I always say it’s like Versailles,” says Sandra Nunnerley, pointing to the 1940s Maison Jansen Royal dining table in her living room. “Or at least the Versailles of my imagination, where the king could take his meals anywhere he wanted.” The table’s blackened-steel, gold-plated legs rest on casters that allow Nunnerley to whisk it around the living room of her fifth-floor Carrère & Hastings townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side. She found it in Paris seven years ago, while she was shopping for a client, and realized that the foldable rolling table would eliminate the need for a separate dining room—for dinner parties, Nunnerley moves it to the center of the room to accommodate up to ten guests. When not dressed for dinner, it takes its place in front of the living room window, topped with assembled objects, such as a pair of tiny red embroidered satin Chinese shoes (small enough for bound feet) that Nunnerley found in Beijing years ago. The chic but functional table encapsulates the New Zealand–born designer’s ethos—an eye toward beauty and provenance that remains firmly grounded in practicality. Having studied architecture in Sydney and art history in London and Paris, and worked at the Marlborough Gallery in New York before opening her firm in 1986, Nunnerley has brought her background to projects as varied as Park Avenue apartments and Bahamas beachfront retreats; nowhere is it more evident than in her own home. A large-scale painting by Richard Serra hangs dramatically against a corner wall; in another corner is a painted sculpture by Japanese artist Kaz Oshiro. The works provide vivid contrast to the soothing palette of the room, the off-beiges and pearlized grays Nunnerley calls “shadow colors,” which she prefers for the way they change with the light of the day.
The remarkable light that the building gets was one of the apartment’s principal draws. Nunnerley had planned to live downtown, where she first started her life in New York City in 1984, but fate intervened when a broker told her that two apartments had come on the market in one of the rare Carrère & Hastings townhouses uptown. A real-estate-savvy New Yorker, she snatched them up and wasted no time renovating, creating a two-bedroom floor-through, the second bedroom doubling as a study when friends aren’t battening down.
The ease with which Nunnerley hosts and entertains reflects the attitude with which she collects and decorates. “Not everything has to be expensive,” Nunnerley insists, as one eyes a regal Murano glass lamp mixed with “lots of New Zealand things,” including a pair of antique Maori hand weapons made of jade and whale bone. Her furniture is a mix of prized pieces such as a Jacques Adnet armchair intermingled with chairs by Jean-Michel Frank and a large banquette of her own design. Near the entrance of her apartment, a pair of photographs by Morton Bartlett of his famous plaster dolls hangs over a Louis XIV beech table. It’s the interplay between high and low, light and dark, modern and traditional that fascinates Nunnerley.
Having had what she calls “a very unusual New Zealand childhood,” with a journalist mother who took her to “every play, concert or ballet that came to town,” Nunnerley began working at the Marlborough Gallery after her arrival in New York; she met art legends Leo Castelli and Holly Solomon, who became mentors. Since opening her own studio nearly 30 years ago, Nunnerley has enjoyed the attention that comes with being an established designer among the New York cocktail party set, but she has also remained steadfast in her convictions, refusing to create a “signature look” or expand her name into larger branding schemes (one exception could be made for her monograph, Interiors: Sandra Nunnerley, published by powerHouse Books last year). The person who gave her the confidence to stick to what she believes in was the late decorating great and former Vogue fashion editor Chessy Rayner. “She said, ‘Stay small, stay unique and stay high-end. You’re going to have to reinvent the wheel for each project, but I think that is where you want to be.’ ”
Listening to her trusted mentor proved farsighted. “The upside,” Nunnerley says, lowering her voice to a whisper, “is that when the downturn came, we were so busy we didn’t know what to do.”