New Graff jewelers flagship a gem

By James Gardner | January 29, 2009 02:25PM

Peter Marino has surpassed himself in creating the Graff jewelers flagship, at 710 Madison Avenue at 63rd Street. More a designer than an architect, Marino has conceived this enchanted space, which occupies the first two floors of a 19th-century residence, as a temple of high-end consumption, with filigreed window surrounds of burnished bronze, limestone-clad outer walls and an interior of dark woods along the walls and sparely, yet elegantly, geometric furnishings that are vaguely reminiscent of Art Deco.

 710 Madison Avenue

If any architect may claim to “own” Madison Avenue, it is Marino, of the eponymous New York City-based firm. Within 10 blocks, he can count three very different projects, completed over the past decade, all of them on the West Side of the avenue: the flagship for the VBH Luxury in a converted bank at 940 Madison Avenue and the Giorgio Armani flagship at 760 Madison, in addition to the new store.

The largest and least of these projects, however, is the Armani store, a still-born white elephant whose ungainly surplus mass clumsily contains the wasted space within. The defining weakness of this building — a structural clumsiness that derives from a designer’s inability to think architectonically — is also evident in his largest project to date, an equally clumsy and similarly designed white residential building at 170 East End Avenue.

Clearly, Marino is best when he retools existing structures, especially interiors, like that of the Louis Vuitton store at 1 East 57th Street. But in no other project in New York has Marino achieved the grace and competence exhibited at the Graff store, which carries rare diamonds and large gemstones.

As you enter a double height antechamber, you are greeted by a suited guard with a heavenly fragrance floating in the air. After a moment, a secondary door opens and you are admitted into a rarefied, cubic temple, largely bare except for a desk near the center, a few display tables along the walls, and some cut flowers.

The exterior is animated by the same aesthetic spirit as the interior, marked by a striking sequence of double height bay windows, topped by a sharp cornice that established Graff’s architectural independence from the three mixed-use floors that rise above it.

Rarely has austerity seemed quite so opulent.