Natural light pours into the Upper West Side apartment.
Natural light pours into the Upper West Side apartment.
Before + After

A Historic Upper West Side Apartment Remains Untouched, and That’s the Best Part

Space Exploration Design gently restored a couple’s Manhattan residence

Kevin Greenberg, the principal of Space Exploration Design, had a good feeling about this Upper West Side apartment as soon as he walked through the door. Perhaps an outsider would assume that a quick spark of inspiration would be a routine part of his job, but Kevin would argue differently. “I begin each of our projects with a spirit of optimism about its potential, but every once in a great while I feel an instant, magnetic connection to a space we’ve been invited to design,” he says. “This is a very rare, exhilarating feeling, and it happened with this home.”

What Kevin and lead designer Camille Vantalon saw was a property first designed by famed architects George and Edward Blum in the early 20th century. Southern light illuminated crown and picture moldings that remained untouched in the distinct rooms over the years, and the hallway leading to it all was punctuated by a series of beautiful doors. The newlyweds who hired Kevin and Camille—who happen to work in consulting and finance—were drawn to these Parisian qualities, given their shared French descent, and didn’t want to alter them. Instead, they were looking to modernize the apartment ever so carefully.  

BEFORE: “Working in prewar buildings in New York is as much about archeology as it is about architecture,” Kevin says. “You hope you won’t encounter anything unexpected during demolition, but you almost always do.” All new electrical and plumbing systems were put in place, and the team tried to preserve as much history as they could. 

AFTER: As part of the couple’s growing art collection, they have a Claude Viallat piece in their living room. A Pierre Jeanneret Kangaroo chair is nearby.

“A project like this is a reminder that in some instances a restoration, and not a renovation, should be the guiding principle of design,” Kevin says. “When you’re presented with something that’s already mostly great, there’s no need to overhaul it.”

Kevin, Camille, and the owners agreed the existing moldings and doors in good condition had to stay, and that continuities would be made so any new flourishes would look like they had been there all along. They liked how the entryway led to a hall of doors, but noted which frames and knobs had seen better days. The original hardwood floors were also past their prime, and the owners liked the idea of a new herringbone pattern in white oak. However, one of the biggest shifts would take place in the kitchen, which felt impossibly dated rather than impressively historic. 

AFTER:Ligne Roset Togo chair and a painting by Bram Van Velde sits in the office, which has a unique feature. “I love the room that became the office, with its curved glazing,” Kevin says. “This is not a detail you see very often in New York. Naturally, any curved forms present extra challenges during design and construction, but we’re always happy to see something that deviates from the orthogonal grid.” 

AFTER: The powder room’s layout couldn’t be changed, but the fixtures could. The team also plastered the walls, built a new storage cabinet, and added an archway to the shower enclosure.

“When we started, there was a small office that was awkwardly placed adjacent to the kitchen with what can only be described as a micro-bath attached,” Kevin says. “We merged it with the existing kitchen to allow for an eat-in dining table, a better arrangement of appliances, and more countertops and cabinetry.”

The updated floor plan also took some square footage from the kitchen to create a custom storage cabinet in the powder room, a feature that’s also in the primary bath. Furthermore, the bedroom’s pair of “awkwardly sized” closets were condensed into one freestanding storage unit. The remaining room was turned into an office, complete with a set of curved windows Kevin says are hard to find in the city. 

BEFORE: The kitchen was completely dated and required a fresh layout with brand new appliances. “There was not a lot of useful prep space,” Kevin says. “The footprint was small, so we had to consider all available options.”

AFTER: “I think the reimagined kitchen really came out beautifully,” Kevin says. “I love the timeless, elegant palette of materials, which are a really flattering complement to the furnishings and art.” Vintage Bruno Rey chairs with custom cushions upholstered in Zak + Fox’s Drifter 03 are in the new kitchen, which has Calacatta Paonazzo on the countertops and backsplash.

“When we’re lucky enough to renovate a prewar apartment like this, which hasn’t been previously marred by some careless renovation from the 1980s or 1990s, we try our best to exert the lightest possible touch,” he says. “But make no mistake, this was still an extensive renovation. You generally have to make some heavy moves in an old space to upgrade the infrastructure. We had to ensure that the plumbing and electrical services were safe, efficient, and code-compliant. Trying to preserve sensitive older elements at the same time was challenging.”

AFTER:Mario Bellini Le Bambole chair for B&B Italia was reupholstered in Zak + Fox fabric in the living room beside a Charlotte Perriand chaise and a Paavo Tynell floor lamp.

As clear as the decision was to hold on to the past, the interior design’s direction was equally obvious: Lean into timeless shades and silhouettes. A “softly pillowed” plaster fireplace surround was installed in the living area alongside a new custom bookshelf for the couple’s collection. Black-and-white checkered floors punctuate the entryway, as green plastered walls and an archway in the powder room provide its own statement. The mostly neutral palette gives way to the show-stopping kitchen, where everyone decided to have a little fun. 

AFTER: Michael Anastassiades Double Angle pendant in brass hangs in the entryway, where black-and-white checkerboard tiles were installed on the floor.

“We went big in the not-so-big kitchen and used the most luxurious materials in the entire project here, like the expressively veined Calacatta Paonazzo on the counters and backsplash, and the plaster finish around the cooking appliances,” Kevin says. “There are curved elements clad in tambour at the ends of the cabinets, which nod to the curved wall of the office at a different scale.”

AFTER: “We restored and recreated the original molding profiles, adjusting them in some locations to reflect subtle shifts we made in the proportions of the rooms,” Kevin says. The bedroom received a light touch, mostly concerning the moldings and turning two closets into one freestanding space. The vintage stools are from Brooklyn’s Holler & Squall.

Two years passed between the initial design phase and the end of the project, which wrapped up earlier this year. Kevin held on to that initial spark throughout the timespan, balancing the best of the past with the couple’s goals for the future. “This is a classic apartment with a classic palette that we want to stand the test of time,” he says. “The young owners have a burgeoning collection of art, which I love since both of them work in analytical fields. Our hope is that the mostly neutral backdrop continues to draw out the subtle richness in their furnishings, objects, and artwork.”

BEFORE: The primary bathroom needed new fixtures, finishes, and flooring. Kevin and Camille designed custom storage too.

AFTER: Polished details and clean lines make for a refreshed bathroom.