Inside a Fifth Avenue Pied-à-Terre
TEXT BY SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO • PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON WATSON
With a storied imagination, a collector’s passion and an obsessive attention to detail, Howard Slatkin has created a one-of-a kind Fifth Avenue aerie in which every doorknob, tile and 19th-century silk lampshade was designed by him.
There are few people in today’s world who have the time, resources or inclination to build something as monumental as an 18th-century European palace within the confines of a Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre. Howard Slatkin, the interior designer and co-founder of a namesake home fragrance brand, has all three, and a simple mantra: “The desire to live in comfortable rooms filled with treasures that ultimately represent one’s journey through life,” he says. The decorator has always been in high demand, as much for his perfectionism as for his personality. Congenial, slightly obsessive and profoundly well read (with an enviable ability to make references to foggy facts — like the name Jean-Étienne Liotard, an obscure Orientalist artist — without a conversational pause), Slatkin has garnered a loyal clientele over the years. The typically private Nili de Rothschild was quite exuberant when expressing her longtime devotion to the designer: “My late mother-in-law, Liliane de Rothschild, taught me a lot about decoration. Twenty years ago she concluded my education by introducing Howard to me. His sense of beauty is so exquisite and personal that our homes gained by his hand are not only pleasing to the eye but caressing to the heart.”
When Slatkin was looking for an apartment to buy in the city (the New Jersey countryside is home base and headquarters for his atelier and 20-member staff), the only requirements were “a location on upper Fifth, tall ceilings and a view of the park.” After his broker faxed over floor plans of the Fifth Avenue property, Slatkin immediately put in an offer without ever stepping foot into the apartment.
Perched on a cashmere and suede sofa in the living room, elderflower iced tea in hand, Slatkin talks animatedly about his personal quest to transform the prewar co-op into a showcase of Old World craftsmanship and custom details — every single doorknob, tile and 19th-century silk lampshade is one of a kind designed by him. Slatkin methodically organizes an individual scrapbook for each room and fills them with a wish list of images. There are photographs of agate stones found in Russia to embed in a wall in the library, and images of damaged Chinese coromandel screens to reuse as panels on a bathroom door. These myriad pieces will eventually complete this complicated design puzzle. After Slatkin purchases an item, that photograph moves out of the “wish list” book and into the “job done” book.
Slatkin, who started his own design business at 23, was precocious from an early age. Around his 12th birthday, he stumbled onto two books in his mother’s library that immediately spurred his interest in the decorative arts: Mario Praz’s “An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration,” which features the grand rooms of Prussian palaces, and “Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens, People,” which showcases the storied residences of Nancy Lancaster, Pauline de Rothschild and the Duchess of Windsor. “All those iconic Horst images still influence me today,” Slatkin says. There were also visits to his parents’ friends’ houses in Manhattan that inspired the teenager’s aesthetic. Slatkin recalls Enid A. Haupt’s apartment at 740 Park, with its bare floors and curtain-free windows, which served as a simplified backdrop to major works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and Giacometti, as having “a kind of spare richness of beauty that was ultimately, totally personal.”
In addition to design books and well-appointed apartments, Slatkin culls ideas from everything from French chateaus to Irish gardens to Greek ruins to vintage fashion. The humble hand-quilted curtains hung in the living room are inspired by an 18th-century petticoat, while the pale lilac fabric with petite hand-sewn embroidery on a Russian chair is based on a Gustav Klimt drawing Slatkin came across and filed for later. The spontaneity of creativity — whether this particular Klimt design ended up on upholstery or as a wall panel — is part of what delights Slatkin most about decorating. “I never buy something just to fill a wall. I have to feel it in my gut. Personally, I don’t want anything anymore,” he says with a laugh, “but then I think, Wouldn’t it be joyous to live with that?” Take the decadent series of early-19th-century French scenic wallpaper panels that kept Slatkin awake one night in Paris, which meant he had to have them. They are now in his entrance hall. The collector never stops collecting.
And in this case, the designer never stops designing. Most of his fabrics are made in France, India and Egypt. “Egyptians have such a history with passementerie. Think of the decorated saddles on their camels,” he explains with a wink, “so I go to them for 19th-century complexity.” Slatkin seems to enjoy deploying skilled craftspeople to make things the old-fashioned way. “No one is as demanding as Howard, and no one is as eager to please him as we are,” says Alexander Solodukho, one of his artisans. In fact, his apartment took exactly 33 months to renovate and decorate, but he insists his clients’ projects move much faster. However, this old-school approach ensures the highest levels of quality and the lowest levels of execution error. In the living room, for example, the boiserie walls were mapped out by hand and cut to specification, but not until he knew exactly where every painting, bracket and sconce would be placed. “No surprises!” the decorator pronounces.
However, one cannot help but be taken aback when entering the dining room, which is where Slatkin’s obsessiveness and precision reach their blinged-out apotheosis. Entering through the mirrored door designed by Stéphane Boudin for Jayne Wrightsman’s Palm Beach house and given to Slatkin as a gift when the property sold, you feel as if you have been transported back to czarist Russia. The bookcases along the wall are intermittently broken up by Raphaelesque painted panels and Scagliola marble pilasters. There is literally no surface unembellished. Even insides of drawers are thoughtfully lined with fabric and stocked with the host’s tools — linens, candles, silver and serving pieces.
The grand setting is ideal for Slatkin, who is an avid entertainer. In fact, when the last light bulb was finally screwed in at Fifth Avenue, he invited the entire crew of artisans — from the plaster men to the mill workers — to his apartment for a celebratory dinner so everyone could ogle the finished project. “I served Cristal and caviar on all my best china. They love it. And I love them.”
More details about Howard Slatkin’s masterpiece mansion are available in his new book, “Fifth Avenue Style” (The Vendome Press, $60).