It’s an age-old story: An ambitious young man, eager to enter the romantic world of fashion, moves to New York City and finds success. For Calhoun Sumrall, the path to an executive position in the womenswear division of began more than three decades ago, when he left Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to study at . New York was still a little rough around the edges, but exciting and affordable.
“I lived on five dollars a day and ate yogurt for every meal,” Sumrall recalls. “You do what you have to do.” A few years later, he relocated from a share uptown to what he describes as a “shoe box–like studio” in a four-story walk-up in Greenwich Village. In the early 1990s, the neighborhood was a far cry from the fashionable enclave it is today. “I wasn’t sure this street was safe,” he says.
The building’s owner — a former psychiatrist named Henriette Stoner, then in her 90s — lived in a duplex penthouse on the top floor. When she died, Sumrall migrated to the larger space. “Over a weekend, I moved upstairs with some shopping bags,” he says.
The living room’s 19th-century English faux-bamboo chairs and antique French stool are covered in linens, the antique French iron garden-table base is topped with antique marble and a sculptor’s stand holds a 19th-century Italian terra-cotta urn.
Today the apartment reflects a quarter-century of careful collecting. Sumrall’s job frequently takes him around the globe, and he has brought back furnishings from New Orleans antiques shops, Paris flea markets and Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. But he has left the essential structure untouched, from the great bank of windows that floods the living room with light to the wrought iron stair railings and the door handles (“a little jiggly, but all original”).
The dresser and chair are Louis XV, the Chinese porcelain lamp is fitted with a shade in a fabric and the plaster relief is a copy of a Byzantine lion. The walls are painted in .
High above the tree-lined street — noisy on weekdays with the sounds of neighboring townhouses undergoing renovations, busy on weekends with tourists on their way to and from the nearby and — the penthouse evokes the bohemian heyday of Greenwich Village.
Henriette Stoner and her husband, Elmer, were a mixed-race couple who bought and renovated the 19th-century building in the 1940s, converting the lower floors to efficiency apartments for GIs returning from the
The kitchen’s farmhouse sink, skirted in a linen, is original. The antique chest was found at a Paris flea market and the sconce is French.
Elmer, a fine artist who made a living contributing to pulp magazines and comic books, had been active in Harlem Renaissance circles. The couple posed in their apartment, its walls adorned with his paintings, for an ad for Gordon’s Gin that ran in Jet and Ebony magazines. The Stoners designed the place in Mission Revival style, which had been popular in California earlier in the century. They installed an immense black wrought-iron chandelier, which still hangs above the double height living room, and embellished the walls and fireplace surround with tiles in fanciful patterns.
The wrought-iron chandelier is original to the apartment.
But when it came to furnishing the space, Sumrall returned to “the original Mediterranean inspiration for Mission style,” he says. Echoes of the traditional Grand Tour abound, such as a plaster relief of a Byzantine lion, a 19th-century Italian terracotta urn, Persian rugs and a Portuguese ball-and-claw table that once belonged to legendary decorator .
On the upstairs landing, the chest is Swedish, the gessoed turtle shell is a flea-market find and the print is by .
Sumrall’s decorative-arts education has been guided by a few cherished mentors. During his early years in New York, he befriended the late fashion designer and fellow Louisiana native .
“Every, Geoffrey and I would throw a gumbo party,” he says. Beene introduced Sumrall to such French designers as and , whose furnishings formed an earlier iteration of the apartment; a drawing, a gift from Beene, is displayed above the sofa. Some years later, Sumrall met English designer , whose regal clients include .
The antique Swedish sofa and Baroque chair, right, are upholstered in fabrics, the armchair is 18th-century French and a vintage Persian Soumak rug from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar rests on a sea-grass rug from . Among the items on the wall are an antique water-buffalo skull, 19th-century French gouaches and a drawing by .
Inspired by Kime’s globe-trotting eclecticism, Sumrall “got rid of everything and started over.” Water-buffalo horns, an antique Tibetan monk’s shirt mounted on canvas and vintage landscape paintings now harmonize with Kime’s fabrics, which appear as upholstery, and lampshades.
“I think today’s taste is a mix of all eras,” says Sumrall. “You can wear sneakers with a suit. Why not mix something contemporary with something 300 years old?” From a bathroom Venetian-plastered the same color as ’s Chinese red–lacquered living room to the original kitchen, with its classic English farmhouse sink, each room adds to the busy, beguiling whole. But is it done?
The master bath’s tile and sink are original, the ceiling light is by the and the etchings are by .
“I feel as though I just finished, and I like the serenity of not having to think about it,” says Sumrall. “But there’s always some chair or new fabric that you’re drawn to. You have to be careful — bring it into a room, and you can start the whole thing spinning again.”
The bed is upholstered in a stripe and dressed in antique French linens,
the side table is 18th-century English, the lantern is 19th-century Indian, the mirror is 18th-century Italian and the landscape paintings are English, French and American. The walls are painted in .
This story was originally published in the March 2017 issue of ELLE DECOR.