The Art of Designing Luxury Model Apartments

May 30, 2013 | News

spritemain_WH copyThe art of the sample apartment is aimed at getting buyers to spend millions: ‘The less they have to think…the more likely they are to buy’

By Alyssa Abkowitz 

On a recent morning, Gary Barnett walked through a black door and entered the dark Venetian-plastered foyer of an apartment in midtown Manhattan. A brass wire chandelier shaped like a branch hung overhead; a walnut console attached to the wall appeared to float nearby. Both were overshadowed by a large metal LED star, 5 feet by 5 feet, that hung next to the front door.

“Is that the art installation?” asked Mr. Barnett, president of New York-based developer Extell Development. “Don’t you think it’s a little too sparkly?”

There is no shortage of glittery things in the new model apartment of Extell’s One57, one of the most ambitious—and expensive—new condominium buildings with a hotel in New York. Buyers include fashion executive Silas Chou, who is in contract for a unit on the 82nd floor for about $50 million, and a group of investors led by hedge-fund executive William Ackman who are in contract for a 13,554-square-foot penthouse for more than $90 million.

While the building’s upper floors readily show off their jaw-dropping views—about 70% of One57′s 92 units are already sold—Extell is betting that its dramatically staged model on the 41st floor will help sell the building’s lower levels. The company is spending more on this model than it normally would and decided to design the model earlier than usual in the process, while construction was still continuing. “Once people come in here, this line is going to sell quickly,” Mr. Barnett said.

Model homes—units staged by developers and interior designers to give buyers an idea what the homes look like furnished—have been around since the advent of the suburbs in the 1950s. In recent years, their potency as selling vehicles for luxury condominiums has grown as more buyers—particularly those from overseas—buy condos sight unseen, often committing millions of dollars while a building’s construction is still under way.

At 515 East 72, a 326-unit building in Manhattan, three residences with the same floor plan as the model sold within two weeks after the model was unveiled in late April. Before the model’s opening, only two units of that particular line had sold in the past year. In Miami, the 70-unit Bellini building, where prices range from $1 million to $4 million, sold six units in the same line a week after the model was introduced in late March. The model itself, a 2,608-square-foot apartment with glass floors also sold, for $1.65 million.

According to developers and designers, the popularity of model units is driven in part by the surge of foreign buyers, who prefer their apartments finished and ready to move into. That has prompted developers to spend hefty sums on models that, in many cases, sell as-is. “The less [buyers] have to think about the choices they have, the more likely they are to buy,” says Ziel Feldman, founder of HFZ Capital Group, which is redeveloping the Marquand, a 100-year-old, 14-story building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Bob Morris, a retired mutual-fund executive, so liked the model apartment at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Singer Island in Palm Beach that he made an offer on it shortly after touring the property. He ended up buying a different unit, a 3-bedroom, 3½ bath condo for $1.57 million because it was on a higher floor. But he decided to hire the decorator who did the model to design his space, which, when completed later this month, will have an “urban beach” style, he says.

Designers of model apartments typically stick to neutral hues because they want the space to speak for itself, says Lee Mindel, an architect whose firm Shelton, Mindel & Associates is currently designing the model at the Marquand, where apartments start at $15 million. Many designers mix old and new furniture to appeal to buyers with a variety of tastes. Increasingly, some accessories are kept to a minimum (no trays of fake fruit angled on the bed), to allow potential buyers to imagine their own belongings in the space. “My number one rule is if you can’t enhance the space, don’t fill it,” says Hadas Dembo, an interior designer in New York who is working on a model apartment at the Warren Lofts in TriBeCa.

Then there’s the model at One57. The space is brimming with textures (silk walls), sumptuous accessories (limited-edition bronze trinket boxes) and Hollywood glam touches. In the master bedroom, a leather-upholstered headboard serves as the backdrop to a bleached fox-fur bedspread and a circular crystal chandelier hangs overhead. The walls are covered in raw silk, which matches the cream curtains. A custom installation of more than three-dozen, bronze-colored porcelain flowers hangs on the wall over the bed, and a solid glass desk with a bronze stool covered in Mongolian fur sits by the windows.

In the living room, which has 58 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows facing Central Park, velvet couches are flanked by two abstract chairs—one upholstered in nubby wool, the other a butterfly-shaped chair made out of wool and silk felt. Louis XVI dining chairs from the 18th century encircle a stone table with a recessed bowl in the middle where candles float. A modern chandelier overhead was made with real dandelion seeds individually affixed to LED lights.

While much of the 3,228-square-foot, three-bedroom, 3½-bath model sticks primarily to hues of black, cream and clear glass, the den/study has acid-green lacquered walls, a velvet dark lime-green upholstered couch with yellow and blue accent pillows, black-steel bookshelves and a diamond-patterned horsehair rug. The model’s designer David Mann, of MR Architecture + Décor, says he made it the “standout room” to make it pop from the rest of the unit. According to Extell, the model has upgrades and furnishings that would retail for about $3 million; the unit’s list price is $17.5 million.

To create One57′s model, Extell’s design team said they started by imagining who would live in the unit. The team envisioned an executive in fashion or business who has a grown child. With that in mind, Mr. Mann said he decided on a “fanciful, slightly over-the-top look” with texture playing a big role.

Mr. Mann, who is known for his dramatic looks that tend toward contemporary and eclectic, said he doesn’t think the fanciful design of One57′s model represents a risk. He said that at the extremely exclusive end of the market, a model that was a bit over the top is necessary.

Designing the model while the building was still under construction made the process much more difficult. Some art galleries, for example, wanted Extell to take out additional insurance because their pieces would be on a construction site. To overcome the issue, the design team borrowed a couple of pieces from Mr. Mann’s own collection and found other galleries who were willing to work with them without needing additional insurance.

The biggest challenge for a model can be the budget. Luxury developers try to set aside sums that will give allow for a well-appointed home that reflects the building without breaking the bank. Mr. Feldman, the developer of the Marquand, estimates that most high-end models cost between $500,000 and $750,000. This is on par with what One57′s model ended up costing for the furnishings alone, though much of the art at One57 was borrowed instead of purchased to bring down the cost, which initially started at $1 million, excluding artwork and labor fees.

Time constraints can also be a factor, with many furniture makers unable to turn around a custom piece in a matter of weeks. When in doubt, model-apartment designers build pieces themselves. Mr. Mann’s firm designed multiple pieces in the One57 apartment. Mariette Himes Gomez, who designed the model at 515 East 72, wound up building a soffit for the kitchen and installing an island in the space to “not make the kitchen look like it was falling into the living room,” she said.

There’s usually some trial and error. In One57′s den, it took five tries before the green lacquer was dark enough, and the first upholsterer working on a voluptuous chair in the living room quit because of the job’s difficulty. When the outlets in the second bedroom were mounted too high, Mr. Mann used black and white tiles made by a friend to cover them up.

On the morning that Mr. Barnett came to see the model apartment, he sat down in one of the Louis XVI chairs. There was a small popping sound and later, a crack appeared in the back of the chair. Now a card placed on the dining table reads, “Please do not sit on chairs.”

As for the foyer: The dark plastered walls are going to be covered up by leather graphite-colored panels to lighten the space and the LED star is going to be exchanged for a more subdued photograph of a tree.

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