Architect Deborah Berke creates an art-filled sanctuary

With Berke and her husband's love of art, it was time to turn their apartment into a tranquil art-filled escape. The furniture and art were the main components in the conversion.... "they are here because they make me happy," says Berke.

Architect Deborah Berke has made her name designing award-winning commercial projects, such as the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville and the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, but she’s just as adept at working on a smaller scale. Take the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, Peter McCann, an orthopedic surgeon, their daughter, Tess, and two sleek Weimaraners: Topping out at 3,000 square feet, the duplex embodies the same spare aesthetic that earned her reputation, one that embraces an understated, thoroughly modern style. She calls it “warm minimalism.”

“I love New York more than anywhere, but Peter and I both work very hard, and it’s important to have a refuge in the city, a place of happiness and peace and quiet calm,” says Berke, whose eponymous firm employs 32 people. “This apartment is for my immediate family, extended family, and our large group of friends.”

"The art and furniture are here because they are things
I like to surround myself with—they make me happy”

The duplex, on leafy Gracie Square, is a New Yorker’s dream come true. In 1993, Berke and McCann purchased a 1,500-square-foot two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a classic 1928 building by architects George B. Post & Sons. Five years ago they were able to buy the street-level apartment on the floor below, with a beautifully preserved separate Deco-era entrance featuring elaborately scrolled metalwork details. Berke set to work gutting the new space, reconfiguring the rooms, connecting the floors with a cantilevered cast-iron staircase of her own design, and creating an interior courtyard garden. The public rooms on the ground floor flow seamlessly into one another, unfolding from an airy double-height foyer punctuated by the dramatic staircase and, under it, a William Wegman portrait of a Weimaraner (Berke designed the photographer’s apartment). A few steps lead into a sunken living room, then back up to the dining room and out to the courtyard or into the kitchen. When guests visit, “they step down into the living room, making an entrance, like actors on a stage,” Berke says. “When we have people over, we start in the living room and drink and laugh and catch up. The room warms up as it fills up.”

Each room on the first floor has its own personality, but the overall color scheme is anchored by what Berke calls a “recognizable palette” of white (the walls), black (the stained-wood floors), pastels (the sky-blue and beige upholstery), and pale oak (the doors). The living room, Berke says, is “intentionally cool—black floors may seem counterintuitive, but they brighten up a space.” Underwater photographs by Roni Horn, a red Bertoia lounge chair and ottoman, vibrant turquoise pillows, and sumptuous Thai silk curtains in a color called Aegean further enhance the room’s classically modern ambiance. Upon closer inspection it becomes apparent how “curated” the space is, with an iconic round chrome-and-glass side table by Eileen Gray, an Anglepoise desk lamp designed by George Carwardine in the 1930s, and an Orrefors chandelier with faceted crystals, created in the 1960s by Carl Fagerlund. “I’m not a collector,” Berke says. “The art and furniture are here because they are things I like to surround myself with—they make me happy.” The dining room follows similar parameters. “It’s more intimate, and the connection to the garden is more immediate,” explains Berke, who replaced the wall facing the boxwood- and ivy-filled courtyard with a ceiling-high picture window, giving the room a verdant view, and lined an adjacent wall with virtually seamless oak doors behind which she stores crystal, china, and linens. Here a Giuseppe Scapinelli glass table with splayed rosewood legs and delicate Paul McCobb dining chairs are the focal point, along with two Terry Winters prints that sit on ledges built for displaying art.

"It’s important to have a refuge in the city, a place of happiness
and peace and quiet calm”


The second floor houses the bedrooms and an all-important family room/library. “We love our books, and they are very present in the apartment,” says Berke, who also teaches architecture at Yale. Shelves are crammed with architecture and design titles, including two she wrote; Berke also designed the small blond wood side table with a pullout drawer next to the sofa. The neighboring master bedroom is another example of studied simplicity, with Berke-designed bedside tables and aquamarine pillows that play off the colors in the charming Andy Warhol xerography prints hanging above the bed.

While such attention to detail and fine craftsmanship could only be expected from an architect’s own house, Berke insists that her maisonette is made to be lived in, not admired as a modern museum piece. The renovation itself, she says, was “not expensive. We even re-used the old doorknobs from 1928. The apartment is anything but precious.”