The Real Deal New York

Inside the home of Karl Fischer

Luxury tower designer Karl Fischer prefers utilitarian surroundings

March 31, 2008
By Alex Ulam

You might expect Karl Fischer, a Canadian architect who designs upscale residential buildings in trendy New York City neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Williamsburg, to live in an apartment decorated with designer furniture and fixtures. Think again. He lives in a small condominium complex on a quiet side street in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport neighborhood.

Fashionably dressed, high-cheekboned residents drift in and out of the building on a weekday afternoon. But instead of a white-glove service lobby, the building’s entrance, next to a deli, is an anonymous glass door that opens onto a corridor leading to a courtyard with a Japanese-style rock garden with a stream of water running through it.

Fischer has designed about two dozen buildings, including luxury condos, but there is nothing about the décor of his seventh-floor penthouse residence that would earn it a photo spread in Architectural Digest. Despite his success, Fischer said he feels uncomfortable with luxury, and the décor of his apartment echoes this sentiment. The 900-square-foot pied-à-terre (Fischer has a home in his native Montreal, as well as one in Vermont) is functional with no wasted space.

In fact, the first thing you see upon entering the apartment is a half-dozen pairs of sensible shoes and sneakers arrayed against a wall.

To the left of the front door, a sunlit corridor leads past a row of rooms that include a plain-looking white-tiled bathroom, a sparsely furnished bedroom and a closet. The corridor ends at an open-plan room with a kitchenette, a dining island and a living room area dominated by two loveseats upholstered in gray corduroy. Most of the furniture was bought at Crate & Barrel during one big shopping expedition, Fischer said.

Two shiny end tables with curved legs stand out from the rest of the furnishings. They were given to Fischer by the owner of a furnished apartment that he used to lease at 25 Broad Street.

He said he never would have bought the tables himself because they are too ornate for his taste.

“I don’t feel comfortable with luxurious things; it is just my nature,” said Fischer, a compact man of 59 with a salt-and-pepper beard and moustache. “I just like basic stuff.

“I have a standard Volkswagen; I don’t have to get a BMW,” he said.

Still, the architect’s apartment has some unique features. Skylights and picture windows run along most of the southeastern side of the rectangular-shaped penthouse, and natural light floods the space.

From the dining island, there are wide-angle views across the East River to the Brooklyn shoreline, where several of Fischer’s completed residential projects are located. His hits include the Gretsch Building, a former musical instrument factory at 60 Broadway where celebrities like Busta Rhymes bought units, and the Schaefer Landing development on Kent Avenue, both in Williamsburg. (There is even a stretch along Bayard Street in Williamsburg nicknamed Karl Fischer Row because of his three condos there.)

On the other side of Fischer’s penthouse, a set of windows and a glass door that leads out onto an open-air terrace offer a sweeping vista of Lower Manhattan’s skyline.

Inside, some of Fischer’s interests and artistic sensibilities are expressed in the few artworks that are scattered around the living area.

Propped on top of a radiator cover are two Japanese-style watercolors that his wife, Pamela, bought from an artist in Central Park. Fischer said that he likes the way the artist creates a feeling with just a few brush strokes. In the corner of the room is a small sketch by Pamela of a butterfly.

On one of the kitchen cabinets is a
stencil sketch of a snowboarder that
Fischer’s son had printed on T-shirts for Fischer’s 50th birthday party, to commemorate his and his son’s taking up the sport that year.

When Fischer, who opened his New York architectural firm in 1999, and his wife purchased the apartment three years ago, they had not even bothered to look at any other properties on the market. Instead, they went to see the place on the first day that it was shown and decided to buy it right on the spot.

“If I like something like a painting, I will buy it,” Fischer explained. “Sometimes the more you look, the more confused
you get.”

What sold the Fischers on the apartment were its skylights and its many windows. Fischer said that the views and light make the apartment seem larger and enliven the whole space.

“You feel as though you are in touch with the outside world as opposed to being cut off from it,” he said. “It is fascinating watching the boats go up and down the river. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch, and I have woken up at 4 in the morning and seen the sunrise — the light is just amazing.”

Fischer spends three days a week in Manhattan, weekends at his country house in Vermont, and the beginning of his workweek at his home in Montreal, where he also has an architectural office. He said that all three of his homes have open layouts, generous amounts of sunlight and great views.

His weekend home in the mountains of Vermont is a modern house with glass on three sides and a double-height living room.

“There, you feel like you are in the middle of the woods even though you are inside,” he said. “You can be in the living room at 5 in the morning, and a herd of deer will walk by.”

Natural light and views to the outside world are also important considerations in the buildings that Fischer designs for his clients.

“Whenever I design buildings, I am very conscious of where the light is coming from and where the views are,” he says. “If I can make an apartment have windows on two sides, I will. Or to avoid an apartment with only a one-directional view, I will punch out a bay window to create a space where someone can stand and look out in different directions.”

For Fischer, a major attraction of the South Street Seaport neighborhood is that it reminds him of the waterfront district in his native Montreal. Both neighborhoods are historic with relatively low-lying buildings and cobblestone streets.

He also likes the fact that he shares the seventh floor of his building with only two other apartments.

“I don’t like living in tall buildings,” said Fischer, who has designed towers including a 14-story and 24-story duo at Schaefer Landing. “I prefer being in a smaller building where I know my neighbors.”

Another draw for him is the easygoing familiarity of the Seaport and the wide range of small restaurants that are in the immediate vicinity. “I have something like five restaurants on this block. I can go to a different one every night, and they actually all know me,” he said, adding, “I also have a deli downstairs, and the guy there knows me too. He waves to me all the time.”

For Fischer, keeping his living space simple enhances the drama of the outside world. “I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist architect,” he said, “but I don’t like flowery or dressed-up places — I like the space, the light or the view to speak for itself.”

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