An Interior Designer's Artful and Art-Filled NYC Town House

Interior designer Sandra Nunnerley brings together art and antiques to create harmony in her own apartment.

The overall effect of Sandra Nunnerley’s apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side is of mannered calm, balance, and self-assured chic.

After purchasing the fifth floor of a Beaux-Arts town house near Central Park, she gutted the apartments and turned the rear into her bedroom and study. By adding large French windows to bring in more light, she solved a structural issue common to many townhouses. With light only entering from front and back, the middle can be left feeling enclosed and dark.

Nunnerley knocked down walls in the high-ceilinged front apartment to create a perfectly square room: "There’s something restful about the clarity of those proportions," she says. "I love to use simple things — I could take a beautiful piece of driftwood off the beach and put it next to a Giacometti sculpture. It’s the juxtaposition, the variety of things that you work with."

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This circa 1900 Carlo Bugatti chair flanked by a 1960s Murano lamp and a carved Maori war canoe (from her home country of New Zealand) is typical of Nunnerley's approach to interior design. She assembles interesting pieces from auction houses alongside work made by her studio or commissioned from a range of Parisian ateliers, with whom she has built up relationships over the years.


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In the living room, Nunnerley added classic details, like custom crown moldings and baseboards, but used wide oak floorboards (rather than the traditional parquet) to give the space a slightly industrial, loft-like feeling.

Richard Serra’s My Curves are Not Mad hangs above the monumental, low sofa she custom-designed to seat six comfortably. It inhabits its own niche, which she built so it wouldn’t interrupt her classic square.

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Nunnerley describes the sleek 1960s Maison Jansen table from Paris as “the perfect table”.

Seen here in front of Kenneth Noland’s Diamond, it can expand or contract to seat 10 or two. The piece is on casters, so she can move it anywhere in the room and set up chairs around it — that’s why there’s no rug.

“It’s like Versaille,” she says. “There are no formal dining rooms there either. They simply moved the table to wherever they wanted to eat, whether that was in front of the window or in a grand room.”

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“As you can see, I’ve never been a minimalist,” says Nunnerley. She compares designing to being a jazz musician, working with the basics and then improvising. “We talk about riffs in jazz, and how those riffs appear in design, how you go up and down the scale, and make interesting juxtapositions.”

Pieces that might appear miscellaneous elsewhere create harmony here. The area around the fireplace includes a huge Senufo guardian bird sculpture from the Ivory Coast, a pair of 1930s Italian Osvaldo Borsani armchairs, and a curved, low table in eggshell-and-lacquer from the 1970s.

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In her book, Interiors, the designer describes how a trip to Tibet delivered a vision of the serenity she wanted to recreate in her own living space. Part of this involved relocating her bedroom to the rear of the building. The Scalamandré fabric used on the headboard and bed skirt fabric was chosen because the colors and patterns recall sepia-toned prints of the ancient city of Machu Picchu.

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The study, also located at the back of the building, is private and calm, and has French doors that bring the light in. The wool rug, with its monochrome lines, echoes an image of a tattered curtain in a Himalayan monastery that Nunnerley was particularly drawn to. A contemporary Chinese ink painting by Lui Dan hangs above the sofa.

Sam Eichblatt
Sam Eichblatt is a freelance journalist specializing in design, architecture, and culture.


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