Manhattanite Jean-Marie Lusk had an unusual request for her interior designer. “I want to be able to walk out of my apartment wearing my curtains,” she told Samuel Botero. Of course, she was exaggerating, but only slightly. She wanted her curtains “to look like ball gowns,” and Botero obliged. All of the windows of her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York are draped with yards and yards of softly gleaming taffeta. “We searched for taffetas so stiff that when Jean-Marie punches them they hold the indentation,” says Botero.
The soft sense of grandeur imparted by the billowing drapes set the tone for the rest of the sumptuous interior, in which French and Italian antiques, Chinese sculptures, and drawings and watercolors by Matisse, Picasso, and Dufy are combined with elegance and panache. Botero, who was born in Colombia and studied interior design at Pratt Institute, has earned a reputation for imaginatively mixing art and furniture from a range of periods and styles for clients like Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. His approach to such eclecticism, guided by a sense of fantasy and imagination, has earned him a unique place in the New York design world since he established his practice 25 years ago. “You need the right client, one who has an adventurous sensibility,” says Botero, who met Jean-Marie when she and her husband, Peter Lusk, an investment banker, purchased the apartment from a friend of his. “I immediately sensed that Sam and I had the same kind of spirit,” she recalls about their initial meeting.
That spirit is manifest in a shared taste for the exotic, as evidenced by the accumulation of furnishings and objets d’art that would accompany the Lusks to the apartment. “Peter and I had picked up many of these pieces in our frequent travels to Hong Kong and Paris,” Lusk says. “So much of my knowledge and expertise stems from those trips with Peter.” Botero was willing to accept the challenge of building rooms around an existing collection that includes two 300-year-old Chinese emperor’s gowns (slated for the dining room), a delicate Louis XVI settee, and a massive 2,000-year-old Chinese Buddha. Indeed, much of Botero’s work attests to his flair for the unexpected mix.
But first he had to analyze the floor plan. The 3,800-square-foot apartment with bay windows facing Central Park had been designed by Rosario Candela, New York’s premier apartment architect in the 1920s and 1930s. However, this beige brick and limestone structure was built in 1949 and, Candela or no Candela, the ceilings were 10 feet high, instead of the usual prewar 12-foot height. It can make a difference.
The shifting scales, contours, and proportions made particular demands on the interior designer’s spatial ingenuity. To give each room a distinct identity and to augment the sense of space, Botero relied on decorative wall finishes, in which a mixture of hues form a luminous haze with an ambiguous depth. He turned to Alpha Workshops, a group formed seven years ago in New York to give HIV-positive artists a livelihood in design. “They are so accomplished at everything, from walls to furniture finishes,” says Botero. In the living room, the decorative artists began with an undercoat of bright yellow, then applied 12 thin transparent glazes of different colors. The result is “a very atmospheric mauve fog,” says Kenneth Wampler, founder of the workshop. A damask pattern based on a Fortuny fabric was stenciled over the top layer and kept deliberately subtle so that it would not overwhelm the room. As a finishing touch, the crown molding, baseboard, and trim around the windows were painted green and rose, over which was added a gold transparent wash. The striped pewter effect provides an extra glint to the light-filled room, where the views of Central Park are framed by the burnished and swagged silk taffeta drapes. “I told Sam, ‘I want the taffeta to look like the water at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the Cipriani in Venice,’ ” says Lusk. “He got it.”
In the dining room, mirrored panels were placed between the windows on the perimeter wall, while decorative paint coats the other walls. Here, Alpha Workshops began with eight or so layers of bright yellow and green, with purple added “to cut the yellow and green,” explains Wampler. By using special glazing techniques, the artists created wall finishes that had the fluidity and sheen of Impressionist paintings.
A frescoed wall in the hall leading from the vestibule to the den and master bedroom is another tour de force. Here the decorative artists let the paint sink into the dry wall, then sanded it to achieve varied tonalities, and finally polished it with wax. “I wanted the look of a Pompeian mural with orange trees,” says Lusk. Numerous other romantic insertions can be found in the apartment, including a French country kitchen by Mark Martinez of Interior Management that seats 18.
Botero prides himself on guiding his clients towarda vision they already have but may not be able to express. With Jean-Marie Lusk, he found a perfectly articulate subject. “It helps to have a client who is so passionate about everything,” he notes. “So many clients want something exactly like a past commission theysaw in your portfolio. Not Jean-Marie.” She in return adds, “I wanted a stage set. That’s what Sam gave me.” Needless to say, the rapport between client and designer made a huge difference. As Botero emphasizes, “Chemistry is everything.”
Samuel Botero, 212.935.5155; Alpha Workshops, 212.594.7320; Mark Martinez, 212.750.3700