New York, New York
The following article was printed in the February 1980 issue of Interior Design.
The Muppets — renowned cast of puppet characters with television and film credits — reside in an East Side Manhattan townhouse owned by their creator and producer Henson Associates. The one-time mansion is a dignified brick-fronted structure marked by a harmony between its architecture and its interiors. In short, it looks as if this is the way the building had always been, which is testimony to the restorative skills of interior designer Warren Hansen and the architectural firm Maitland/Strauss/Behr Associates, as well as the concern of client Jim Henson.
The structure is of five-story height, with four floors of offices and a fifth level penthouse retreat for Henson. Inside, the rooms branch off an open central stairwell, the decisive element in the client's purchase of the building. The stairwell, Hansen explains, "provides for easy communication among the employees," and can be likened to a huge vertical telephone. At any time, one can look out over the railing and be aware of what is going on elsewhere in the space. And, according to Henson, it breaks down a stratification system that comes from separating employees by floors.
The largest structural change entailed creation of the bi-level puppet assembly workshop at the rear of the house. Its lower level was formed by roofing over what had been a service courtyard; its upper level balcony was formed by sacrificing some of the rear rooms on the ground level. Two skylights were added — one overhead in the front, the other a barrel-space, this new area provides a secondary plus: its roof becomes the basis for a planted garden. Another change involved opening up the fourth floor — formerly a closed-off storage area — for office space, and adding a connecting stair behind the central well. This opening-up feat allowed light from the skylight to penetrate the entire central shaft.
Hansen divided his interior design work into three phases. The first was the interview/analysis stage where every staffer was interviewed. The second phase centered on restorative work that included floors, paneling, moldings and trim. The third stage entailed "inserting the new work in a manner that would be sympathetic to the original structure." Hansen cites his single largest challenge as organization of "the divergent views that held the five-story project together. These people are all strong individuals with strong visual conceptions," he comments.
The designer used color and the pervasive wood flooring as his primary unifying elements. Key colors-red, gold and a warm off-white shade-are introduced at the entry and repeated in various combinations throughout the installation. The off-white color, a mixture of seven pigments, is just one example of Hansen's concern with detail. Trims and mouldings, all carefully restored, are painted with four additional gold and beige tones for added depth.
In articulating some of his requirements for the project, client Henson says: "I don't think of us as a 'corporation.' I didn't want a pretentious space or one with a feeling of opulence. Instead, I wanted a happy, functioning space with character and warmth." This was coupled with an expressed interest in having hand- as opposed to machine- made items. So wherever possible hand-crafted furnishings were selected. In the conference/screening room, for example, the table and chairs were made by craftsman Thomas Moser. Chairs are based on Shaker designs but depart slightly from the originals in their attention to the comfort factor. This room also has a hand-woven textile for the sofa cover, tie-dyed canvas for draperies, and Chinese silk covering the paneled doors that enclose the media equipment. In Henson's third floor office, there is a two-seat banquette carved of cherry by master woodworker Wendell Castle, whose work is represented in museums. Likewise, the hand-and-foot table in the entry foyer is a hand-crafted piece by Andrew Wilner. "It is this level of refinement and finesse in detailing that is the bond between a range of elements," says the designer.
Daylight, filtering through the skylights, provides some of the general illumination. Additional lighting comes from either incandescent or fluorescent sources (depending on the area) housed in recessed fixtures fitted with low-glare diffusers. Thus, explains Hansen, "we minimized the apparent source of light."
Concluding, Hansen compliments the client with: "He had high standards and made us delve deeply into solutions."
Structural engineer for the project was Robert Silman Associates, P.C.; mechanical engineer was George Langer; general contractor was Garson-Bergman, Inc. E.C.