When Norman Pearlstine and his wife Jane Boon decided to up sticks from their rented apartment in Manhattan and put down real roots locally two years ago, it was understandable that only something truly special would do. ‘We’d been renting downtown for a decade – first in Tribeca and then in SoHo, so we’d become very comfortable with the neighbourhood,’ explains Pearlstine. ‘We’d also gotten very comfortable with not having a doorman. Having a lot of interior space and access to private space on the roof were big factors. And we loved the idea of an old building that had good bones and a good history.’

Pearlstine, executive vice president and chief content officer of Time Inc, and Boon, an industrial engineer, shortlisted an apartment on a quiet street not far away, in a five-floor Ruskinian Gothic building dating from 1875 and designed by J Morgan Slade for soap manufacturer David S Brown. With a cast iron storefront and a robust red brick facade that features polished granite ionic columns, pointed and round arches, a Venetian-style arcade and a round attic window, the landmarked building is distinctive to say the least.

‘We used to walk past and admire this eccentric building,’ Boon recalls. ‘So when we learned that the penthouse, spread over the building’s top three floors, was for sale, it was a must to check out.’

Boon and Pearlstine worked with David Mann, the founding partner of the locally based design firm MR Architecture + Décor, to create the perfect dwelling. ‘I told a couple of other designers we interviewed that I had this fantasy of living in a cave and they sort of looked at me in horror. But David said, “Yes! I can live in a cave too. It would have to be exquisite, but…” And I knew that this was my guy,’ says Boon. ‘There are some real cave-like elements. The ceiling is painted the same colour as the walls. We didn’t shy away from dark colours; there’s a continuity. 

‘Originally, the penthouse was designed for a single guy, who I think liked to entertain his family, so it wasn’t really how Norm and I wanted to use the space,’ she continues. ‘David jokes that he turned this three-bedroom apartment into a really great one-bedroom apartment, and there is some truth to that.’ Pearlstine was happy to give his wife and Mann carte blanche: ‘Knowing David’s work and Jane’s inclinations, I had a pretty clear idea of where we were going. I very much like the dark look myself; a home is supposed to be enveloping,’ he says. ‘It’s a pretty elegant and pretty big cave. I actually love being in it, so there’s no complaint.’

Painted in tonal shades of grey, the elegant apartment is a restrained mix of modern furniture, contemporary design accents and science-inspired decorative features including floor-to-ceiling stainless steel cabinets in the dining area and molecule-like assemblages of Fritz Nagel candleholders in an alcove in the staircase. 

In the living room, two re-appropriated car headlamps, which flank a bookcase as standing floor lamps, were selected in tribute to Pearlstine’s early days as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Detroit. A ledge, located under the large round window, was built in to provide additional seating, while a glass skylight looms high overhead.

The kitchen, a cool, minimalist dream of metal countertops and appliances, is what Boon affectionately refers to as ‘a high-class morgue’. ‘Whenever I say that, Norm’s eyes kind of roll,’ Boon adds, laughing. ‘Quite frankly, Norm and I came out at the same place in a lot of instances. I’m crazy about the metal cabinets, for instance, and he likes them too.’ Pearlstine confirms: ‘What I love is the carpentry and the fabrication of everything from the closet to the bookshelves to the brushed aluminum storage unit adjacent to the Espasso dining room table, what Jane calls “the medical lab”. I find them both beautiful and functional.’

Throughout the home, artworks on the walls serve as subtle references of their owners’ vocations. ‘One of the treats that I had access to thanks to Norm’s work was the Time-Life archives; my inclination was to find photos that spoke of industry or Norm’s work,’ explains Boon. ‘That included a fantastic image by Margaret Bourke-White of a paper mill, an aerial view of the stock trading floor, and then some more machinery things that excited me. We had them blown up and printed on aluminium. They really resonate for both of us: they’re technical and a little abstract, and also speak to the businesses that we have both been involved with.’

Tucked away on the same floor is a cosy den, where books, Boon’s desk, more collectibles such as Poul Kjaerholm’s 1956 ‘PK101’ sculptural candelabra, and concealed storage are located. Gauzy, textured curtains provide just a suggestion of natural daylight, but preserve the hideaway quality of the black-walled space. 

At the core of the home, a skeleton-like staircase leads up to the roof deck above, and down to more rooms below. One of the original bedrooms was transformed into Pearlstine’s office (‘I sort of have a cave within a cave in terms of my office,’ he says) and the other into a spacious dressing room that the couple diplomatically shares. Pearlstine’s watch collection is stored here in custom-built drawers. ‘The only thing I’m collecting at this point is watches,’ he explains. ‘I have a collection of about 300; mostly American and from the 1920s and 1930s almost exclusively.’

The spacious master bedroom suite is one of the places where Boon says they spend most of their time. Flanked by a row of thin arched windows on one side and painted grey brick walls that reveal imprints of the building’s architecture on the others, the room is a haunting Gothic haven, albeit decorated with a Noguchi lamp, a Frank Gehry armchair, a sculptural cast-metal mirror and coffee table by Silas Seandel, and a pair of century-old optical instruments hanging above the bed. There’s also a ship captain’s chest, the last remnant of Pearlstine’s once large collection of chests, which Boon asked that he part with when they moved into the new apartment. 

‘A lot of this stuff is my doing, because Norm is just game. I like to joke: “Poor Norm, he’s living in Barbie’s dream house, except that Barbie is a mad scientist with a fetish for metal and black,”’ she says. ‘We took on this project not long after Norm returned to Time Inc and I would chuckle at the symmetries because we were trying to turn something kind of old and fantastic into something modern that we love. Meanwhile, Norm was at work trying to turn all these legacy assets into something people would really want to curl up with.’ 

As originally featured in the June 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*207)