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.”
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.
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.”
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.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN VOLUME 7 OF FREDERIC. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!