Sandra's sanctuary comes to life with help from her friend

Decorator Todd Black completely renovates Sandra Ballentine's Murray Hill apartment into the penthouse of her dreams.

Like many an idea that has ended up costing me money, the scheme to renovate my apartment was hatched over cocktails—in this case at the Carlyle hotel—with my good friend Todd Black, an interior designer. And as it goes with a lot of home-improvement projects born of one too many whiskey sours, what started as a minor face-lift for the kitchen and bath soon turned into a major overhaul. Thank heavens for hard spirits: My place really needed help.

I had rented the 950-square-foot one-bedroom for five years before purchasing it in 2007, when the building was converted into a condominium. Buying it was an easy decision. Not only was the prospect of moving elsewhere daunting, but I knew that finding another penthouse apartment with three exposures and a wraparound terrace would be next to impossible to afford on my style editor’s salary.

Because the place had always been a rental, it came with some aesthetic baggage. The walls were in terrible shape thanks to years of subpar paint jobs, a dated polyurethane sheen coated the floors, and the kitchen and bath practically competed for cheapest-finish honors. The baseboards were stingy, the radiator covers had numerous dents, and there were no moldings to speak of. Nasty roof leaks had played havoc with parts of the ceiling. And my wardrobe was literally bursting out of my closets. (A bit of a fashion addict, I had been lusting for a proper walk-in for years.)

By the time Todd and I asked for our check at the Carlyle, we had covered six cocktail napkins with sketches. The only problem was how to pay for the reno, because I had only about one napkin’s worth of savings.

“Isn’t your birthday coming up?” Todd asked. Yes, I sighed. It was a big one, too. “Well, I can’t stand that kitchen of yours,” he went on, “and even though you’re a terrible cook, you need a proper kitchen. Tell you what: If we do this, I will waive my fee and not take any commissions as your birthday present.” (I wound up financing the rest of the work by selling a Dubuffet drawing I’d acquired in the ’90s.) Culinary slights aside, my dreams that night were filled with visions of stainless steel, fancy stone, and skim-coating.

I called Todd first thing in the morning, worried that he might not remember our conversation. But he did, to my relief, and we immediately set about choosing fixtures, fabrics, and finishes. As longtime shopping companions,
I trusted his taste implicitly, and he trusted mine.

Which is not to say we didn’t argue. Take the ikat fabric on my bedroom’s headboard. He was determined to use it somewhere, anywhere, and it ended up dictating the entire decor scheme. We must have looked at a thousand paint colors, trying to find ones that would work with that print. Just when I was ready to burn the fabric swatch, Todd found a gorgeous custom gray-green from Fine Paints of Europe. Custom paint? I started wondering if I might have to sell another piece of art.

Throughout the rest of the renovation process, there was a good amount of give and take, but when it came to the kitchen and bath, Todd wouldn’t budge. He made me close my open kitchen, which provided me with more counter space and expanded walls on which to hang art. I was also forced to ditch my beloved bathtub, although I now have a luxurious shower in place of the cramped (and decidedly un-chic) tub-shower that had been wedged alongside the loo.

I couldn’t be happier with my new surroundings, and I’m even getting used to the creepy stuffed raven Todd made me buy at Deyrolle, the Paris taxidermy shop. The palette he created for the apartment is glamorous, but not girly, and it goes well with my art. I also love how it practically melts into the garden, which in season is lush with ivy, climbing roses and hydrangeas, elephant ears, impatiens, geraniums, potato vines, a touchy rose topiary, and three very happy Japanese maples.

Like most long-term projects, the work is never quite finished. For starters, I must ask Todd to find me a cute desk for my new double life as a freelance writer and beauty entrepreneur (although I am never having drinks with him again—it’s too dangerous). The renovation process has been revelatory, too, as I’ve come to realize that making this house into a home has been a labor of love. Whether talking about the art (my close friend Elizabeth Fiore advises me on my collection), the terrace (I hit it off with my excellent gardener, Iannis Delatolas, at a charity event), or the furnishings (you’ve met Todd), it’s all about relationships. That’s the way it is with us New Yorkers. We may not be great cooks, but we definitely know how to pick our friends.

click for a gallery view of images of this Murray Hill apartment