and retail biospheres of the international fashion elite and the ridiculously wealthy. He’s a meticulous and talented designer, true—but his genius is in pleasing his clients. “I think they really had a good master there,” says Antonelli.

Bonetti moved to New York from Venice, where he was designing luxury shelter for people like a former Italian prime minister, and got hired by Marino to mostly fly back to Europe and work on projects there. Kozerski got a job with Marino in New York fresh out of architecture school in 1994, and was also given international commuter duties. He was put in charge of minding Donna Karan, for whom the company was building a store in London.

“Suddenly, I was riding around in a limo with her and eating at all these restaurants that, when I was a student, I just looked at as these amazing places,” he says with the schoolboyish enthusiasm of someone who knows he’s gotten lucky. He became Marino’s Karan attaché for several other projects. By 1997, she had taken such a shine to him that she asked him to go in-house. “It was one of those great New York–style opportunities that you take,” he says.

As director of creative services, he designed “nearly twenty” stores all over the world, and worked on a guest house and yogic retreat adjacent to Karan’s home in East Hampton. (She got him and Bonetti to start doing yoga, too.) When the famously real-estate-hesitant Karan finally settled on an apartment she wanted to buy on Central Park West, Kozerski called Bonetti and told him that this could be their opportunity to start their own firm.

Karan had asked another purveyor of fashion Zen, Michael Gabellini, to do the apartment. “But we knew that was not going to go anywhere,” says Bonetti. “So Dominic kept calling me, saying, ‘We’ve got to be ready.’ ” And Kozerski was right: Karan agreed to hear them out.

Their proposal for the low-ceilinged apartment, in the Ghostbusters building on Central Park West, came in the form of a walk-through mock-up. Movable linen walls, of the sort Kozerski had once used for fashion shows, were installed in the gutted, blockwide space. “The apartment was almost built as a three-dimensional theater set,” he says. Karan moved the walls around at different times of the day for about a month until she “got it.”

This being New York, however, there was more than just the client to please. “That apartment is in one of the toughest co-ops on the West Side,” says Antonelli. “That’s when reality starts to hit. Even if the ideas are great, they’re a dollar a pound. The real test is being able to defend it through the obstacles.”

It was a test they passed. And Karan was happy, too. She especially liked the way Bonetti and Kozerski lit it one night with votive candles from the floor—it made the walls glow and the ceiling less oppressive. In the finished apartment, light spills up the wax-coated Venetian plaster walls from chic little gutters where they meet the floor. Along the way, their firm was born. They have since designed the Donna Karan Collections store on 69th Street and Madison, a renovation of a Carrère and Hastings townhouse with a dramatic angled staircase and small meditation garden out back.

“Dominic and I have been collaborating for a very long time,” says Karan. “And working with him is like having a person get into your psyche who creates your desired environment and makes dreams come true.”

Bonetti and Kozerski sit next to each other at a shared desk. The effect is somewhat two-headed, and their gleeful back-and-forth a bit like those grumpy old men from The Muppet Show. But their postures vary: The Italian will lean back, hands behind his head, while the Brit hunches forward, more tensely attentive. Visitors to their concrete-floored office on Lafayette Street sit on red Saarinen chairs and face them (their twin Eames office chairs are black). They moved here a year ago, from a smaller space a block south on the corner of Spring. They just hired their eighth employee (who sits on the other side of the Ikea shelving).

Sometimes in the morning, if they’re expecting a visitor, they call each other from home to make sure they don’t end up wearing the same thing. Often they finish each other’s sentences. When the jazz that’s playing on Bonetti’s computer gets too loud, they both reach for the volume control at the same time.

“We’ve given up on having secrets,” says Kozerski, who also says that they share the design tasks equally, passing plans back and forth.

“It’s a funny mix,” says Barton. “The English one is sort of like the innovator, and the Italian is sort of the one who sees the beauty and the style. They have a totally different cultural background, too.”

Bonetti, whose wife is a correspondent for Italian TV, has two children and lives in one of those gigantic and uninteresting brick apartment towers that lord over Broadway and 8th Street. His grandfather owned a construction company, and he grew up in Bologna and started his architectural career in Venice. In 1995, he moved to the United States because he was convinced that a few more years in Venice and he’d be there the rest of his life. When asked about his inspiration, he reaches above his head and pulls down a book about Gio Ponti, the playful Italian Modernist and industrial designer. (“The quintessence of eclecticism,” says Antonelli. “You could look through that book forever and still not have an idea of his style.”)

Kozerski, who’s unmarried and lives in Dumbo, came to the U.S. after winning a scholarship to finish his architectural education at Cooper Union. His father, who’d immigrated to England from Poland, was an architect. “But a very sort of socially conscious architect in that he only worked on town-planning projects in London,” he says. “So he never really built buildings—he built sort of huge flyovers and city parks and that sort of thing.”

His dad gave him an appreciation for well-meaning postwar British architecture—Kozerski’s eyes light up at the mention of the Abbey Road estates, a bleak yet invitingly futuristic concrete public-housing megastructure in London. “He spent his entire career telling me, ‘Don’t become an architect because you’ll be poor and unhappy,’ ” he says, with his little grin. “Still poor but not unhappy.”

Despite their success, “the business part is still tough,” says Bonetti. They do some projects for the attention—loss leaders to get more work. “We definitely do a lot of things which aren’t very profitable for us—a few too many,” he says. And that’s when you get paid at all. “You would never try not to pay an engineer. You think it’s sacred, what they do,” he says. “People tend to want to screw us. This big Korean company asked for us to come up with ideas for a new store concept. And then they said they were going with another architect. They open the store with completely our design. Our lawyers said, ‘It’s going to cost too much to fight this thing.’ It sucks.”

More providentially, the shrubbery of Ian Schrager’s penthouse is visible through their office window. They’ve talked to him about projects, and even done the offices of the Gap’s ad agency, Laird & Partners, with its Bakelite wall, in the same office building as his. More important, Schrager introduced them to Barton.

Bonetti says that “we don’t devote much time” to drumming up clients. “We’ve been lucky for now,” he says. “We don’t go to benefits” to troll. Karan had them do her Collections boutique in Tokyo, and they’re working on a “concept” for more DKNY stores. At a party at her beach house, they met gambling mogul Steve Wynn, who asked them to do a nightclub inside his mammoth new Wynn Vegas casino. It’s not going to be built, though. Neither is the restaurant they worked on for Brian McNally, but he recommended them to Diane von Furstenberg when she wanted an instant nightclub built for her and Barry Diller’s wedding fête.

They met Schrager’s lodging nemesis, Andre Balazs, at a party Karan threw for avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid, and are finishing up a vast, Uma-friendly Soho loft for him, with backlit linen walls and “a lot of polyester matte finishes.” They’re doing a second gym for Barton in Chicago, another “retail and showroom concept” for Tod’s, and an apartment in the Time Warner Center.

Headstrong clients like these appreciate their flexibility. “Some people try to sell some conceptual ideas,” says Bonetti. But Peter Marino, from whom they learned so much, “gets right to the heart of it—the small details.” He imitates Marino’s voice: “ ‘When you close the door it’s going to sound like this, it’s going to sound nice.’ All these little things.”

Barton, who interviewed “a hundred firms” for the Chelsea job, was sold on them partly because of the rough-hewn wooden stair rail in their otherwise cool and precise Collections store. “It’s hand-cut and just the right size,” he says. “You just want to put your hand on it; it feels so good coming down those stairs. You’re so elevated walking up the staircase there.”

His posh fantasy YMCA has to be all about those tactile details. The tile. The superfancy showerhead that sends out a “blade” of water (while “the shower body you could probably find in a prison,” says Bonetti). “There are some firms that you talk to—their ideas were intellectually interesting,” says Barton. “But I don’t come into a gym and have to wrap my brain around a concept. So I get it mentally. Seeing some kind of representational, artistic, high-concept design. I want somebody to come in here and feel really good and not know why. There should be a beauty that everyone gets.”

Barton lives across the street from the Y, at the Chelsea Hotel, with his family. He was never a member, though. We’re standing in the first floor of the building, which is soon to be home to a herd of cardio machines. “I’m trying to create here the fantasy of what I imagine it was like a hundred years ago, and what they probably had in mind.”

The architect’s job is to interpret what he thinks he means by that, to get into his psyche. They recount how, when they talk to Barton, the metaphors are all in movies. The room with the boxing ring will have unfinished walls and a faux-leather floor. Think Fight Club. The dual-level basement with the weights, where the hundred-year-old girders meet the concrete foundation: Aliens. The Turkish bath, Steam. The VIP entrance, GoodFellas.

A marble stairway curves up to what will be the locker rooms and his-and-hers Turkish baths and steam rooms. Bonetti and Kozerski wanted to make the baths coed, but Barton nixed that idea. Barton knows his demographic. They want a “two-pronged experience,” he says. “There’s the part where you work out, which should be as comfortable as a living room, and then where you bathe and change, which should be like the bathroom everybody wishes they had in New York.”

The men’s zone is larger than the women’s. Because of an optical trick with the angle of the walls, the wall-size supergraphics identifying the same-sex entrance, when you get to the top of the stairs, seem to say “men” and “men” when you look at it straight on. They know their demo, too.

And in the end, the trick was keeping the fantasy alive. Which will include keeping the slogan enter here to be and find a friend over the front doorway. And inviting the Village People to play at the opening (they did it for a couple of free memberships).

Bonetti and Kozerski did go and look at that sink. “We don’t like it very much,” says Bonetti. “It looks like it was deeply studied to be fancy.” Trying too hard.

The question is what mind-melding leaves behind. “That’s the issue,” says moma’s Antonelli. “Who knows what they really have inside themselves—yet. One day they might be doing rococo.” They do specialize in a quality, though—what Antonelli calls the sense of being in “your own fantastic bubble,” which is certainly the case with Karan’s apartment, a vast, fussed-over black-and-ivory space over the park.

Walking around that place, Bonetti lifts the toilet seat to show it was hand-carved. They had her sit in a mock-up of the bathtub, adjusting it to fit her just so. The couches are teak and took five weeks to finish in Bali. The cushions are the length of her extended legs. He points out the fact that the sink in the toilet most guests would use is strong enough to hold up someone’s body weight (“In case, at a party … ”). A mirror in another bathroom is positioned in front of a window on an armature to let in the light but block the unattractive view. The little touch-screen control panels around the house were designed with her lighting settings built in.

The nearly block-long space is clean and, in fact, serene. When we’re in Karan’s bedroom he says, “She had problems sleeping, and she really thanked us for the way it works now. Where the light comes from, how it feels in the morning, the right mix of things.”

The nightstand has a compartment for Karan’s dream book, Kleenex, pills, and glasses. The lighting trough that runs along the baseboard in her yoga studio has a different type of bulb from those in the rest of the apartment, so that it isn’t hot if she steps on it.

“These are all things that we give to her without her asking us,” Bonetti says. “She doesn’t know.”

Some things she might not want to know. There’s a backlit linen panel out of place, a light out behind the shelving, a sticky door on one of the pieces of custom teak furniture. “I am a maintenance man also,” he jokes, banging things back into place. He and Kozerski are writing a user’s manual for the apartment.

Karan isn’t home, but one of her assistants follows us into the kitchen as he continues the tour. “The only thing missing, you guys, in this kitchen is a place to put the garbage, and to put paper towels,” she says. “I was in a house in Idaho, they had an insane kitchen, the most perfect kitchen I’ve ever been in. They did not waste one inch of space.”

She goes on, critiquing the location of the chef’s desk, the lack of a juice fridge, and the lack of a window seat.

Photo: Courtesy of Bonetti/Kozerski

Interior Dialogue
After two years of thinking and talking, the renovation can seem the easy part.

THEY MET: She’d lived in this Central Park West duplex since 1986, and her eye was wandering. “Over the last few years, I’d been trying to convince my husband that I wanted a change,” says the owner, an attractive empty-nester with multiple homes who asked that her name not be used. The French Art Deco pieces she’d collected seemed not right for her now. She was feeling more Asian, simple. Two years ago, she walked into the Donna Karan Collections store on Madison, and its clean space came as a revelation to her. She asked for the name of the architects, and was handed Bonetti/Kozerski’s card. That store simply “makes me feel good. It’s very calming.” She and Enrico Bonetti are sitting at a card table in her empty living room—days before the demolition was to begin—going through a file folder of pictures of chairs she’d torn out of magazines.

HOW IT CAME TO THIS: Her apartment has an interesting provenance: Most of it had been designed by Robert A. M. Stern in the seventies, in all white. Later, Michael Graves redid a hallway in postmodern style (that hall was later donated to the Brooklyn Museum). The couple spent a year gutting and redoing the place with Deco-appropriate pommele walls (left, second photo). Their architects also inserted an oblong opening in the living-room ceiling up to the master bedroom.

WHAT SHE WANTED: A new phase in her life. “I’m letting go of things. And reaching for something more feng shui.” The Deco collection went to auction. Plus she had to get rid of that hole in her apartment. “I couldn’t sleep because of it,” she says. “I swear, I’m telling you it’s because of that opening.”

HUSBAND TROUBLE: “It was a process for my husband to get his mind in gear with—‘She wants to rip the whole apartment out, and she wants to sell all the furniture when I love it.’ So it took a little convincing.”

COMING TO AN UNDERSTANDING: They got him onboard by interesting him in the technical aspects of the renovation (“He’s a frustrated G.C.,” she says) and by limiting its scope to the living and dining rooms (left, third photo), master bedroom (left, first photo), and a dressing area for her. Venetian plaster replaced the wood panels. “I said I wanted red here, which is very feng shui also,” she says. “But I didn’t want lipstick red, so it took a few times till we got it.”

THINGS ARE COOKING: “Did I tell you I finally got him on the kitchen?” she asks Bonetti. “Did he agree?” asks Bonetti. “He doesn’t have a choice,” she says. Bonetti is standing in front of the stove, looking at her sparkling collection of high-end hanging pans. “I’d like to prepare a risotto for you—it’s my specialty,” he says. She smiles brightly. —Carl Swanson

Design Diplomats