Designer and architect Orlando Diaz-Azcuy designs the perfect penthouse

Known for sumptuously spare, elegant interiors and an artist's eye for a sublimely edited mix of ornate and minimal furnishings, Diaz-Azcuy embraces a "less is more" aesthetic. For this home, his clients wanted a fresh, young, new attitude for...

Decorating can sometimes be a challenge, though ultimately well worth the effort to both client and designer. But decorating a rental? Landlords can often be strict, and there’s only so much money clients will let you spend on a place they don’t even own.

In the case of this sprawling 38th-floor duplex penthouse perched high above the East River, however, designer and architect Orlando Diaz-Azcuy was fortunate enough to have a generous budget to work with. But there were a few caveats. Not only did he have to stick with the place’s oh-so-1980s bones, including an overabundance of built-in cabinets beneath marble-topped windowsills, but as a condition for renting the five-bedroom unit, his clients had to agree to buy the furniture remaining inside it. The couple, who had looked at almost a dozen apartments to buy while living in another rental unit in the same building, didn’t hesitate. They knew the tradeoff would be spectacular views from every room of the 4,000-square-foot apartment and a pair of immense terraces. So they called off their house hunting and called in Diaz-Azcuy.

Known for sumptuously spare, elegant interiors and an artist’s eye for a sublimely edited mix of ornate and minimal furnishings, the San Francisco– and New York–based Diaz-Azcuy embraces a “less is more” aesthetic. The clients gave him just one condition, he recalls: “They said, ‘We want a fresh, young, new attitude for the apartment, but we don’t want it so bare that it looks like a museum. We want it to feel relaxed.’”

Diaz-Azcuy definitely kept things relaxed, and snuck in a little drama, too. While for the most part he stuck to the apartment’s white-on-white palette, he painted the small private entryway a dark charcoal gray, adding a shelf of potted succulents along a mirrored wall and a pair of hefty wood stools to create a chic urban version of a mudroom. The drama part comes next: Upon walking into the apartment, “you open the front door and unexpectedly enter into a dazzling white space,” says Diaz-Azcuy. Inside the unit, the designer painted a double-height wall behind a sculptural staircase a similar shade of charcoal gray and installed a 1970s artwork made from petals of textured glass, which are strung together and hung like a sophisticated riff on a beaded curtain. “We put lights at the top and bottom, so the glass pieces refract light in very muted colors: pale blue, green, peach, and salmon. You really appreciate the subtleness when you’re up close, on the stairway, and with the slightest movement in the air, the petals rub against each other and make a lovely tinkling sound.”

Other pops of rich color appear in a cozy TV room, painted a milk-chocolaty brown; a sitting area with a daybed, finished in a rich shade of plum; and a brown accent wall in the master bedroom, which is Diaz-Azcuy’s trick for minimizing the
presence of a large black flat-screen TV on what had previously been a white wall. The designer took things a step further in the living room, where he installed what looks like an abstract artwork of silver- and gold-leaf diamonds, but is actually a pair of hinged panels concealing another wall-mounted TV.

Diaz-Azcuy was able to work with much of the preexisting furniture. He reupholstered a white leather sectional sofa in the living room in more comfortable chenille. (“The apartment was a typical bachelor pad,” says Diaz-Azcuy, “where you’re always sliding off leather sofas.”) He left the glass-topped dining table untouched but re-covered the leather dining chairs—a “very Miami” shade of blue—in a more neutral, softer brown woven leather. The dazzling chandelier overhead, made from slender chrome bars fitted with LED lights, is a Diaz-Azcuy design. “In the evening, its reflection sparkles in all the windows. It’s like walking into a Christmas decoration.”

If the designer “skimped” on anything in the rental duplex, it was curtains. He left the windows unadorned, save for retractable motorized fabric shades that keep out the sun and protect the clients’ considerable art collection, which Diaz-Azcuy has helped to curate over the years. “Most of my clients would never accept not having any curtains,” he says, “but with these views, you don’t need ornamentation!”