Interior designers are learning that show homes and penthouse model residences spell opportunity — property developers make well-funded, decisive clients and projects can lead to on-going business
If you want to get up close to a fabulous mid-century arm chair or a notable work of art, where do you head? An obvious spot would be the museum, gallery, showroom or antiques fair. Alternatively, you could book a viewing at a new penthouse apartment.
A well-dressed property allows a potential buyer to more easily imagine their own furnishings in there: “People can’t understand empty spaces,” says Jo Littlefair of London design firm Goddard Littlefair.
And while Kimberly Sheppard of New York design firm Gabellini Sheppard believes not all buyers are nervous of an empty shell, she says: “A space feels smaller when it’s empty.”
In the past, there was a standard approach to model or show homes: “They were all a version of grey velvet and silver wall coverings,” says Littlefair.
Petra Arko of Bergman & Mar design company in London expands on this: “They were quite corporate, and weren’t about creating a home but filling space with furniture.”
But with so many luxury developments on the market, interior design has raised its game. “It’s the competition – it drives developers to find an individual approach,” Arko says.
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What’s more, the general public is now “more educated in design,” says Sheppard, “making the design of show homes and sales galleries that much more vital to the success of the project”.
And for those schemes designed by a big-name architect, the furniture is there to complement or enhance the details and finishes. “Our task is to pay homage to the architect who designed the building,” says Guillaume Coutheillas of frenchCALIFORNIA, who collaborated with architects Robert AM Stern on the Belnord in Manhattan model residence in New York.
This is more than creating a look for the estate agents’ particulars. Where once things were catch-all predictable, now the buzzwords are warm and eclectic; and while Arko warns that spaces should not be too personal, she says: “It has to have a personality” – though she adds: “Not too many marmite pieces.” Littlefair echoes this: “Developers can go too far and alienate people.”
Developers may pick an interior design firm from a shortlist of three or four of their favourites. They then profile the likely buyers. For Bergman & Mar’s scheme at 101 on Cleveland in London, they had in mind UK buyers, overseas investors, and parents buying for children who were studying in the capital.
Littlefair says the Belvedere Gardens Penthouse on London’s South Bank could be “the fourth or fifth home of the eventual purchaser.”
These show homes are designed with attention usually devoted to a tasteful, well-heeled client, with artwork, art objects and furniture and of different periods and styles.
But how do the designers put these looks together? A popular route is to mix up sources, borrowing or buying art and other items from galleries and dealers, scouring antiques shops and fairs, and even commissioning pieces.
In the experience of Sheppard, developers rarely purchase art, instead collaborating with artists and dealers to get pieces on loan. It’s a similar situation with some furniture, whether vintage, antique or new.
For artwork at Gabellini Sheppard’s 152 Elizabeth Street in New York, the developer Sumaida + Khurana brought in Yossi Milo Gallery, which specialises in contemporary photography. Meanwhile, the central piece of furniture is a solid walnut Nakashima dining table, sourced from Nakashima Woodworkers, which Sheppard describes as a future heirloom piece.
“In some cases, we purchase all the inventory from various showrooms and makers we have special connections with,” says Coutheillas. “In others, we may work with a world-renowned design gallery who rents us their pieces for the residence and makes them available for sale to visitors.” For the Belnord, he paired up with Evan Snyderman at R + Company to curate pieces for the model residence. These include “an incredible Haas Brothers mirror that adds a sense of whimsy to the very classic space,” Coutheillas adds.
For 101 on Cleveland, Arko trawled vintage shops and Kempton Park Market. There’s a lounge chair by Vittorio Dassi, a brass table lamp by Willeke Leuchten (both from the 1960s), and Brazil-born Fernanda Calvão’s painting, Bananinha. The shelves contain first editions from the collection of the late impresario Michael White.
At the penthouse of Canary Wharf Group’s Belvedere Gardens on London’s South Bank, Goddard Littlefair took a different approach, going to a one-stop shop for bespoke art. “People who have this level of wealth go to all the best stores and fairs, so we want to be able to offer something unique,” says Littlefair.
Studio Graphite is a multi-disciplinary art studio which creates artwork collections for interior spaces. The design firm gave them a creative brief, which took account of the colour scheme and dominant pieces of furniture. The aim was to create the feeling of someone collecting. “Loaning art is very difficult from galleries – you’re paying rent, and the developer can’t sell it on with the apartment,” says Littlefair. “Sometimes, I’ve trawled the Affordable Art Fair and mixed up suppliers. It can be hit and miss, and timescales and budgets don’t always allow for this way of doing things.”
By featuring their pieces in a show apartment, gallerists and dealers gain an audience of the ideal demographic – people looking for a new home. It’s a win-win because the apartments look and sell better, and the artists gain exposure.Kimberly Sheppard, Design Partner, Gabellini Sheppard
What does a gallery or dealer get out of it? The interior designers agree that art and antiques are at an advantage in a heavily trafficked domestic setting rather than a quiet commercial space. “Galleries have a chance to show their works in situ or a new environment, helping prospective buyers to see how a piece might work in their own home,” says Coutheillas. This also gives gallerists access to a new audience: “There is a lot of overlap with those buying real estate and those buying collectible design and art.” In his experience, the galleries make lots of sales this way.
Sheppard backs this up: “By featuring their pieces in a show apartment, gallerists and dealers gain an audience of the ideal demographic – people looking for a new home. It’s a win-win because the apartments look and sell better, and the artists gain exposure.”
Meanwhile, Bergman & Mar sometimes features the makers in its social media as a tag, and lets galleries use any photography that showed their work for their own promotion.
But the cherry on the cake is when the show or model home is snapped up lock, stock and barrel. “That’s a good day,” says Sheppard, and happens most often in urban projects, where buyers already own multiple homes. “They see themselves living in that space in that particular city, whereas they may have a different look and feel in their homes in other places.”
That means there are two prices for such properties, in the case of Belvedere Gardens’ penthouse: £17m unfurnished, and £17.5m with Goddard Littlefair’s input. At 101 on Cleveland, six units have sold with full-furniture packages. “In some instances, residents who have purchased undressed apartments have made contact with the designers after buying, to commission their unit to be dressed,” says Richard Leslie, founder of Dukelease Properties.
Or as Littlefair puts it: “It’s a calling card.”
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