The Real Deal New York

Into the white

Interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz’s warm, whimsical Chelsea home
By Michele Keith | March 06, 2014 07:00AM

Interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz loved his home on West 43rd Street: He was on the 43rd floor, with an incredible view of the Hudson River, and the building had a state-of-the-art gym. But after watching the events of 9/11 play out from the bedroom window, he and his husband, Steven Wine, the founder of ABYU Lighting — which specializes in creative, custom designs — decided it was time to make a change. “No more high floors,” he said.

Handling both residential and commercial projects, here and abroad — including homes for such A-listers as Lenny Kravitz, as well as the Soho and Los Angeles Mondrian Hotels — Noriega-Ortiz is known for his inventive, fun spaces. “They don’t come to me for a traditional home,” he said. Working with clients he calls “adventuresome and secure about themselves,” he said, “it’s always about creating an experience.”

And though he admits it’s “terrible” to design for himself — ideas percolate non-stop — he manages by envisioning he’s working for someone else. Designing his current home — to which the couple moved in 2002 — was easy, though: Wine played the client. “He definitely put in his 50 cents,” Noriega-Ortiz jokes. “The wall-to-wall carpet and various details about the mirrors were his ideas; he created a lot of the artwork himself, like the Louise Nevelson-esque piece in the guestroom. And he took total control of the terrace.”

After much searching in different parts of the city, Wine spotted an online ad for the Cheyney on West 23rd Street, pre-gentrification. Seeing beyond the narrow rooms, dark wood and bad styling, Noriega-Ortiz said, “We knew we’d have to gut the two-bedroom, two-bath all the way down to the insulation, lighten up everything that was dark and soften that which was hard. But it was spacious, 1,235 square feet, and had a 400 square-foot terrace and wood-burning fireplace, two things we’d always wanted.”

When his accountant said they couldn’t afford it, Noriega-Ortiz reacted with a speedy “Are you insane? The neighborhood is on the rise.” After firing the man — “I believe you have to take a chance on New York real estate,” he said. “It always goes up.” — the couple submitted a bid of $1.1 million, much less than the asking price. Summarily rejected, it was accepted a week later.

Inspired by the opalescent shadings of a pearl, and wanting the feeling to be one of serenity, the designer devised a white, cream and stainless-steel palette for his entire home. Mix in textured upholstery (all easy-care, even the dining table’s faux leather top); artwork that ranges from an electronic Jenny Holzer piece to a Chuck Close portrait; such furniture as the lacquered coffee table, fabricated of canvas solidified with plaster; and the aluminum “tractor seat” stool by Pepe Cortés and you have a comfortable, one-of-a-kind home. The basics have stayed the same over the years; the accents and artwork are in constant flux.

For the renovation, Noriega-Ortiz composed the overall concept and worked with the plumbers, tile installers and electricians, while Wine did the accents, like sourcing the sculptures on the kitchen counter, the drapes and, of course, the lighting.

Noriega-Ortiz began the quarter-of-a-million-dollar renovation — “That’s before professional discounts,” he specifies — by relocating the entry from the second floor of the duplex to the first, allowing for a foyer with a washer/dryer hidden behind an ecru curtain. Then he ripped out the cleft-cut Arizona stone floor in the kitchen upstairs, replacing it with shiny, two-foot squares of quarter-inch thick terrazzo, switched the cherry cabinetry there to stainless steel and installed wall-to-wall shag carpeting throughout. “People have it in their heads that shag is old-fashioned, a bad choice,” said Noriega-Ortiz. “But nothing’s better if you want quiet.” It’s also inviting: “People take their shoes off. It feels great underfoot.”

Despite the many advantages to occupying the eighth and ninth floors of the 10-story building, it meant the boiler was directly above his living room, and its constant motion led to cracked walls. The solution? A floating ceiling, two inches lower than the original, providing a cushion of air in-between. Because the furniture is low, one doesn’t feel cramped. Another expansion trick: the mirrors on the windowless south walls. “They reflect the landscape seen through the windows opposite. And,” Noriega-Ortiz said with a laugh, “they also keep you thin.”

Two stuffed chickens perched on the staircase welcome guests. Noriega-Ortiz explains their presence: “It was getting too pretentious with the aluminum-leafed and mirrored walls. They provide an informal touch.” They also bring in the whimsical element that’s made him famous.

Luminescence reigns, serving as a complement to the myriad textures and sculptural furniture. Most notable are the mica powder-infused Venetian plaster walls in the living room by Mile Djuric of Decorative Art & Design. Contributing further sparkle is the fire screen made of dichroic glass squares, a prototype from ABYU; the quilted cotton-covered sofa designed by Noriega-Ortiz, with an acrylic frame embedded with LED lights that change color with the click of a remote; and hand-woven, Lurex-wool-and-spandex cushion covers made for the bar’s Saarinen tulip chairs that Wine found on eBay.

Summertime sees them barbecuing on the terrace nearly every night. Greenery, easy chairs, a hammock-like day bed and the NYC vista make it a little slice of heaven. Another favorite part of the house is the master bath, actually two bathrooms back-to-back. Calling it “a big glass box,” Noriega-Ortiz says its interior walls of reflective Formica Surrell give the impression of a window.

Currently working on a Mondrian Hotel in the Bahamas — slated to open at the end of the year — an apartment in Melbourne, two houses in Martha’s Vineyard and the 35XV tower in Chelsea, Noriega-Ortiz recently relocated his office to the reborn World Trade Center. (With Condé Nast and other fashion and design companies moving in, along with new restaurants and nightlife, he calls the area the next “hot” center of the design community.) Add to that a monograph recounting his 22 years in business (being released by The Monacelli Press this fall) and one gets the picture of a man who not only loves his work, but his life.