Forget the Loft: The Newest Trend in Luxury Real Estate Is Walls
For Wendy Maitland, Town Residential’s president of sales, an Oscar-winning director client of hers was a typical real estate shopper with typical requests. He had a seven-figure budget and was keen to buy into one of the many new luxury condo complexes sprouting around Manhattan. The client was downsizing from a huge country house in Connecticut since his children were grown, and he planned to use a new perch in Manhattan as his primary residence. So Maitland showed him multiple locations until they whittled his choice down to two: one a luxe development on the Upper East Side, the other a new building downtown, in SoHo. The clincher for her client was a second opinion from someone he trusted—but it wasn’t his life partner, an interior decorator, or even a feng shui master. It was his art consultant.
“We sent her CAD drawings, and she went to [the house in] Connecticut to inventory and measure everything. She checked the ceiling heights, the volume, and the wall space,” explains Maitland by phone from her office in New York City, “Every space in the apartment had to be approved by the art consultant.”
It wasn’t a request that fazed Wendy—in fact, she wasn’t even surprised. It’s becoming increasingly essential in new luxury developments to engineer them expressly as art-friendly spaces. The new rule in this art-loving world can be summed up simply: more walls, fewer windows.
Ian Schrager has adopted a new phrase on blueprints for his latest project, 160 Leroy: Plentiful numbers of blank walls are tagged as so-called art walls. “These are walls large enough and with high ceilings that can accommodate the large paintings of modern art, as well as art from other periods,” he told Bloomberg via e-mail, “It also allows for a visually prominent display with appropriate lighting.”
Developer Joe McMillan of DDG has embraced the term, too. “Every grand room now needs at least one art wall,” he says by phone from his Manhattan office. At his new retro-styled building, 180 East 88th Street, McMillan has gone even further, inverting the rule that new buildings should emphasize light to the exclusion of everything else.
“We spaced the windows, which are 9 feet by 9 feet, far apart enough from each other so you have large expanses of white wall between them, discrete spaces to hang your art. There’s a window acting as a picture frame on the city, a large expansive white space where you can hang some art, and then another window.” Koons and other artists, it seems, are now just as important as a view of the Chrysler Building.
Increasingly, interior walls are not only more plentiful; they’re designed much like those of a museum or gallery. At 180 East 88th, McMillan has installed a picture rail system similar to that used at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “No one likes having holes punched in their walls, and for an art-centric buyer, this allows you to minimize that. It enables you to rotate pieces easily, even if they’re not the same size.”
A similar throwbackish touch is incorporated into the Marquand, a lavish conversion of an early 20th-century apartment block. In these apartments, designer Lee Mindel created long hallways—again, extra walls—to act as interior galleries, safe from the sun and with molding that acts as a picture rail.
At 551 West 21st Street, which sits at the heart of Chelsea’s gallery district, the Norman Foster-designed apartments feature custom glass with a built-in UV screen that filters out a large percentage of rays—not to protect skin, but to safeguard any art on display inside.
For the same reason, humidifiers are a new amenity added as an art-friendly touch. In Tadao Ando’s upcoming project in Nolita, 152 Elizabeth Street, commercial-grade humidity systems were installed so that a constant moisture point can easily be maintained around fragile artwork in any of the homes. And builders Alfa Development—which has built a reputation for eco-friendly projects—has also begun courting the art market. Instead of using basic plaster to finish new developments, it now offers drywall reinforced by plywood—the same system used at most galleries, since it’s stronger and requires less maintenance when hanging art.
Even service elevators are now being enlarged so that they can be used to transport bulky artworks easily into an apartment. Roy Kim, creative director of Douglas Elliman, cites how Rafal Viñoly engineered the super-skyscraper 432 Park Avenue. “It was designed, very intentionally, with an oversize elevator at its core expressly for the move-ins of large items of art,” he says by phone from his Manhattan office.
This emphasis on prepackaging buildings as art friendly, whether by adding more walls or expanding the elevator, is a concrete manifestation of the close relationship between art collecting and real estate. Of course, there’s an element of smart marketing, too: Art world affiliation offers built-in cachet, while such thoughtful amenities as a simple picture rail can act as sweeteners to help justify skyrocketing prices in New York—10 years ago, Elliman’s Kim says, the “entry point for luxury in 2006 was $1,200 per sq. ft. and has now jumped to $3,000.” Perhaps the most compelling factor behind this trend, though, is that many major developers are also powerful art collectors themselves. Aby Rosen might be the best known, but Steve Witkoff, Edward Minkskoff, and even Ian Schrager are art world aficionados too.
As for Wendy Maitland’s buyer, the Oscar-winning director did finally make a decision between those two newly built apartments—one on the Upper East Side, the other in SoHo. He chose the downtown space after his art consultant pointed out the larger freight elevator and museum-like ceiling heights there, as well as the reinforced floors. There was one piece in particular, she knew, that would need to be drilled into the wall and the floor for display. “The neighborhood was less essential than the wall space for art, and the ability to exhibit his art collection,” Maitland marvels, “That’s a big statement.”