It is a rare decorator who would attempt to re-create the magic of a foreign trip by trying to bring it all home. The beauty of, say, a riad relies on more than its interior courtyard and the tiled walls that surround it; the Moroccan sky, the city sounds, and the distinct aromas of a place all play a part in the home's allure. The same goes for a Tuscan villa, a château on the Loire, or an Irish country house.
So it might come as a surprise that , a designer whose reputation rests on his respect for history and authenticity, would agree to a couple's desire to conjure London in Manhattan—inspired not by some stately English townhouse but by a bar. Granted, that bar was at the Connaught, the cosmopolitan cocktail lounge of one of the city's most legendary hotels, in posh Mayfair.
Vintage barrel-back chairs, a Paolo Buffa cocktail table, and a Murano-glass lamp found on 1stdibs in the living room; the walls are painted in Benjamin Moore's Smoke Embers, the panels in Pratt & Lambert's Half 'n Half, and the chair rail in Pratt & Lambert's Brevity.
Their apartment, a full floor in a prewar building on the Upper East Side, was still in contract when the wife, who was accompanying her husband on a business trip, began snapping photos of the lounge's brawny dentil molding, arched entryways, boiseries, and gleaming glass shelves, and immediately sending them to Gambrel. "I was constantly e-mailing Steven ideas. If they were good ones, he replied immediately. If they were bad, he just never answered," she says with a laugh. Giddy at the prospect of living in the building, in which the family-size apartments rarely turn over, she was not only ready to move, but also eager to get away from the dark floors and cream, gray, and beige palette of the couple's former home.
Gambrel collaborated with Martin Sosa, the project's architect, on the design of the dining room cabinetry, which is painted in Benjamin Moore's Chocolate Mousse; the ceiling is painted in the same company's Mystic Gold, the chandelier is circa 1960s, and the lacquered table and rug are custom made.
"Using the design vocabulary of the bar as a starting point was a bit of a departure for me," says Gambrel, "but it fueled a very playful, animated collaboration." That spirit was not lost on his clients, who are parents to four boys under the age of nine.
In the library, the club chair and ottoman, upholstered in a de Le Cuona velvet, and cocktail table, covered in a horsehair from Lee Jofa, are custom designs, the midcentury pendant light and table lamps are Italian, the vintage screen is French, and the painting is by Bill Scott; the walls are painted in Fine Paints of Europe high gloss in Pantone's Mysterioso, the ceiling is in the company's Rosewood, and the custom-made silk shag rug is by Beauvais Carpets.
The fact that the 5,000-square-foot space came with no architectural details was a gift, as far as Gambrel was concerned. "The space didn't have the kind of sexy flourishes that one is anxious to preserve, so I got to create them myself. I played around with the idea of what it meant to be at the Connaught," he says.
A Biedermeier bench and a light fixture by Venini in the foyer; the walls are painted in Benjamin Moore's Collingwood and trimmed with Pratt & Lambert's Armory, the rug is antique Oushak, and the flooring is white oak.
It turns out that bringing a little bit of London to New York City can be more than successful in the right hands. But it meant that Gambrel had to start from scratch: He stripped the apartment down to the studs, kept a few columns, then managed to tick every box on the design wish list the couple had compiled during their overseas trip. He also borrowed liberally from what he calls his "kit of parts"—the deep coved and painted ceilings, interior windows, luxe fabrics, brave color combinations, and extra-tall lamps that are signatures of his work. "I have no problem relying on a few conventions of my own to get where I need to go," Gambrel explains.
The kitchen cabinetry and island are custom made, the chandelier is by Serge Mouille, and the walls are lined with tiles by Ann Sacks.
The designer, in fact, goes everywhere. Travel is a major source of inspiration for him. Indeed, the design of the fireplace surround in the living room springs from a multicolor marble version that he saw in an 18th-century pavilion in Ireland. "The wife pushed back on that material—she thought I was crazy—and instead suggested plaster," Gambrel recalls. The result, creamy plaster trimmed with brass, "is surprising and stunning," he adds. As is the chic cork kitchen floor, modeled on an 18th-century stone example that Gambrel saw in Holland. "Such a graphic pattern helps to keep the volume up," he says.
An Art Deco Swedish chandelier in the study hangs above a custom lacquered desk by Ralph Lauren Home; the cabinetry is paneled with a silk wallcovering by Arnitex, and the rug is by ABC Carpet & Home.
Not that there's any chance of things going quiet in this house. Even in the living room, the soft palette is disrupted by a row of jewel-tone pillows, meant to prepare the eye for the super-saturated royal purple walls of the library beyond.
The circa-1940s mirror and Art Moderne cabinet in the vestibule are Italian, and the 1960s ceiling fixture is by Stilnovo.
"There are dozens of coats of paint on those walls. At night, they look almost black, which I love," says the wife.
In one end of the dining room, photographs of the Monaco Grand Prix and other car races hang above a sofa covered in a Robert Allen velvet, the Gio Ponti armchairs are upholstered in a Pierre Frey cotton, the 1950s chairs by Milo Baughman are covered in a fabric by Knoll Textiles, and the handmade wallcovering is by Asterisk Designs.
A boys' bedroom features Danish pendant lights and headboards with custom monograms by Leontine Linens; the wallpaper is by Phillip Jeffries, the window frame is painted in Pratt & Lambert's Garnet, and the carpet is by Stark.
Gambrel points to the table in the dining room and the stove in the kitchen—both bright orange—as further examples of how he used color to steady oneself visually when moving from one room to the next. "There's one piece in each room that reminds you of what you have seen in another room," he says.
The trundle bed in a son's bedroom is painted in Benjamin Moore's Ravishing Red, and the ceiling is painted in the company's Rust; the nightstand is by Restoration Hardware, the side table is by Jonathan Adler, the photographs are by Lynn Davis, and the raffia wallcovering is by Phillip Jeffries.
For this couple, that would be pieces—dozens of Lego parts with which the boys obsessively build Star Wars creations. Toys tend to be underfoot no matter what room one is in.
The master bedroom's custom-made four-poster features a canopy in silk by Casamance trimmed with a Sahco wool, the club chair and ottoman are upholstered in chenille by Sabina Fay Braxton, and the secrétaire and table are Biedermeier; the walls are covered in a leather by Global Leathers, and the carpet is by Beauvais Carpets.
"In one of my e-mails, I made it clear to Steven that I planned for my family to actually live in every single room in the house, that nothing was off-limits," says the wife, a Colorado native. With the apartment's gleaming surfaces and luxuriant materials, one might assume Gambrel didn't respond to this suggestion. But in fact, the children play wherever they want. "My house never looks like it does in these photos," she adds, laughing.
A custom-designed vanity and shower door in a powder room; the chandelier is from the 1940s, the toilet is by Toto, the floors and shower are sheathed in tiles by Mosaic House, and the ceiling is painted in Benjamin Moore's Bricktone Red.