Bold Stroke

April 30, 2013

Far from being stark, pure-white walls make a dramatic Canvas for the daring use of color and a stellar art collection in a Boston condominium.

Text by Stacy Kunstel    Photography by Keller + Keller    Produced by Stacy Kunstel

From the kitchen one can see the first light of morning as the sun heats the State House dome from a mere flicker to a blaze. Cambridge spreads like a sleeping giant beyond the living room windows as the Charles pulls at sailboats and cars file over bridges. Outside the breakfast area there’s the Public Garden, as predictable as spring, summer, fall, winter. Yet fabulous as they are, the views from Judi Rotenberg and Ed Zuker’s Boston home could easily be ignored.

What’s happening inside this historic Back Bay building is even more exciting than the vistas outdoors. Here, it’s all about the art.

From exuberant florals to quiet, watery scenes, art defines the space and drives the design. On one hand it is the perfect display area for the classically trained Rotenberg’s own paintings, the work of her late father, Harold Rotenberg, and the work of artists she represented and nurtured in her namesake gallery on Newbury Street for more than thirty-five years. On the other hand, the apartment itself frames the world outside in every direction—Back Bay rooftops, the MIT dome, downtown skyscrapers and the Hatch Shell.

Zuker, a onetime architecture student who owns his own residential development company, envisioned a space uncompromised by walls. In his philosophy, if the eye isn’t flowing to the view it should be embracing something beautiful. Balancing Zuker’s talent for space planning and Rotenberg’s vast knowledge of color and display was architect and interior designer Heather Wells of Wells & Fox Architectural Interiors in Boston.

Zuker worked with Wells to reconfigure rooms for the better. A wall with art replaced a door at the end of a hallway; a closet with three windows morphed into a sitting area for Rotenberg off the master bedroom; doors to the stairwell were tucked into the architecture to ensure an uninterrupted expanse.

“Ed definitely had a vision for the apartment,” says Wells. “Judi wanted the apartment to be clean, modern and loft-like. She was most concerned with it displaying their art well. She wanted comfortable places for them to be and a feminine master bedroom.”

A space too elegant to be called a mudroom sits just outside the elevator doors. From it a marble-floored foyer beckons, displaying an enormous Sheila Gallagher depiction of Niagara Falls. The entry hall divides private from public with bedrooms in one direction, entertaining areas in another. Past the dining room with its bit of sparkle and bold blue sideboard, the living space is laid out like a loft. “We wanted to feel the expanse of the view when you came in,” says Zuker.

Divided rooms with doorways dissolved into only the necessities—exterior walls for art and two interior floating walls for the fireplace and television. Kitchen, breakfast room, living and family rooms and Zuker’s office flow communally with art in between. “We first measured all the art, placing it in the plan,” says Wells. “We made sure paintings fit before we designed certain areas.”

Rotenberg’s large-scale floral paintings, which grace walls in the dining room, living room and breakfast area, are complemented by works by artists such as Jason Berger and Dorothy Gillespie. A glazed dress form with attached antlers by David Cole, called Trophy Wife, is one of a handful of three-dimensional pieces. It hangs on a curved wall not far from a small table and chairs reserved for any of the couple’s thirteen grandchildren when they visit so they’ll have a place to create art of their own.

While the walls and major furnishings are museum white, the accents are as eye-popping as the paintings. “We got to be bold with color and contrast,” says Wells, who had never designed a white apartment before. “I think the greatest impact came in the juxtaposition of the art and some bold color blocks of furniture and wall coverings. It was fun to be very gutsy with the colors.”

A frilly, traditional bombé chest lacquered in a shocking yellow stands at one end of the living area next to a white leather sofa. On the opposite end, between the kitchen and breakfast table, an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair in electric red sits in front of Rotenberg’s painting of tulips, sunflowers and ranunculus. An ultra-feminine carved wood chair with a fuchsia seat plays off round throw pillows in similar colors. “Judi was so specific about what colors she likes,” says Wells.

“The colors are all unified by the white,” adds Rotenberg. “Each of the negative spaces is just as important as the ones with objects in them.”

In keeping with the loft look, the couple eschewed curtains in favor of bare windows, except in the bedroom and dining room where Rotenberg thought the spaces needed more softness. “I’m not a big curtain or rug person,” says Rotenberg. “I like a house with a lot of art books, flowers and bowls of fruit.”

A mathematical precision defines the walls and paneling and how they relate to each piece in the apartment, but it was Zuker who threw a curve into the geometry, suggesting the rounded wall that leads to the glossy white kitchen.

Toward the private end of the apartment are Rotenberg’s office, a small workout room, the master suite and a guest room. In the master bedroom, a painting in blues and purples by Rotenberg hangs behind one of two Eero Saarinen Womb chairs against walls of cream-colored wallpaper by Elitis. “The room has two mirrors, two chairs, two tables,” says Rotenberg. “I wanted it to feel like a place for two people.”

A few steps outside the bedroom, in Rotenberg’s sitting room, a long divan sits next to a fireplace with a Robert Gruppé painting of Gloucester Harbor above it. In the painting, the light has just begun to fade to pink, the same pink Wells found for the room’s walls. “The idea came from a silk velvet fabric we liked,” says Wells of the fabric used on a square pink pouf in the room. “It is so pretty and soft, but then it’s set against some modern architectural furniture pieces. There’s always a yin and a yang to keep the balance.”

The color here, like the paintings in the rest of the apartment, makes the spaces come alive. “It is a beautiful statement about who they are and how they want to live,” says Wells. “We had a great time working with so much color and such a cheerful, happy art collection.”

Outside, the tulips sway practically hip high in the Public Garden. Inside, the view is just as spectacular. •

Interior architecture and design: Heather Wells, Wells & Fox Architectural Interiors
Builder: Metric Construction