Rarefied Air

Behind the bronze doors of the city’s most sophisticated, most crafted high-rise apartment — a three-year adventure for a scholarly architect and an erudite decorator.

Rob Brinkley. Photography Steve Wrubel. Floral Design Jeffrey Lee for Grange Hall.
Posted:
July 08, 2011

If messieurs Patek and Philippe were still with us, they’d be advised to watch their backs. If misters Rolls and Royce still plied their crafts, they might want to sleep with one eye open. For when it comes to concept, design, fitting and decoration, there is some heady competition in the architect-decorator team of Ralph Duesing and John Bobbitt. The Dallas gents — Duesing the gentle type, with a C.V. that includes studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and Bobbitt the boisterous storyteller, with one of the most unerring eyes in the nation for scale, furnishings, art and accessories — have a project under their dapper belts that holds its own against any masterwork built with utter devotion and care.

A bit of rewinding is in order. Bobbitt takes a meeting with a potential client. “I want a New York apartment,” says the woman, “but in Dallas.” Bobbitt’s heart skips two beats. The decorator has a thing for Manhattan, having lived there, and for its grand prewar apartments. The woman presses on: “But first, who are your favorite designers?” Bobbitt rattles off his shortlist: Renzo Mongiardino, Peter Marino, Jacques Garcia. The woman grinds the interview to a halt — she’s been talking to others, but Bobbitt gets the job. An oversimplification, perhaps, but a demonstration of the mythical connection that must exist between all parties embarking on a journey such as this. And the program isn’t simple: Turn a standard, three-bedroom apartment at The Vendôme on Turtle Creek into a 4,800-square-foot Beaux Arts gem for two — with one bedroom only. No guest quarters? “That’s what hotels are for,” says the woman to Bobbitt, who, at that moment, knows he is dealing with an unconventional sort.

Bobbitt’s keenest move was his next. He rang Ralph Duesing, the Dallas architect known for houses of classical leanings, but with restraint and modernity. Duesing works classically, too, hand-drawing everything — floor plans, elevations, millwork designs, the tiniest details. His evocative renderings look more like works in the Uffizi Gallery than they do blueprints. It was a match made in draftsman heaven for Bobbitt, who decorates much the same way, making intricate sketches and drawings before the first settee is chosen or the first drapery panel goes up. The two spent nearly a year planning and drawing the Vendôme apartment; construction took twice as long. Two years in the building? No ordinary project, this. It was conceived as the ultimate prewar apartment — inserted into a high-rise built in 2002. But Duesing and Bobbitt sorted it out, even raising the ceilings nearly two feet in certain areas (a happy discovery by Bobbitt early in the project, who, looking up at The Vendôme at a stoplight, noticed extra distance between the 17th and 18th floors and deduced that there was more space above the apartment’s existing ceiling; he was right). The new interior is an arrangement of volumes that alternate from grand to intimate — and, says Duesing, “as you pass from room to room, there is a deliberate light-dark-light progression that subtly defines each space.” The materials are luxurious: floors of Portuguese lagos azul stone and African wenge wood; walls of thick, ebonized walnut; French doors of solid bronze; wooden doors of solid crotch mahogany. Even the myriad friezes at the ceilings are bespoke, each designed by Duesing and built and carved from solid woods. (“None of it comes from a catalog,” says Bobbitt. “Ralph drew every one.”) Classical building techniques were used throughout, down to the mortise-and-tenon construction of every door, every panel, every drawer. “This,” says Bobbitt, “is an apartment of interior haute couture.” Proof? Decadent luxuries such as a fully paneled dining-room wall that hinges open to an adjacent drawing room, or the round-walled room whose ceiling is a fully operational cosmological clock. The clock — its motorized rings mark the hour, the day, the month, even the moon’s phases — is a nod to the owners’ collection of celestial globes and armillary spheres. “Instruments that mark time,” Bobbitt explains. “It all relates.”

Within this highly crafted shell, Bobbitt has mixed beloved art with completely new acquisitions. Bronze griffins and swans spring from the walls, as sconces. A pair of leggy Klismos chairs pulls up to a plump ottoman upholstered in zebra hide. A curvaceous Venetian-glass chandelier dangles over a glossy rosewood dining table. Everywhere, the selections are confident, curatorial; they hold their own against the apartment’s monumental shell. “It is,” says a justifiably proud Bobbitt, “exactly the kind of apartment I’ve wanted to do for somebody — for a long time.”

Images:

The apartment’s private elevator vestibule opens to this formal foyer. The doors are solid bronze and glass; their Roman-grille motif is repeated elsewhere, most notably in the dining room’s custom carpet. The gilded-bronze lantern overhead is 19th-century, in the Louis XVI style, from East & Orient Company.



Shouldn’t everyone have a clock room? Indeed, the ceiling of this round-walled inner vestibule is a working cosmological clock, made of steel, gilded wood and turned walnut. Involved in the design: an engineering firm, a machinist and a computer programmer. On the rotating rings, artist Jane Athey spent nearly a year executing the time, days, months, years, zodiac symbols, even moon phases.



The luxurious dining room, for round-table nights of the best kind. A 19th-century Venetian-glass chandelier illuminates the mise en scène, including a rosewood table and Dessin Fournir mahogany chairs, all from David Sutherland Showroom. The silk-and-wool carpet is by Hokanson, designed for the apartment by John Bobbitt. The wall panels are faux marquetry, inspired by a 17th-century technique wherein ebony was inlaid with brass, pewter and tortoiseshell. The unadorned walnut panels were first built in place, then disassembled and crated to Vancouver, Canada, where Gorman Studios executed the stunning decorative work. Artists returned with the panels — and stayed for two months, touching them up after reinstallation. The framed painting is by 1800s American landscape artist George Inness.


One wall in the dining room holds a secret: It unlocks and unfolds to the adjacent drawing room, allowing for a second table for parties. The tolerance between the wall and the floor is paper-thin; Bobbitt posits that the wall’s hinges could support a bank-vault door. The entire apartment is built to such a level. The contractor was Cole Smith Jr.; the project manager was Keith Williams, both of Crow Bar Constructors. The finishes throughout (“heirloom-furniture-grade,” insists Bobbitt) were by Barry A. Martin Painting Contractors; the bespoke drapery and bedding were by Donna Burley of Straight Stitch.


Not only a jewel box of a powder room, but a concentration of extreme craft. The inspiration is a pair of 18th-century Venetian corner cabinets that Bobbitt discovered years ago in Paris: The walls here are glass — including the green moldings — all by Bowman Glass in Dallas. Molloy Mirror executed the antiquing and silvering; what isn’t glass is wood, gilded in white gold by Carlos Espinosa of Las Negras Studio. The sink and faucetry are from Sherle Wagner; the mirror above the sink is antique Venetian.

 


An artisanal attention to detail permeates the apartment. Here, just one of the many frieze moldings, each designed by architect Ralph Duesing, drawn by hand, then built up and carved from solid woods. Note the molding’s corner joint: The scroll pattern, in particular, isn’t interrupted by the corner itself — the size of each scroll was dictated by the room’s measurements, so that no scroll was truncated in corners.

 

On the dining room’s rosewood table, a bowl of amber starfish and shells, a “curious find,” says Grange Hall’s Jeffrey Lee.


In the library, one of the iconic orangutans of Arkansas artist Donald Roller Wilson, just one of a collection propped throughout the apartment.


 

In the entry hall, a pair of sentries — swans of mercury-gilded bronze, as sconces.


Domestic bliss, with a twist. In a hallway adjacent to the formal dining room, a long wall for plates and glasses. A testament to the cleverness of Duesing and Bobbitt: One section of the wall nearest the service elevator is removable, so that large furnishings and works of art can be moved into the apartment with ease.


Architect Ralph Duesing, left, and decorator John Bobbitt.

 


One side of the living room, with its walls of solid, ebonized walnut and a centerpiece of a chandelier by Thomas Grant. The inset in the wall is upholstered in Holly Hunt leather from George Cameron Nash; the sofa is Cameron Collection, from Nash, too. The zebra-upholstered ottoman is by Bobbitt, who devised hidden, pull-out trays in it “big enough to hold a dessert plate” — and certainly a cocktail glass or two. 

LOOKATYOU