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Decorating formulas don’t hold much interest for Ryan Lawson. When the interior designer arrived in Manhattan 16 years ago, fresh from studying architecture and painting at Washington University in St. Louis, he was already a full-blown stylistic omnivore. His time in the city has only expanded his palate. As his portfolio shows, he never repeats himself.
“My apartment looks like a maximalist cabin,” the designer says of his home, a generous helping of taxidermy, Japanese textiles, and contemporary art served up on a leafy side street in Greenwich Village. “Sean’s, on the other hand, is much slicker.” Lawson is referring to Sean Robins, his romantic partner, who lives in Tribeca and is a principal in Studio Van den Akker, which supplies the trade with urbane, sophisticated vintage and contemporary works of design.
After 11 years together, Lawson and Robins are still harmoniously living apart. “I joke that we have to keep separate apartments because our furniture doesn’t go together,” Lawson says. “But, to be honest, it’s more that we love our own spaces, and we love to work within different aesthetics and really explore them.”
So it was a step in a new direction when Lawson offered to help Robins redecorate his longtime two-bedroom rental and Robins agreed.
True to form, they started by staying in their lanes: Robins would be responsible for the contents, and Lawson would arrange them. The affable dealer describes his possessions as “a mix of mistakes, things that were slightly damaged, or things that I loved and didn’t want to sell”—the latter including several tables by the Belgian designer Ado Chale, a pair of chime-like pendants by Pierre Szekely, and a shimmering gold Space Curtain by Paco Rabanne. That Lawson could appreciate all of them was a given, but could he make them appreciate each other?
He could, and he did. Aiming for a look he described to his partner as “1970s coke den,” Lawson dialed up the colors from polite beige to more sensual, saturated choices—crimson, azure, tangerine—that reverberated off the many reflective surfaces, making the rooms, which had limited natural light to begin with, seem to glow. In the bedroom, Lawson grouped a set of Italian pieces around a Vico Magistretti platform bed for Flou; in the dining area, he played a refined oak table off six rustic high-backed chairs and hung Szekely’s tubular pendants overhead. Together, the couple bought a few paintings and photographs to complete the look.
In the end, though, it was Robins who laid down the apartment’s chromatic masterstroke. Through a friend, he discovered the Philips Hue lighting system, which allows users to regulate each fixture individually via app: not just on and off, but how bright, how warm, and what shade. “I have a bunch of different preset modes,” Robins explains. “I don’t use the colors much, really—mainly the more neutral settings. Ryan hates it.” That’s an overstatement, but old habits die hard.
Lately, when Lawson comes over for the evening, they’ve been activating their own preset they’ve named “sunset colors,” which bathes the reimagined rooms in a caramel-colored warmth. “It’s very flattering, pink and red and orange,” the designer says. Does he have access to the presets by now? “I do.”