Photography by Alan Shortall
Styling by Diane Ewing
A broad band of windows but little else distinguished the two-bedroom condo Joe Esposito had bought in a mid-rise building on Marine Drive just over a decade ago. With its boxy little living room, small and equally featureless dining room, and unwindowed kitchen, it was a standard, cookie-cutter apartment circa 1956, albeit one with a terrific view of the lake.
Esposito, a bank executive, knew he wanted to make changes, but for the first eight years he didn’t take action-which turned out to be a good thing. If he’d gone with his first ideas, he now says, “it would have ended up pretty trendy, more of an early ’90s Wall Street look, with the black leather and chrome.” That heavy, shiny look might have pleased him for a while, Esposito says, but he has found the long-term payoff of waiting for the right idea.
And the right architect. Esposito’s condo today is all about serenity and restrained modernism, with an openness that’s a far cry from its boxy old self. He credits his architect, Hudson Home’s Madeleine Boos, with having the skilled eye to focus on the simple strengths of the space instead of filling it up with flash.
In eliminating the wall between the living room and dining room, Boos created an airy combined space that shares its light with an enlarged kitchen. Thanks to a partial wall and a long, cantilevered counter that echoes that great window band, the kitchen is open to the larger room but remains its own place. A small bar area near it is the most convivial spot in the house-at the center of everything, never out of reach.
The bedrooms, too, feel open to the main living space (although they have the requisite walls and doors) because of some of Boos’s design tricks. She used just three colors of paint throughout the entire 1,100-square-foot home, except in the master bath; and with strategic soffiting she transformed the hallway ceiling into a long, unifying horizontal plane that pulls all the rooms together.
The apartment is confidently modern now, a place where the three-tiered mid-century Knoll table in the living room and its Ikea knockoff in the main bedroom both play their parts without worry. A heavy, industrial-looking bedroom door lends a whiff of Fulton Street to the decidedly Lake View space. And a supremely glamorous Wassily chair and a pair of leather Room & Board couches all have the good sense to maintain a low profile rather than interfere with the 20-foot band of windows.
Those windows are what it’s all about. Not only do they provide a vast view over Lake Shore Drive and Lincoln Park-and who would ever think to compete with scenery like that?-but in the original layout they constituted the apartment’s sole “big gesture,” Boos points out. “They cut across the whole space, and they have this beautiful oak ledge that runs along them like an underline.” Like virtually every other surface in the condo, the ledge had been painted white, spoiling its effect as an emphasizer; Boos had it stripped and finished with clear varnish.
The new design uses those horizontal windows as a reference point around which the rest of the home is mapped. It appears again in the plane of the projecting kitchen counter, and in the floating plane of the hallway ceiling.
That’s pretty subtle, but then, that’s where Esposito’s matured aesthetic had brought him after the long trip from his Wall Street phase. Taking a cue from the building’s lean, emphatically horizontal mid-century architecture, he started to see the virtues of simplicity. Bamboo floors, cherry cabinets in the kitchen, and the restrained paint palette give the space a calming order, while comfort comes from the relaxed mix of high- and low-end furnishings.
The blend starts in the front hall, where lights recessed in the soffit illuminate a canvas eight feet tall and five feet wide. It’s an abstract painting, moody and absorbing, and it commands the most prominent spot in the home. Esposito bought it cheap at auction ten years ago, and there was no record of who had painted it, or when. “I’m lucky; it was very inexpensive,” he says. “It looks like something important now because of the way Madeleine created the front hall space to show it off.”
More genial mixing: in the living room, the Wassily chair, a classic of modern design, stands next to a graceful wood side table whose curves suggest that it, too, must be vintage, with a story to tell. (Nope. Crate & Barrel.) In the second bedroom, a funky modern wood sideboard serves as a dresser. Esposito’s mother bought it in the mid-1950s, he says.
Above that charmer hangs the most startling thing in the apartment, a large-format color photo by New York artist Jen DeNike that coolly depicts an elegant, formally clad man sitting on a couch, a stream of blood rolling down his neck. “I found her work at Gescheidle Gallery on the West Side, and I was intrigued by this one,” Esposito says.
Wanting to connect the bedrooms visually with the larger living space, Boos cut their doorways with ceiling-height openings. For the master, she specified an industrial sliding door, to eliminate the swing-out that inevitably ends up blocking a closet or bathroom in a small space.
Another industrial touch is a roll-up screen across the opening of the bedroom closet, in which a television sits on a shelf. That screen became art, one evening, when Esposito, feeling too lazy to roll it up to watch TV, zapped the remote, figuring he’d just watch a blurry picture through the screen. The effect, he says, was riveting-like a video installation you’d see in some multimedia cafe, the kind of thing Nam June Paik pioneered in the 1960s.
Now it’s a key part of his art collection. Before visitors arrive, Esposito either pops in a video of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis or turns on the Cartoon Network. “That’s my installation piece,” he says.