Merritt and Carl Schlanger may have given up city living, but a tour of their midcountry home makes it clear that their chic design sensibility came with them.
photos by hulya kolabas; flowers by Winston flowers
In the winter of 2009, Merritt and Carl Schlanger took a look at a lot for sale in Greenwich that was tucked into a little hollow off a winding road not too far from town. It was a dreary day, a condition that seemed to make the simple 1960s ranch and the thicket of 100-foot pines that occupied the one-acre property look even less worthy of being saved.
Counseled throughout the search process by Carl’s longtime friend, the real estate developer who’d lobbied the urban couple to make a go of it in the country, they closed within a month, and shortly thereafter tore it down to make way for a classically influenced center hall with plenty of room for contemporary art, Art Deco and midcentury furniture—and a growing collection of spit-shined vintage cars.
“I couldn’t believe how fast a house could be demolished and carted away leaving a blank slate,” says Merritt. “Perfect for my husband’s vision.”
The friend who happened to be in the architecture and construction business was Foster Kaali-Nagy who, with his brother, Damien, and father, Alex, runs Kaali-Nagy Partners, an architecture and real estate development firm based in New Canaan. The Schlangers hired the firm to design and build the house—in accordance with Carl’s vision.
Building Their Dream
Under construction for only seven swift months, the house was finished ahead of schedule, in part because there were as many as thirty tradespeople from five or six different trades on-site every day.
The new Colonial features six bedrooms, a below-ground movie theater, cold storage for 300 wine bottles, and spacious rooms for living, dining, reclining, cooking, and working—Merritt owns with her mother a jewelry company called Classic Rocks, for which she designs necklaces, bracelets and other accessories; and Carl works for his family’s printing business. All of it is wrapped in clapboard siding, topped with cedar shakes and adorned with black shutters.
“Both my husband and I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, and we always knew that eventually when we started a family we wanted to move out of the city and raise our kids in the suburbs,” says Merritt. She had the couple’s first child when they bought the house and delivered their second about a month after they moved in.
At 5,000-plus square feet, the house is a step up in roominess from the well-appointed 2,100 square feet they inhabited in a prewar building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Its lofty ceilings and detailed millwork—gracious crown and picture moldings throughout; tailored mantels on four fireplaces; paneling as a point of interest in key locations such as the front staircase; and generous door casings—lend the space a chic and understated sensibility.
Painted a lustrous white, the millwork contrasts softly with dove-gray walls and together they mimic the effect of a lacquered shell inside of which are hidden imaginative and colorful accessories. The tasteful flourishes are not the only contributing factor to the home’s intrinsic elegance. From the outside it exudes symmetry and balance, an effect that is bolstered once one crosses the threshold and enters the front hall where, in fact, some architectural sleight of hand is at work, counterweighting the main rooms on the right side of the house with the hidden but spacious garage on the left. Aligning it all on an axis is the center hall that runs from the front door all the way through to the breakfast area in back.
To help them outfit the interiors, the Schlangers called Judy Howard Harpel, an interior designer based in Delray Beach, Florida, whose sprawling residential practice has completed projects in Boston, Connecticut, New York City, New Jersey, the Hamptons, Chicago and elsewhere.
Judy, whose firm, J/Howard Design Inc., maintains a satellite office on Park Avenue, knew the Schlangers’ taste and knew how they worked, having designed their apartment in New York as well as several of Carl’s parents’ homes in New York City, Florida and on Long Island.
“As a client, they’re organized and they have excellent taste,” she says. “They’re very sophisticated. They’re willing to step out of the box, but they’re grounded in the classics.”
The Schlangers incorporated Judy into the architecture and construction process from the start; and she got to work choosing paint colors, granites and marbles for the bathrooms, kitchen and butler’s pantry, and redesigned the master bath with cabinets that accommodated the couple’s needs.
The labor and procurement was divided between designer and client, with the Schlangers sourcing several of the vintage pieces themselves and Judy both sourcing from showrooms and designing custom pieces to finish the space. And then there were the gifted items, such as the entire dining room set with a late-nineteenth-century table and seats upholstered in Old World Weaver fabric that previously occupied Carl’s parents’ dining room in New York City.
Judy completed the job with six or seven “very intense, organized” trips to New York and plenty of design time in Florida. “When I was in town, we got the ultimate decisions made,” she says.
Among the highlights of the project for Judy personally were the acquisition of a Kotibe wood and mohair arm chair she found at William Switzer. It sits just off the living room in Carl’s office, where a vintage rosewood and chrome desk floats in the center of the space. Judy also designed for the room a sofa with a straight edge and a thick arm. Together the ensemble constitutes a man cave for a man who’s advanced well beyond the age in which coffee tables were made of boulders and open campfires surrounded by stones substituted for Viking ranges.
Judy says she also enjoyed procuring a variety of light fixtures, including tapered sconces, black crystal chandeliers, mirrored globe pendants and Murano-glass lamps that together span a gamut of motifs, including contemporary, traditional and quasi-Art Deco. She is particularly proud of the custom-designed Macassar ebony console she installed in the entry hall, where it makes a dramatic statement accessorized with a mold for a doll’s head and handmade ceramic urchins Merritt found in Italy. Above the tableau hangs a Frank Stella that Merritt acquired at auction.
Incorporating the Unexpected
“They’re not afraid to take chances with color,” says the designer. “It’s wonderful; it’s a bonus. They love gray. In New York they had an entire room covered in gray flannel and they wanted to keep it pivotal in the new house.”
Judy was able to accent the gray palette with pops of colors like hot pink (Lucite chairs with velvet seats Merritt found in a Stamford antique shop that pair with a custom lacquer and glass-topped table in the breakfast area); a dusty lavender that adds depth to the master suite; and the yellows and greens that are on display in the fabric chosen for the guest room.
Judy holds a special affection for the first-floor powder room, where she indulged her philosophy of powder-rooms-as-jewel boxes that showcase the unexpected. She likens the wallpaper, called “Flower of Love” to Art Nouveau and calls it “insane” and “hysterical.”
“There’s an undercurrent of the very contemporary with the art,” says Judy. “And then there’s a turn-of-the-century influence with the Art Nouveau pieces.”
When it came to the art, though, the Schlangers, budding collectors, did most of their own shopping. In the process, they cataloged an archive of stories about the pieces they acquired.
The bright, swirling horizontal canvas that hangs in the main hall is a commissioned piece by Gordon Stevenson who splattered the paints the Schlangers chose and then tilted one corner upward so that the pigments streamed across the plane in a pattern that was different every time.
“That piece weighs thirty pounds, it’s got so much paint on it,” says Carl. The hot pink that is predominant in the piece references the pink velvet chairs in the nearby breakfast area that date to the 1970s.
“Our house is pretty neutral in terms of color, so we wanted something over the top to liven up the space,” says Merritt of the painting. “It’s a definite conversation starter.”
In the living room, looms a larger-than-life portrait of Marilyn Monroe, lending a steamy but pensive presence to the space. Created by artist Russell Young during a live silk-screening demonstration at a gallery the Schlangers frequent in Southampton, it is in the vein of the Warhol silk screens and made in colors chosen by the couple. To demonstrate to his patrons that their new possession was one-of-a-kind, Young slashed the screen after finishing the painting.
“I love 1960s pop art,” says Merritt.
Young is also the artist behind a large painting that depicts a photograph of Keith Richards and an entourage on what looks like a private airstrip in Montauk with a shiny black sedan lingering nearby. “I immediately fell in love with this piece, as I am a huge Rolling Stones fan,” says Merritt. She gave her son the middle name Jagger.
The piece confers a cool, self-assured, rock-and-roll vibe upon the space where sofas custom-designed by Judy provide a place for relaxing, reading or watching TV within earshot of the kitchen. (The real movie-watching is done in the basement’s luxe theater, a feature that Carl says is one of his favorite parts of the house.)
Adding to the home’s cool sensibility are the vintage cars the Schlangers keep in their garage. There is a white 1949 Jaguar the couple calls Veronica; a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible known as Betty; and a late-model Aston Martin called Bianca. And, so as not to leave the children out of the family hobby, there is a miniature red Mercedes for their daughter and a pint-sized black Lamborghini for their son.
As for the next house, Carl says his hope is to design a room for up to ten cars, possibly with a lift. And given that Merritt says she is looking forward to expanding the family, he should probably add a spot for a new mini-Maserati.