Architect Michael Chen of New York firm Normal Projects masterminds the ultimate bar for a compact Chelsea apartment.
"I think that small spaces inherently demand inventiveness," architect Michael Chen says. So when a client presented him with a brief to create a multi-functional element that was kitted out with refrigeration, storage, a beer tap, a humidor, and a dining area, Chen created what he calls a magic box. It boasts an army of features, but discreetly hides them all when not in use. "Sometimes we call them architectural appliances or transformers because that’s what they do," Chen says. "Conceptually they are appliances; experientially we like to think of them as magic boxes because they’re fun in that way."
Two materials define the Party Wall: white Corian and rich burled walnut. "We wanted a '70s kind of material to be in play," Chen says. "But at the same time, the shape of the piece overall is meant to be this very quiet, light, somewhat minimal volume that sits fairly quietly." When the shelf is in stealth mode, it recedes into the space.
Exterior doors slide open and tuck to the side to reveal shelving for liqour bottles and glassware and a beer tap. "When you're designing a kitchen you can get away with a lot more because there is an expectation that it's a functional space," Chen says. "But in a thing like a bar—particularly one that isn’t active all the time—I think there’s a pretty big challenge to incorporating the service aspects without it reading like a kitchen."
Chen says the clever home bar is a hybrid of an architectural element and a piece of furniture. "There’s a level of detail, intricacy, and workmanship in making these kinds of pieces that’s much more consistent with what you find in furniture," Chen says. "But the way it's used is much more like architecture. Its transformability makes the space around the piece also part of the piece. The choreography of how you move around it and access parts of it is something that we think about a lot."
In New York City apartments, it's rare to have truly plumb walls or flat floors. Instead of setting the cabinet flush with the surfaces, Chen pulled them away and placed LED strip lighting behind them to create a floating effect.
Chen is most proud of the design elements that aren't visible. It took a tremendous amount of engineering to create a stable, pull-out cantilevered table. "To really have a comfortable dining experience, you need something to have enough stability," Chen says. "Of all the elements, that was the hardest to accomplish."