One often hears that a home has “good bones.” The phrase is not typically applied to an entire neighborhood, but that’s exactly how the architect and historian Christopher Rawlins describes Manhattan’s Inwood, which, in addition to trains, parks and a vibrant immigrant presence, has one of the highest concentrations of Art Deco buildings in the United States, and is where he’s lived since 1999, when the area also appealed for its affordability. “You could practically reach into your pocket and pay cash for an apartment up here,” recalls Rawlins, who at the time was a few years out of graduate school and working at Alexander Gorlin Architects while also taking on the occasional teaching gig or independent commission. Today, he’s known for immortalizing the work of the 20th-century architect Horace Gifford with his 2013 book, “Fire Island Modernist,” and for his own reimaginings of midcentury styles and spaces — he recently completed a restoration of a late ’60s Harry Bates-designed home in Fire Island Pines. Moving uptown, says Rawlins, would allow him to reconceptualize his life. “I realized I didn’t have to be a cool kid in the Village and that, if I worked out of my home, I could call the shots professionally,” he says. And so he and his then-partner, the artist Tad Mike, purchased two units in the same 1935 cream brick co-op — a 700-square-foot one-bedroom to live in, and a 1,050-square-foot two-bedroom two floors below to use for their studios — and Rawlins launched his own practice.
After Rawlins performed “a very faithful, very surgical Art Deco kind of renovation” on the smaller unit, though, the apartment next to the one that housed the couple’s studios became available, so they sold the one-bedroom to Rawlins’s assistant and, in 2007, bought that adjoining space. Rawlins then embarked on a second renovation, this one years long and a chance, he decided, not to ignore the building’s history but to be less by the book. The unit had an outdated floor plan, for instance, with the kitchen and the living room on opposite ends. His main “sleight of hand” in terms of the layout, he says, was to swap the kitchen and a bedroom. He also installed central air, hiding the ducts by adding a series of ceilings that, in a nod to Art Deco’s emphasis on curved lines, slope down toward each threshold, and soundproofed the space by stuffing the ceilings and floors with mass-loaded vinyl and acoustical batting and adding rubber isolation channels between the Sheetrock and the joists. Finally, he connected the two formerly distinct units with a small vestibule with doors at either end.
However daring or transformative, though, these are the sorts of fixes one might expect from an architect. Where Rawlins really allowed himself room to play was with the interiors. Starting in 2008, he’s collaborated with his brother, the interior designer John Rawlins, on a number of projects, including several Nancy Gonzalez boutiques and the Women’s Shoe Salon at Bergdorf Goodman, experiences that made him realize how much architects miss. No wonder that “a lot of the spaces designed and furnished by architects leave me feeling a little cold,” he says. Rawlins first discovered Gifford’s work in 2001, when he was wandering the boardwalks of Fire Island and grew mystified by many of the surrounding houses, which he found to be “both modest and performative, diminutive sculptures in cedar and glass with soaring rooflines, breezeways and hovering platforms.” They were also sustainable well before sustainability was fashionable. He’d never come across them in architecture school, and started knocking on doors and found that these houses, which he was primarily drawn to, he says, for their combination of “calm intelligence and hedonistic sensuality,” were almost all designed by Gifford. Certainly Rawlins has always tried to strike a similar balance in his work — “I’ve been walking alongside this guy in my imagination,” he says — and his apartment is no exception.
Upon entering the front door of the unit, a visitor finds herself in a light-filled foyer, which is one somewhat formal element that was never in jeopardy, as Rawlins considers a foyer to be a crucial element of a successful New York City apartment — “a threshold between the chaos of the city and the calm of a successful home.” “They very often don’t turn up in Modernist spaces, and there’s a graciousness to them that is missing from contemporary ones that are so tightly drawn to maximize profits for developers,” he adds. He laid the floor of his with a fresh but Deco-friendly pattern that alternates staggered planks of zebrawood and maple. More than to any design period, the foyer’s walls, which are covered with custom ombré green wallpaper and hung with a pair of large walnut stain abstract paintings by Mike (the couple separated in 2013, at which point Rawlins purchased Mike’s share of the property), pay tribute to the neighborhood itself, and specifically to Inwood’s “continuous necklace of parks,” says Rawlins.
In fact, they mirror the views of Inwood Hill Park that can be enjoyed from the sunken living room, which lies straight ahead and is appointed with a pair of reproductions of a curvaceous ’50s-era Marco Zanuso-designed armchair (“but filtered slightly according to modern human proportions”) and a two-tiered mahogany, black lacquer and brass coffee table that’s attributed to Gio Ponti (“but I can’t prove it”) and has edges that tilt upward like wings. Rawlins appreciates the international strain of Art Deco called Streamline Moderne, in which, as he puts it, “everything is aerodynamic, even if it doesn’t need to go through a wind tunnel.” These pieces act as foils to a boxy powder green Edward Wormley tweed sofa from the ’50s. “I love imagining the Upper East Side grande dame who kept it wrapped in plastic,” says Rawlins. On the far side of the room are a maple credenza and a marble-topped hexagonal dining table, both made by the Turkish firm Marbleous, and a sculptural lamp that Rawlins got from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and placed atop a matching cherry wood base he had made for the piece. All of this sits on a charcoal-and-white square-patterned carpet by David Hicks.
It’s the kind of layering of periods and influences that, in less capable hands, could have gone very wrong, but here feels only delightfully surprising. “I decided I wouldn’t have John help me this time and, to my great luck, it’s not bad,” concedes Rawlins. He modeled the checkerboard-patterned closets in the main bedroom after those he saw at Katsura Imperial Villa while on a trip to Kyoto, Japan, and designed the room’s maple dresser, with shallow drawers and wide slabs that double as handles, himself. He also took the opportunity to reclaim family pieces he’d grown up with: In the foyer is a footed mahogany and cedar chest that his grandmother, who lived for a time in the Philippines, commissioned there in 1938, and, in a corner of the living room, Rawlins has placed a drop-leaf table that once held his grandparents’ guest book.
He also likes to entertain and, since most of his friends live downtown, tries to make a trip to Inwood worth their while. “After Negronis, the wine flows freely, and I often pair it with Middle Eastern dishes I picked up from Tad, who is Lebanese American,” says Rawlins. Unsurprisingly, then, his favorite room may be the kitchen, where the extra-deep sink can keep up to 10 place settings’ worth of dirty dishes out of view. He also installed a wet zone, which features a continuous plane of white Corian that goes from the ceiling, over the zebrawood veneer countertop, and down to the floor — “It’s a waterfall effect on steroids,” says Rawlins — and, because Corian can melt, a hot zone, with an island topped with green granite that looks more like marble.
But he spends much more time either at the midcentury rosewood desk in the center of his office or at the white wraparound desk — seven 20-year-old steel-legged Ikea modules that he spray-painted white. The area has a different feel than the rest of the apartment — partly because Rawlins “scavenged,” as he puts it, most of what’s in it, including the brown leather-backed Knoll chairs and the silk and wool carpet, from jobs where his clients were purging — but it, too, offers views of the park. “It’s hilly, so in the winter it’s a popular place for hawks,” says Rawlins, “and in the summer it’s very dense — a wall of green.” And while his space now has plenty of modern elements, it’s comforting to know that, over the decades since the first occupants moved in, this aspect of the vista beyond has likely remained relatively unchanged.