The Home Team

New Yorkers have always been apartment-obsessed, the kind of people who see decorating as a competitive sport. Recently, buoyed by the economy and weary of all that cookie-cutter minimalism, we’ve been yearning for one-of-a-kind personal spaces: rooms with drama, detail, an element of surprise. And behind New York’s most spectacular interiors are special-effects dream teams – the upholsterers, furniture-makers, decorative painters, metalworkers, and floor experts whose names are carefully guarded in the Rolodexes of the city’s top architects and interior designers. In their studios and workshops around the city, these highly skilled craftspeople keep arcane decorative-arts traditions alive and devise entirely new ones, using twenty-first-century materials and moxie. Here, we’ve tracked down a few of the virtuosos whose behind-the-scenes wizardry – from witty postmodern panoramas to mood- and shape-
altering slipcovers to floors embedded with mirrors – makes the front-room magic possible.

Anandamali derives its name from a Sanskrit term that means “blissful garland,” a necklace composed of charms accumulated over a lifetime. Assembling objects that had previous lives into something new and whimsical is exactly what owner Cheryl Hazen and her colleague Cecile Arnaud do. They remake ordinary furniture with a technique called picassiete – French for “stolen plates” – which involves cutting plates into mosaics, much the same way that old drapes and clothes are cut up to create quilts. What makes these Anandamali dressers, backsplashes, dining tables, side tables, mantelpieces, and murals so extraordinary is that the porcelain shards – even if they’re patterned delft or Limoges – are used as a painter uses pigment for virtuoso effects. Their sense of style can be campy, like a mirror framed by celebrity Marilyn Monroe and Kennedy plates. Or it can be modernist chic, like a white-on-white composition for a Peter Marino client in the south of France. No matter what, each work is ingenious (note the mug handles used as drawer pulls) and one-of-a-kind.

Today, a client can buy a ready-made piece from the gallery, or bring in fabrics and paint samples and Anandamali can create something to order. They stock more than 10,000 plates, thousands of mosaics, and dozens of colored grouts and have a warehouse of furniture ready to customize. Years of this work have given Hazen a deconstructionist eye: “Every plate I see at a flea market, I imagine how it would look broken.”

(Anandamali, 35 North Moore Street; 212-343-8964. Prices range from $100 for small frames and hurricane lamps to $15,000 and higher for a custom mantelpiece.)

Adam Cvijanovic not only is capable of painting like a Renaissance master but is himself a twenty-first-century autodidact version of a Renaissance man. A high-school dropout, Cvijanovic taught himself to use artistic techniques from oils to tempera, and his commissioned portraits and murals employ a keen sense of postmodern wit in the Mark Tansey vein. In the atrium of photographer-philanthropist Henry Buhl’s loft, for example, he created a frieze that at first glance appears to be stolen off a Roman temple. Closer examination, however, reveals that Cvijanovic has painted a complex still life of photography equipment. For another mural series, Cvijanovic did a riff on Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Views of Rome,” studying New York’s greatest structures to anticipate how they might deteriorate – imagine sheep grazing by a picturesque ruin of Grand Central station. But the most ambitious project is his “Extreme Environments” wallpaper, for which he takes what he calls “the kind of places you see in car commercials” and tweaks their larger-than-life qualities. “Monument Valley,” “Greenland Ice Cap,” “Tropical Rain Forest,” and “Pebble Beach” are inspired by Zuber wallpaper, the Museum of Natural History’s taxidermy backdrops, even Western movies. Cvijanovic has developed a system that allows the client to mix and match panels from within each series. With “Monument Valley,” for example, one could order the scenic panels of flowering desert plants, or an Indian-warrior scene, or throw in a John Ford crew filming that very scene for his 1956 film The Searchers.

Cvijanovic uses archival paint on Tyvek, meaning that a panorama for an entire room can be removed and stored in rolls that weigh only about twenty pounds – and fit in the bottom of a closet. “Commercial art has never been my primary agenda, but the wallpaper project is one that bridges both worlds,” says Cvijanovic. “It can be either provocative or completely innocuous, and that’s fine with me.”

(Adam Cvijanovic, 718-522-4028; Prices for original murals vary; each 40-inch wallpaper panel is $3,250.)

Demi Adeniran of Fabrica graduated from FIT with a degree in marketing and styling. She became a fashion coordinator for Bloomingdale’s but gravitated to the home department – “The people there were so much nicer to deal with!” she explains. Though she didn’t pursue sewing at FIT, Adeniran says, “I was the kind of person who could make a dress the same day for a party that night.” So she didn’t have to apprentice long with upholsterers’ shops before she felt confident enough to open her own, making custom window treatments, bedding, and upholstery. Now she does a range of pieces: drapes in pin-striped wool or antique embroidered silk, a chic earth-tone duvet, a white cashmere window seat. Adeniran works on grand-scale jobs for Robert A.M. Stern and Annabelle Selldorf Architects, plus smaller residential projects like her next one: Claudia Schiffer’s Kips Bay carriage house.

(Fabrica, 212-587-6340. All work is custom; window treatments start at $850; custom silk fabric is $1,800 a bolt.)

Cameron Prather is another fashion-world dropout who has found a happier home for himself in the world of interiors. Known as “the fabric genie” among his friends, Prather makes house calls, and upholsters anything from walls and ceilings to headboards. Though only 33, he’s been at this for twelve years, ever since interior designer Muriel Brandolini discovered him working retail at Paul Smith. Since then, Prather has astonished many clients with his clever solutions, such as covering walls with beautifully detailed appliqués and quiltlike strips of fabric, or mounting hand-painted Asian flags in swags on a wall. But his favorite client is still his first. “Muriel has a wonderful, eclectic eye,” enthuses Prather, who most recently made her several patchwork cashmere-felt blankets for a country house, and a pleated ceiling pieced from three saris. Despite his home-design successes, Prather’s fashion training still comes in handy. “Making slipcovers for a sofa is very similar to making a dress for a woman,” he says. “You’re fitting and draping fabric over a form.”

(Cameron Prather, 917-834-8711. Prices vary by the job, but his hourly rate is approximately $40-$50.)

As a high-school student in northern Virginia, Kristin Ordahl was used to seeing painted floorcloths in historic homes – Thomas Jefferson even had them in the West Wing of the White House. But when Ordahl, a Philadelphia College of Art graduate, decided to make a floorcloth as a wedding present for a friend in 1999, she didn’t resort to traditional palettes or folksy stencils. Instead she created an abstract work in an intense color key, and an entrepreneurial concept was born. Ordahl and a furniture-designer friend, Kelly Bortoluzzi, merged the first syllables of their last names and dubbed their company Orbo Design. Orbo floorcloths stand out for their custom-color stains, which have a luminous, watercolor quality; their heavy-duty canvas graining; and the contrasting pin-striping, which they apply with a car-detailer tool that draws hair-thin lines. And then there’s the pair’s remarkably wide range of influences: “We’re inspired by madras, by op art, by vintage mattress ticking, early Marimekko, Mark Rothko, and Agnes Martin,” says Ordahl.

Their artfulness has paid off: Among their early fans are Robert A.M. Stern, who ordered a custom rug for a client in Nantucket, and Martha Stewart, who is so thrilled with the pieces Orbo made for her TV show’s permanent set that she’s invited Ordahl and Bortoluzzi to be guests on her program. “A guy from London called in an order,” says Bortoluzzi, “on the condition that our rugs could withstand his wild parties for sloppy friends who spilled red wine all over the place. We conducted a test, and with four layers of floor varnish, the rug wiped clean as new.” Plus, the cloths are so reasonably priced, it’s tempting to order different ones for different seasons. And soon there will be more stock lines to choose from. “Next,” Ordahl says, “we’re going to experiment with organic forms and iridescent paints.”

(Orbo Design, 718-384-7404; Rugs are roughly $46 a square foot; custom rugs start at $75 a square foot.)

Like most other couples, Pat Dwyer and Chris Pearson have worked out a division of labor over the years. But these two happen to be among the city’s best decorative painters: Pearson does the larger-scale stuff, like a ceiling of Maxfield Parrish-esque clouds, and Dwyer does the more delicate work, like the trompe l’oeil monkeys peering down from behind the cornice of the same ceiling.

Decorative painting, painted-furniture conservation, and water gilding may be dying arts, but they’re gloriously alive and well in Dwyer’s and Pearson’s hands. Depending on the requirements of a job, Dwyer and Pearson work alone or together, on-site or out of their home-cum-studio in Chinatown. One of the first challenges of their twelve-year career was faux-bois-ing Rudolf Nureyev’s Dakota apartment; other portfolio highlights include gilding a dome for Madonna’s Upper West Side digs, wax-troweling the white walls in Manolo Blahnik’s midtown boutique, and painting the murals in the Upper West Side bars Prohibition (a Cubist jazz montage) and Vermouth (dancing girls). The couple also specialize in hand-painted wooden floors in original and historical patterns. The Russian geometric patterns at decorator Bunny Williams’s country house, for example, are so sumptuous they’d impress czars of any era, imperial to postmodern.

(Pat Dwyer and Chris Pearson, 212-334-3930. Rates depend on the job: approximately $65 an hour for furniture touch-ups, $500 a day for art jobs.)

Designing a spectacular room is in many ways like styling a starlet for an awards ceremony: The perfect form-fitting dress will draw the paparazzi, but it’s the jewels that will produce the double take. Philip Crangi is a metalworker who is the genius of the knockout decorative accessory. His creations for hot interior designers like Russell Bush and Richard Lee – be they custom lamps, chandeliers, andirons, decorative hardware, or tabletop sculptures – are the domestic-design equivalent of conversation-piece earrings.

Crangi’s sensibilities are extravagant both in value and aesthetic, which he describes as “Fabergé meets Jules Verne.” His potted-flower sculptures have spiky petals of pearls and semiprecious stones, and their sinuous seaweedlike leaves look like they could eat a lapdog alive. His quirkiness is mirrored in his work environment, which he shares with his sister and business partner, Courtney. Their windowless studio is crammed with branches of coral, racks of antlers, and various beast skulls, bouquets of sea fans, meteorites, and vases – imagine the cell of a flamboyant monk dwelling below sea level.

Not surprisingly, Crangi has a B.F.A. in jewelry design from the Rhode Island School of Design and trained Ted Muehling in silversmithing. In addition to his jewelry line (available at Borealis and other Steven Alan stores), he has designed tiaras for the artist Mariko Mori and for the recipients of the fashion industry’s Venus Awards. For antiques dealer Alan Moss, he creates one-of-a-kind lamps – one that’s an enormous obelisklike quartz crystal, another that’s a varnished ostrich egg inspired by thirties French designs. He and his sister also do restoration, specializing in Dinanderie, an unusual technique for lacquering over metal – an art that’s difficult to master, though not always appreciated. It’s endangered, Crangi says with a laugh, “by zealous housekeepers trying to polish away what they think is tarnish.”

(Philip Crangi, 212-614-9226. Restoration starts at $75 an hour; metalwork starts at $1,000, lamps at $1,000.)

Taffy Dahl modestly describes what she and her husband, Donald Kaufman, do for a living as “making sure the frosting is as good as the cake.” In this case, the cake is the room and the frosting the custom paints created for it. Kaufman and Dahl, the hues-who of Donald Kaufman Color, developed their expertise as artists – he as a color-field painter (his paintings are in the collections of several major museums, including moma), she as a ceramist. And for 25 years the laid-back couple have used their hybrid fine-art sensibility to formulate the ultimate couture paints for their clients. A rainbow of colors infuse every Kaufman paint – even the whites – with suggestive nuance. “For Ian Schrager’s Delano hotel, Philippe Starck requested milk, which required a touch of violet to suggest that translucence,” says Kaufman. “For the J. Paul Getty Fine Arts Center, Richard Meier needed a white that was as bright as possible without losing a balance between warm and cool.

“The same three considerations determine every residential or commercial job we do,” Kaufman explains. “Local light, the nature of the space, and the design goals of those who are going to use it.” Because the quality of light can change from the lobby to the penthouse in the same building, Dahl and Kaufman always consult on-site, bringing a big black bag filled with thousands of paint chips. Back at their office on a grotty block in the meatpacking district, among a mad-scientist’s den of pigment dispensers, assistants mix up samples. Then Kaufman and Dahl return to the site to confirm their hunches or, if need be, tinker with pigments on the spot. For a long, zigzagging hallway, they once did twelve panels of color to reduce the monotonous tunnel feeling, though in general they advocate simplicity. “Every color has to have a good reason to be there,” says Kaufman. Recently, Dahl and Kaufman partnered with Suzanne Butterfield, author of one of the three lavish coffee-table books on the Kaufman palette philosophy, to create a pret-a-porter line of chic shades that designers and in-the-know regular folk alike can eat up.

(Donald Kaufman Color, 212-243-2766; distributors, call 800-977-9198 for paint line. Consultation jobs start at $5,000; paint is $40-$70 a gallon.)

When clients long for dare-to-be-different wall finishes and floors, they contact Ivan James of Walls, Inc. James, a Londoner of Guyanan descent, arrived in the U.S. in 1982 and worked by day as an accountant on Wall Street. Then a friend tipped him off to moonlighting gigs taping Sheetrock. Finding that he was a natural for the work and could make more money than at his day job, he founded his own company. James can do fancy wall treatments like Venetian plaster with metallic leaf finishes, as he’s done for many of the Zen Palate restaurants, or saturated white-and-blue concrete walls like the ones he created for Tommy Hilfiger’s showroom. His most innovative specialty, though, is his customized epoxy floor made with Hydroseal, an industrial sealant used on the underside of the George Washington Bridge and in the Holland Tunnel. The product is such a flexible medium, it can be left clear or mixed with cement or sand. It only needs to be a quarter-inch thick (a standard concrete floor requires four inches); it can be poured on any surface, including Formica; and the finish is so hard that it’s scratch- and crackproof. James can color the epoxy or create delightfully surreal effects by layering it with shards of glass, newspaper clippings, even dried fish from Chinatown.

Last month, James got to try out his latest invention for the trendy new restaurant Tao: 6,000 square feet of cerestone, a finish of miniature plastic pebbles that can be custom-colored and is so hard that it sparks when you drag a key across it. “I only sleep three hours a day,” James says from his cell phone, rushing to a site. “No is not my kind of word.”

(Walls, Inc., 718-277-4765. Walls are $13-$25 a square foot, floors $8-$35 a square foot.)

Upholstery is time-consuming and messy – even the catalogue houses demand weeks to produce a sofa – so there aren’t many artisans who want to do it anymore, and fewer still who can afford the amount of New York real estate that it requires. But for some, it is a family tradition. Fourteen years ago, Mike Feldman, a Ukrainian immigrant, founded Mike’s Pillows – and now his son Leon Feldman runs the place and in turn is grooming David, his college-age boy, in the business. They make everything custom, in any idiom, from kilim bench cushions to Austin Powers-bright vinyl throw pillows (watertight and perfect for a patio) to old-fashioned down pillows and comforters. Where else can you specify percentages of duck, goose, or eiderdown? Given their adaptability, it’s no wonder that the Feldmans have caught the eye of the celebrity set. Mike’s Pillows has done specialty work for films (Mickey Blue Eyes), models (Alek Wek), and style icons (Martha Stewart, Randolf Duke). All resting peacefully, no doubt.

(Mike’s Pillows, 114 East 1st Street; 212-260-7270. Small patio vinyl pillows are $25; down sleeping pillows start at $70.)

While many New York apartments suffer from lack of light and breathing room, Gisela Stromeyer’s sculptural fabric installations can be a miracle cure, making the most uninviting space almost ethereal. Stromeyer comes from a family with four generations of German tent-makers and is the daughter of Peter Stromeyer, the partner of Frei Otto, who pioneered innovations in tensile structures. A onetime professional dancer, Stromeyer came to Manhattan from Konstanz, Germany, in 1987 to study architecture at Pratt and never left. That varied background is evident in her work. “Influenced by my experience with dance, I use forms that flow, that are flexible, that play with light, that acknowledge our craving for softness and sensuality,” she explains.

That softness and sensuality manifest themselves in both her aesthetic and her construction. Her line of column lamps – with evocative names like “Hula Hoop” and “Caterpillar” – are reminiscent of Noguchi mulberry-paper lamps, yet are made from white spandex fabric with fiberglass hoops and can go into the washing machine. She also does custom installations in homes and offices. Made in three weights of spandex, from sheer to opaque, Stromeyer’s “sails” can be used as canopies, as corner focal points, or as room partitions. She has also created several permanent installations over pools, such as the large one at a Manhattan Equinox, that reflect the water, suggesting cloud formations. And all of Stromeyer’s sails can be dramatically lit to create different moods – proving that sometimes it’s the nonfunctional aspect of the room that makes it the most inviting.

(Gisela Stromeyer Designs, 212-406-9452; Column lamps are $1,200 each; rooms start at $1,300.)

For a head-spinning array of flooring options, the experts turn to Richard Glanzer of Carpet Resources Ltd. When Glanzer says “I have 400 stone samples, 300 wood samples, four leather lines, glass flooring, bamboo flooring, tortoiseshell vinyl tile, faux concrete, end-grain wood, cork, rubber flooring that looks like a basketball, base and crown moldings, and 100-year-old wood salvaged from the bottom of a lake,” he’s just getting started. “I’ve never installed a plain strip-oak floor,” boasts Glanzer. “It’s always something different, whether it’s a woven-paper floor for Ralph Lauren’s home or a Brazilian cherry for the Eileen Fisher store in SoHo.” Compared with the intimidating atmosphere at many showrooms, Glanzer’s regular-guy attitude is winning. He gets as excited about the luxe materials (like stainless-steel tiles and purple heart wood) as about the comparative bargains (like vinyl treadplate – it’s lighter and cheaper than real metal and comes in custom colors – solid-wood laminates, or an eco-friendly sawdust tile that can be embossed to look like dyed ostrich leather). His favorite product these days? Woven vinyl that mimics sisal or tatami but is easy to clean, is long-lasting, and won’t stain. “Recently, I shipped to Turkey a 25-foot-by-35-foot leather floor that was a jumbo backgammon board,” says Glanzer. “Now, that’s the kind of assignment that makes this job one of the best games in town.”

(Carpet Resources, 37 West 39th Street, third floor; 212-302-1113. Flooring ranges from $4 to $40 a square foot.)

“We are not a business,” says Hisao Hanafusa, owner of the Japanese custom-carpentry shop Miya Shoji & Interiors. “I have not raised my prices in eighteen years!” His store has been on the same block since 1951 and feels more like a private loft (most of the woodwork is now done in Queens), which is appropriate for this sublimely elegant craftsmanship. The screens, lanterns, tatami platforms, tables, and cabinetry are made (with few exceptions) without glue, screws, or other structural hardware. Each piece is held together by precise joints, wooden pegs, and gravity; most pieces disassemble, to be shipped flat internationally or easily moved across town. “These objects are not meant to be human statements,” Hanafusa says, “so we conceal the construction.” A polyhedron ceiling lamp of many intricate miniature joints, each a marvel worthy of display, will be rice-papered over when finished, so it’s “mysterious and soft like clothing.” And the slender verticals of the screens are always installed as the original tree would have stood in the forest, never upside down.

Miya Shoji has done traditional work for institutions like the Boston Museum, but Hanafusa clearly prides himself on his original designs, which he says “are nothing like what you would see in Japan.” A raised double-tatami platform with a sculptural base, for example, “is an entertainment center,” according to Hanafusa. “You can use it for a low dining table, a coffee table, a four-sided bench, or roll out a futon on it for a bed at night.” An elegant answer to New Yorkers’ multitasking needs.

(Miya Shoji, 109 West 17th Street; 212-243-6774; fax, 212-243-6780. Lamps start at $100, screens at $300, bed platforms at $4,000.)

For those who believe too much is never enough, the Evel Knievel of decorative finishes, the iconoclast who claims credit for inventing sparkle-faux-bois, is Garry Hayes. With a B.A. in fine art and training under Lee Ames (the muralist and former teacher at the renowned Isabel O’Neil Studio Workshop), Hayes has done plenty of conventionally elegant finishes for tony apartments. But he prefers full-throttle fantasias like those he’s created for Deb Parker’s haute-kitsch joints like Barmacy and Beauty Bar, or the basement of Meow Mix, where one can see his bold plaids, vintage-magazine collages, and walls drenched in glitter. Other finishes in his repertoire include glazing, faux metal, Venetian plaster, and snakeskin. His recent pride and joy is the blue-and-silver glitter walls for the East Village boutique Garo Sparo Apparel, which he describes as “cyborg meets hip-hop.” Enamored of Paris’s peeling billboard kiosks, he is currently working on a line of painted screens that will be multilayered assemblages of montage, silk-screening, and film.

(Garry Hayes, 212-463-0534. Depending on the job, his rate can be $400- $500 a day; large jobs priced as a whole.)

Raken Zielinski – whose nickname, Raken Leaves, is also her studio’s name – is a third-generation upholsterer of Polish descent. Originally from Detroit, she grew up playing in her uncles’ upholstery workshop. After getting an undergraduate degree in weaving and sculpture, she came to Manhattan to study fashion design at Parsons but dropped out one semester before graduation because she “didn’t like the fashion scene.” Eventually, she opened her own upholstery shop with her husband, Julius Klein, a painter and musician. Using her relatives’ century-old tools, and trusty 50-odd-year-old industrial sewing machines, Zielinski is one of the few people left who know how to tie springs, sculpt horsehair, weave jute webbing, mold foam, and under-upholster in muslin. She can resurrect an eighteenth-century settee as easily as a mid-century Knoll chair.

In addition to doing private jobs for Phyllis Kind and Kenneth Cole, she has produced work for theater sets, including two chairs for Art as well as pieces for Jelly’s Last Jam and Side Man. With her sculptor’s eye, she has a knack for seeing makeover possibilities. For instance, a client recently commissioned her to transform a nondescript couch into a voluptuously overstuffed, rounded-arm number with two mood-changing sets of slipcovers. She and her husband have also devised custom pieces of furniture, like an ingenious newspaper-storage-and-clipping “station” hidden within a flip-top ottoman, upholstered to match a Deco armchair. Since expanding next door last month, they plan on launching their own furniture line. “Because everyone is so cramped in New York,” Zielinski explains, “every piece of furniture has to do two jobs.”

(Raken Leaves, 44 East 1st Street; 212-533-8189. Club-chair upholstery starts at $700, couches at $1,200, couch slipcovers at $900.)

Gina Bianco describes herself as providing “textile conservation and aesthetic services,” but what clients actually get when they hire her is a fabric authority of near-psychic abilities. With eighteen years of experience, Bianco has been entrusted with many precious things, ranging from Abraham Lincoln’s greatcoat to Dorothy’s ruby slippers to the Calder Circus at the Whitney Museum. But Bianco also revels in applying her experience to those items precious only to their owners. She has restored clients’ beloved Victorian piecework chairs and window treatments – and can do ace reproductions, like a set of late-nineteenth-century Moorish chairs modeled on some that had once been in John D. Rockefeller’s midtown living room.

Currently on Bianco’s worktable is the kind of brainteasing project she loves: recently unearthed fourteenth-century cloth-of-gold ceremonial hats that a Hong Kong dealer has commissioned her to conserve and mount. Drawing on her early training as a couture milliner, she made a pattern of each hat out of stiff cotton, so that on a stand, the new inner hat would support the antique, without any pins or alteration to the original required. It’s the perfect metaphor for what Bianco herself does: magically supports textiles in such a way that the conservation work disappears. When asked if this kind of monkish enterprise can get lonely, she replies, “Not with all that history present. When you’re a conservator, you learn to listen to the object.”

(Gina Bianco, 212-924-1685. Prices vary by the job, but approximately $50 an hour, $100 an hour on-site; consultations are $50-$100, and that fee is applied to any subsequent work.)

The Home Team