[Decor] New York City houses with a Parisian accent
It’s hard to mistake Manhattan for any other city. True, some of downtown’s cobblestone lanes have a slight whiff of London, and a few brownstone blocks in the west 20s could pass for Boston. But it’s the rare street that conjures Paris. Paula Caravelli found one, however, on the sleepy northern reaches of the Upper East Side, a lovely sloping block studded with Beaux Arts buildings. It’s not easy to articulate what, exactly, provokes thoughts of the French capital, but it’s there..
A similar Parisian spirit subtly pervades the interior designer’s home. Composed of two elegantly detailed apartments that have been joined, the place seems so intimate that it is almost surprising to hear Caravelli lives there with her husband, James, and 18-year-old son, Christian. It is even more of a shock to learn that, until recently, it also housed the couple’s three other, now-grown sons: Evan, 27; Gregory, 24; and Paul, 22.
In fact, ambiguity and the unexpected are key components of the place, which is less a statement of style (Caravelli is not one for statements) than a delicate balance of disparate elements—and all the more European for that. It’s epitomized by a pair of David Armstrong photographs—dreamily blurred images of New York street scenes—that harmonize with the huge trees just outside the living room windows and the graceful neoclassical and Regency-style mansions across the street. Caravelli, who is half of the design team Paula + Martha (her partner, Martha Angus, lives in San Francisco), had no interest in doing up her place with some sort of idée fixe. “It’s probably a terrible thing for a decorator to say, but I don’t like trends,” she notes. “I don’t work that way. I can’t put something in my house, or a client’s house, for that matter, if I don’t love it.”
Of course, lots of designers fill their homes with things they love. What sets Caravelli’s apart is a mix of art, furniture, colors, and finishes that feels truly personal. Nothing is chosen merely for its look or effect. But then, unlike so many people who come to New York to try to create a place and a history that square with their dreams, Caravelli’s past needed no retouching. She was born and brought up on Long Island in a family brimming with painters and musicians both professional and amateur, where creative impulses were not only indulged, they were expected. “It’s in the blood,” she says. “We’re a family of artists. Growing up, we were always making something—playing music, redecorating, painting. That was the atmosphere.”
The apartment provides ample proof of this genetic bent. The foyer holds a sculpture by her sister Janet Buillet. The dining room features a changing array of paintings, including a gorgeous abstract by Caravelli herself, who studied art before turning to design. And scattered everywhere are works by a childhood hero, her uncle Augustus Mino, who was an artist and advertising creative director in New York City. As for the piano in the living room, Caravelli grew up playing, as did her four sons.
Of her choice of career, she says with a smile, “Everyone in my family is a decorator—I’m just the first one to do it for a living.” Though her talent may be innate, she has honed it over the years, becoming a master at discreetly mixing not only traditional and modern (a vintage secretary with a quirky midcentury French seat; a contemporary dining table and Italian neoclassical chairs) but European and Asian elements as well (a Chinese-style brass cocktail table with Regency-style spoon chairs and a Gustavian settee). Likewise, the apartment’s palette walks a pitch-perfect line between rich tones—an array of blues in the master bedroom, the kitchen’s brandy-color cabinetry, the cocoa-brown dining room—and a host of soft neutrals. Even Caravelli’s one concession to cacophony, a complex collage in her home office, is in restrained black-and-white. “It’s so important to be able to come home to a place that has serenity,” she says. “That’s what I tried to create.”
But as any mother of four will tell you, no mere combination of colors and textures can handle everything that life, and children, throw your way. So she has happily embraced one modern convenience notoriously lacking in most Paris apartments. “I believe in closets—everywhere,” she says. “You have to have places to put stuff away.” And she adds with a knowing smile, “We have a really great housekeeper.”