The Apartment

With a cool nod toward minimalism and a vibrant embrace of a new romantic formalism, architect-designer Daniel Romualdez defines how we live now.

Leave it to the French to devise furniture that's at once discreet and voluptuous. The French forties tables and chairs of esteemed designer Jacques Adnet (like the desk shown above) look almost midcentury modern, with simple lines dressed up in vivid materials such as brass and shagreen. His handcrafted ca. 1947 desk ($45,000), for instance, is minimalist in aesthetic only: It is covered entirely in supple leather, down to the bamboo-style legs. It looks equally at home with a contemporary leather safari chair ($1,450) that folds up for easy transport and an old-world zebra rug ($2,800). Available at Coconut Company, 131 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-539-1940.

At the turn of the 20th century, a new confidence emerged among New York architects, helping them to create a vernacular that was no longer in awe of Europe but entirely American. Nowhere was this more evident than in the magnificent crop of apartment buildings that began sprouting up across the city. Architectural firms like McKim, Mead & White, Rouse & Sloan, and Rosario Candela began to change the city's exterior landscape, while designers such as Elsie de Wolfe were transforming its interiors. Architect Stanford White, in fact, created a sensation when, in 1906, he allowed Miss de Wolfe to have her way with the decoration of his newly designed Colony Club. The ladies who lunched there were shocked to find De Wolfe brazenly using cotton chintz throughout the club's rooms; they were positively indignant that she dare to cover the tea room walls with garden trellises.

About this time, Charles Platt was building his own elegant monuments to the art of living well, including two small Italianate buildings on East 66th and 67th streets, which he completed in 1906.

Happily for all of us, but especially for those lucky enough to be living there, both buildings are still very much intact. But it does take a certain sensibility, an inimitable style, to be able to live up to Platt's legacy nearly a century later.

Enter architect and interior designer Daniel Romualdez, who relished the opportunity to match Platt's gifts with his own and to—dare we say?—even improve upon the original, when a decade ago he bought the apartment next door to his own and combined the two. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Daniel Romualdez, the son of a Filipino diplomat, was born and raised in Manila. If his family had had its way, the young Daniel would have become a banker. But that's not how it turned out.

"Normally in the Philippines people do exactly what their families want them to do," says Deeda Blair, who first met Romualdez when her husband William was ambassador to the Philippines in the sixties. "But I've known Daniel since he was in prep school, and he was always interested in houses and decoration." Romualdez says he was very much influenced by Deeda Blair's style, especially by the house Billy Baldwin decorated for the couple in Washington, D.C. "What really impressed me was that there was something sumptuous and grand about the things she had, but there was also something so comfortable, so welcoming, so offhand. It wasn't like it was saying 'Look what a fancy chair I am.' It was more like 'Come and sit on me. I just happen to be a Louis XVI.' "

Blair introduced Romualdez to the architect Thierry Despont, in whose firm he worked after graduating from Yale and Columbia University's graduate school of architecture. "It was my first job out of school, and I was just dazzled," Romualdez says. "It was inspirational to see someone so charismatic with such a vision."

From there he went on to work for Robert A.M. Stern for five years until he started his own practice in 1993. Romualdez credits Stern with teaching him how to truly build a house. "Bob confronted the way that people actually lived, as opposed to Utopian architects, who thought architecture could change the way people lived. He figured out how living had changed and worked from there."

One of Romualdez's first projects was the renovation of a small, dreary ranch house on the eastern end of Long Island. With just a few bold strokes—such as adding French doors and reconfiguring the flow of space—the architect transformed this unremarkable shack into a charming Hamptons cottage, a veritable blueprint for the get-away-from-it-all dream house. It instantly grabbed the attention of the popular shelter magazines, and Romualdez has since become one of the most sought-after architects in New York, working with an interesting mix of media personalities, young society figures like Marina Rust, and glamour girls like Diane von Furstenberg.

Increasingly, he has been able to incorporate his talents as both designer and architect into whatever project he tackles. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New Yorker, has enlisted Romualdez to work on both his city apartment and his country house. "He's a connoisseur with tremendous range," Goldberger says. "Daniel has the ability to envision all periods, but in a kind of modernist, spatial way. He's also an absolute pleasure, a joy. Working with him was like being with a really good dance partner where your moves are just always in sync."

Romualdez says that working on his own apartment gave him free rein to go all out—to mix his architectural and decorative passions in equal measure. He began with an exhaustive renovation, which entailed reconfiguring the floor plan and adding architectural details that never existed—such as the two stunning Doric columns that confront visitors upon entering the living room from the foyer—but that now seem as though they always belonged.

In the grand-scale living room he added moldings, a wide frieze, and a coffered ceiling to a room that defies convention, with double-height leaded-glass windows at one end and an enclosed overhang (fashioned from a former balcony) at the other. Throughout the apartment, Romualdez displays a confident hand in mixing high and low elements to the extreme. In the living room, for example, he cut the legs off two sofas from Crate and Barrel, set them back-to-back, and placed them next to a tall marble-topped gueridon. The room is kept loose and free—the furniture, notably the gilded Neoclassical chairs, is deliberately kept away from the walls, in order to draw the eye toward the center and then upward, to Platt's glorious window. The only real "anchors" are the 19th-century Scottish side tables that hold various delicious objects. "You know, in another world and on a different budget I might have had a great big William Kent console here," Romualdez says, pointing to a large wood-and-marble table beneath the enormous window, "but I think this is sort of more me." The table, he says, came from the garage at Clarendon Court in Newport, and is reported to have been the drafting table of architect Horace Trumbauer. It was cobbled together from a few planks of pine and a slab of marble, and was probably made in a pinch while the mansion was under construction. "It's not a cozy room, and it never will be, but at the same time, I think it is inviting."

Louis Bofferding, one of New York's leading antiques dealers and a good friend of Romualdez's, says that the room "is actually very practical. Daniel is a very social man about town, and you could not have a better room for entertaining. It's like the Temple of Dendur!"

Every piece has some sort of interesting provenance—whether high or low. In the Pompeii-red dining room, for example, there's an enormous circular painted-wood table that Romualdez found in Paris. It has the unusual feature of a lazy Susan planted in the center, which leads Romualdez to believe that it originally came from a Chinese restaurant.

There is a constant juxtaposition of humble and fine materials: The scrubbed pine floor in the living room is in dramatic contrast to the inlaid limestone and slate in the foyer, whose inspiration, says Romualdez, was the Salon Hollandais at Château de Groussay, outside Paris. "I love that it is modern, but with antique references," he says. The mélange of ideas keeps you slightly off balance, producing visual bouquets everywhere.

"I like playing opposites against each other," Romualdez says as we leave the grandeur and airiness of that cool white living room for the cozy little library. "I had always wanted a dark cocoonlike space, and I knew that if I was going to fill it with books I could get away with painting the room black. I love black lacquer." His inspiration, he explains, was a Coromandel screen, referring to the brilliantly lacquered Chinese screens of the late 17th century.

There's also a sleek deco feeling to the room, which is accentuated by lighting strips that run along the edge of the bookshelves and by the Emilio Terry rug from the fifties, originally commissioned for the Palazzo Labia, in Venice.

In the bedroom, the walls have been upholstered in leaf-green felt for practical as well as aesthetic reasons: It seems that the trucks from the firehouse across the street do not, contrary to what the real estate agent promised, wait until they are a block away to turn on their sirens. Beyond the bedroom lies the smallest and sunniest room in the house, a cork-lined office whose walls become one giant bulletin board, albeit with echoes of Marcel Proust's cork-lined study. "I thought maybe the cork would inspire me!," the architect says.

Romualdez confesses that in architecture school he was drawn to the stark drama of modernist spaces. "But I started realizing that I would never be the kind of architect who was going to torture clients into living in an aesthetically or architecturally perfect room—that would make them miserable. An architect is not an artist—if you do something artful in the process, thank God."