Anchored by a raffia rug, the living room of a Manhattan apartment designed by Christina Nielsen keeps to a calm palette, with Chateau Domingue’s Lime Plaster in Naturel providing the tactile backdrop. A bamboo screen from Creel & Gow stands next to a shearling chair from Crate & Barrel; a marble coffee table from Design Within Reach joins a CB2 sofa custom slipcovered in Rose Uniacke linen and a drinks table from RT Facts. On the back wall, a Mike Diaz mirror from KRB hangs above a vintage walnut table and rattan Mies van der Rohe chairs. A deep-jade ceramic vase, sourced at The Shop by Patrick Mele, provides one of the few hints of color.

Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto

A Prewar Co-Op Gets a Modern-Day Makeover for a Young Manhattan Couple

Christina Nielsen expertly incorporates spritely ease in this audacious reinvention.

April 14, 2023

The apartment had the unmistakable bones of a classic Upper East Side prewar co-op: beamed ceilings, generous trim, original hardwood floors. The paneled living room, done up in a pale-green handpainted chinoiserie wallcovering by de Gournay, seemed perfectly suited to the doyennes frequenting nearby haunts like Nello and Bemelmans Bar. “But the two people now living in this apartment were 32, not 72,” says designer Christina Nielsen, who was brought in to reimagine the space. Its new owners were young, fun, outdoorsy, and more likely to head downtown for a night out—and they definitely weren’t feeling the grandness of those chinoiserie panels. “Removing it felt a bit sacrilegious, but it made the space look heavy and closed in,” explains Nielsen. “And obviously it didn’t suit the clients.” 

  • For a memorable entrance, Nielsen sourced Josef Frank’s Aralia textile from Svenkst Tenn, laminated it, and installed it as wallcovering. The RT Facts console, in a green linen, enhances the jewel tones, as does the trim, painted in Mahogany by Farrow & Ball. 

    Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto
  • A freestanding mirror from RT Facts hangs against mirrored wall panels in a custom antiqued finish by Capitol Glass. Stone mushrooms from Creel & Gow decorate the mantel; on the right is a Susan Hable print.

    Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto

So began Nielsen’s quest to erase the air of formality that hung over the apartment, to make it feel fresh and ready for a couple who didn’t want to pass trays of hors d’oeuvres when they entertained, but instead preferred to sit down, relax, and put their feet up. Plus, they were expecting their first child, “so they didn’t want anything too precious,” says the designer. Add to that a lack of natural light and a limited budget, and Nielsen had a challenge on her hands.

As it turns out, she was made for the job. A millennial herself, Nielsen grew up summering in England with her father’s family, where she developed an innate sense for modern living in old spaces. “I do always like the mix of something traditional with something more contemporary and current,” she says. Starting in the living room, she replaced the banished wallpaper with hand-plastered walls and topped the rare working fireplace—the living room’s centerpiece— with antiqued paneled mirrors. “The room gets limited light, especially after a certain time of day, and I had this vision of the amazing texture of the plaster walls being reflected in that mirror. It really illuminates the space and makes it feel so much brighter.” Then, a genius move: a second mirror, which mimics the lines of the architecture, layered on top of the first, creating a mesmerizing trompe l’oeil effect. What’s more, the mirror’s black border picked up the inky accents in the custom rug, the artwork, and the iron fireplace screen, tying the entire room together.

In the guest room, a Tom Dixon pendant light makes for a pajama-party-ready atmosphere. “It feels a bit disco, and it reflects all the light from the sole window in the corner,” says Nielsen. Hand-blown mercury glass Mirrored Raindrops from RT Facts hang above the bed, which is upholstered in a Soane stripe and draped with a Suzani quilt from Creel & Gow. Vintage Jean Royère Bouquet sconces, a graphic rug from Beni Rugs, and a Dale Goffigon photograph amplify the artsy feel.

Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto
  • Pierre Frey’s Persepolis wallpaper adds movement without taking attention away from the hushed texture of the plaster walls. Nielsen kept the existing picture light because she loved the way the unlacquered brass tempered the shiny mirrored surfaces.

    Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto
  • The bathroom stripes were custom painted in situ, the preppy palette inspired by the client’s love of Nantucket. A shiny new Waterworks wall sconce and mirror brush up the existing white tile.

    Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto

And, for a lesson in stretching a budget, there’s the surprise of a sofa from CB2. “That was the hardest thing to find, because custom is just so expensive, and I knew the quality wouldn’t be great with something mass produced,” says Nielsen. “So I had my upholsterer redo all of the inserts and slipcover it in a heavyweight linen from Rose Uniacke. Now it looks like an entirely different piece.”

In the primary bedroom, Schumacher’s Haruki Sisal wallcovering feels quiet without compromising complexity. The Hans-Agne Jakobsson Tratten wall lights from Morentz add organic contrast. Suzani bedspread from Creel & Gow. Tray by Rita Konig for The Lacquer Company. Bedside table by Mecox Gardens.Manu Rodríguez/Manufoto

Pattern, meanwhile, was applied in minimal doses—but to maximum effect. In a corner of the living room, Nielsen wallpapered the recesses of a bookcase with a tumbling block pattern from Pierre Frey. “I love pattern, but I didn’t want anything to compete with the texture of the plaster, which is so subtle,” she says. And in the entryway, a laminated Josef Frank textile-turned-wallpaper transformed a narrow space into a jungle so wild that visitors never notice the absence of natural light. A Dale Goffigon photograph, perfectly placed, feels like a window thrown open into another world. She further enhanced the walls’ organic appeal with a console wrapped in green linen and moldings in a glossy chocolate brown. “White would have been too stark a contrast, and I wanted things that would blend in and not compete with the pattern, which my client felt very connected to,” explains Nielsen. “She’s a landscape architecture enthusiast, she loves botanicals, and now she sees that print every day as she opens and closes the door.”

It also has the effect of letting guests know exactly where they are: a young, very modern, and very now version of the Upper East Side.

Looking to maximize style and durability, Nielsen had the kitchen banquette upholstered in Robert Kime’s sturdy Herat fabric. An oval tulip table with a 67” calacatta marble top maximizes surface space. Wishbone chairs by Hans Wegner, sourced via 1st Dibs, are a nod the owner’s love for Danish mid-century modern design.

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