Private Preview 2003: Hard Shell, Soft Center
Eclecticism isn’t what it used to be. Geoffrey Bradfield’s particular brand of eclecticism—sophisticated juxtapositions of 20th-century styles and unexpected combinations of materials—has itself moved into a simpler realm. “I find our age, and the 21st century in particular, parallels my own quest for simplicity,” says the South African–born designer. “Each time I move, I find I need less.”
For Charles Biondo’s majestic contemporary house in Greenwich, Conn., which looks opaque and fortresslike—albeit a fortress with a broad arched skylight—amid 10 acres of pines, oaks, and maples, Bradfield had no worries about ordinariness. He could steer between the so-called traditional (“preserving the well-bred mannerism of past design,” as he puts it) and the cutting edge with impunity.
In this largely Art Deco interior that incorporates Asian and African influences, Bradfield has pushed the envelope to a sophisticated minimalism. Indeed, his abiding mission is to “banish all trace of the ordinary.” (The dedicated modernist’s own New York apartment is done with furnishings and art no older than he—that is, created after World War II.) Synergies of color—magenta, purple, and violet—were conjured with a light hand, drawn from a luminous 16-foot-long Lowell Nesbitt silk-screened painting of velvety irises. Dramatic mélanges of furniture styles feature witty elements, like Alan Siegel’s 1990s gingko-inspired chair, its stylized steel leaves sharing breathing space with a pair of mohair velvet–upholstered armchairs from the Normandie.
“The angularity and scale of the two-story grand foyer were wonderful,” recalls Bradfield, who delighted in rising to the challenge of warming up such expansive interiors of raw concrete, a material that dates from ancient Rome. The “off-shutter” concrete blocks, combined with the grid of plateglass windows—an effect reminiscent of Richard Meier’s crisp white structures—and glossy stone floors represented a marriage of high-tech materials that he couldn’t resist.
The angularity continues in the 950-square-foot living room, whose double-volume height is somewhat softened with a fireplace and a balcony that arcs out into the room. It creates the perfect foil for the rounded Deco furnishings, such as the rolled-arm leather sofas, the plush circular ottoman, and the small side tables, as well as for Nesbitt’s plump floral paintings that Biondo has collected for years. “What excited me about the project, however,” says the designer, with relish, “was that it was in Greenwich, one of the blue-chip addresses in America unaffected by market crashes. Here was a concrete-and-glass architectural statement in a landscaped forest, so much in contrast with the old mansions. This was a departure, certainly, an alien presence, like a 21st-century spaceship settled in a meadow of the estates section.”
The fact that his client was something of a designer himself gave Bradfield an additional boost. The New York–based Biondo Group specializes in brand development and packaging of major consumer products for Weight Watchers and other corporations. “It is always an added pleasure to work with people who have a strong sense of identity, aesthetically speaking, and this was one of those instances,” says Bradfield.
Biondo had a distinct vision for his 6,000-square-foot house; he had called upon architect Albert Chen to do the drawings, and he had seen Bradfield’s work for Fortune 500 clients. “I had my own notions of what the house should look like, as I had done this before,” says Biondo. “I wanted it to look as though it had grown out of the earth. I’m a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, though I definitely prefer high ceilings! I knew I needed Geoffrey to provide warmth and human scale to the interiors.”
To accommodate his client’s request for comfortable and dramatic entertainment spaces (“I didn’t want a lot of tiny rooms,” Biondo says), Bradfield set about creating a contrast to the stark concrete walls. “The furnishings are in tune with the natural setting of the house,” Bradfield explains, referring to the grouping of leather tufted sofas and club chairs. The grand piano adds a sculptural presence, as does the lacy Art Nouveau stair railing, “delicate while everything else in the space is so strong.”
Another important contrast is provided in the exposed dining room; steps lead down, through a cutout passageway that allows the living room to maintain its contemporary open plan. While the concrete-block entry has the industrial strength of a David Smith sculpture, a tranquil, light-filled Asian setting surrounds the dining table. Beyond the wall of windows is a sleekly angled reflecting pool filled with koi and lily pads.
A similar alchemy is accomplished in the concrete balcony, which is cantilevered over the living room. Now softened with a chenille banquette, this lounge area for the master bedroom embraces the Art Deco quality of the bedroom as well as showcases tribal art pieces, which, Bradfield says, “add sophistication in their simplicity.” But the bedroom suite also references the future, with a sauna, a gym, and a sunbathing terrace with separate access to the pool. “During large parties, the bedroom can be closed from view with pocket doors across the balcony,” notes Bradfield. When not entertaining, the Biondos can enjoy the views through the giant living room windows or they can crisply shut out nature’s majesty with concealed motorized sunscreen blinds.
“This is a selfish house,” Bradfield concedes jokingly, “built for just two people.” A contemporary guest cottage is adjacent to the pool. The eight-car garage houses Biondo’s collection of classic and luxury autos.
Still, Bradfield insists that the real drama of the main entertainment space comes from the vast carpet of black peonies on a cream ground, interpreted from a Deco document. The subdued tones perfectly suit the lusciously hued art. “I didn’t want to steal from something as important as the Nesbitt collection,” he says. “It takes a practiced hand to keep a light touch, and a confident eye to create simple beauty.” The Biondos were delighted with the color contrasts. “I like to challenge my clients more and more, perhaps take them a design step further than they would have gone without us. It was very courageous of the Biondos to let me make the rug!”
Bradfield values subtle touches. Here, he is moving toward a more modern way of looking at Art Deco and a more comfortable minimalism. “For me, the use of texture contrasts, such as leather juxtaposed with chenille, or cut velvet with brushed steel, gives the house its futuristic idiom, just as much as the marriage of high-tech materials. When you put two textures together, or related tones, you create energy.”
But, he warns, “You can gild the lily too easily.” Or, for that matter, the iris.
Geoffrey Bradfield, 212.758.1773