A Private World

Building the Ultimate Den
| By Erica Jordan | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Marlon Brando, the Godfather, sits quietly behind a wall of stone, on a commanding estate, in a leather wingback chair, with a cat on his lap. It is his daughter's wedding day. He wears a crisp tuxedo, his hair slicked back, and a red rose in his lapel. One by one, honored guests are quietly invited into the dark room, where he is seated behind a massive antique desk. They come asking the Godfather for protection, justice and revenge.

His large hands smooth over the cat's fur. His voice rasps. "Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me?" With a shrug of his massive shoulders and a wave of his hand, Brando epitomizes power.

The room is enveloped in luxurious wood paneling, presenting a masculine, traditional atmosphere. A mahogany partners desk sits on a deep red Oriental carpet; a humidor is within arm's reach. Black, tufted leather chairs and a simple brass floor lamp create a sitting area for quiet conversation. Like Brando, the room indicates authority without ever raising its voice; simple, to the point, this is a power room.

Formal or informal, a den can be a thousand things. It's more than a room in a house; a private world lavished with heirlooms, books and music, a secret cocoon of soothing textures and colors. A place, perhaps, to do nothing but build a fire, smoke a cigar and think.

To share some secrets for creating the ultimate den, we called upon some of New York City's top interior designers. Although they look at the world through the eyes of people from four different continents, in the States they all see the same changes. Much in the same way that the kitchen became the cornerstone of the home in the 1980s, today's den is an evolution from that. The den has become the room of the '90s.

"I think this whole 'great room' is definitely a term for the '90s," says designer Victoria Hagan. "The way we use the space, the scale of the space, the multifunctions of the space. We're breaking rules. It's not just for adults...it's for everyone. And I think that's very modern. We didn't live that way 50 years ago."

For many, the den is the ideal niche to commune with the pleasures of cigar smoking, the room where the humidor is presented. For those whose loved ones have animosity toward cigar smoke, this may literally be a sanctuary, a place to smoke in peace.

Irish-born designer Clodagh expresses a personal view. "Maybe this is very European, but for me, a den is a place where you bring someone very special. It's not a public place; it's a private place. When I was growing up, it was the place my father would bring his closest friends. If I'm selected by the home owner to be invited into the den, I feel I'm being given something a little bit special."

Sometimes it is a solitary retreat for the remnants of business that spill over into the night, a place for serious decisions. After business hours it can become a decompression chamber, a tranquil place to have an icy Martini as you enter the evening and let go of the hassles of the day.

The den has become so beguiling that hosts are often unable to pry guests from the sofas to the dinner table. It used to be that when you had a formal dinner party, people would gather for cocktails beforehand, and afterward retire to the library. These days, guests often clamor to return to the den.

"I think now, more than ever, the den is for entertaining," says Hagan. "Compared to the living room, it feels more laid-back. The space is a little bit more free. It's a place to play pool or watch a movie. It really incorporates the activities that people enjoy best in life. When people ask what is new in interior design, this is new in interior design."

Designer Juan Montoya agrees. "I think that dens are one hundred percent the rooms that people spend the most time in," he says. "It is the main room for entertaining small groups--the living room is for big parties. The den is the room of the future."

So who are these design experts who are changing the way we live?

Most professional interior designers don't bother to obtain a degree in architecture before setting up shop, but then New Zealand-born Sandra Nunnerley never planned to go into the design business. In 1984, Nunnerley transposed her understanding of architecture into a rich style that won her the honor of becoming the youngest designer to have her work exhibited by the famous Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York. In 1994, W magazine ranked Nunnerley as one of the six "most fashionable" interior designers in New York; the list included the renowned Mark Hampton.

"I think in the '90s, people are more family-oriented and spend more time at home," says Nunnerley. "They're more conscious of their homes, and people are looking for a simpler way of life--not as complicated as the '80s. In the '90s, the den is a sanctuary where the family can gather."

In a pied-à-terre overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, Nunnerley created a den that is modern, tailored and inviting. The composition centers around her client's love of fine wood and a rare collection of eighteenth century Chinese porcelain. The colors complement the famille verte and offer a subtle backdrop for the client's outstanding modern art collection.

"To enhance the famille verte china I juxtaposed a very strong and masculine design of shelving against the feminine delicacy of the Chinese porcelain, which gives the room a lot of play," Nunnerley says. "The shelves were designed to the right scale with special lighting for the pieces. The graining of the oak is quite unique, especially the sunburst on the ceiling. To make it really 'denny' I worked with different shades of green, including hunter, moss and sage."

Nunnerley created a snug window seat next to the books that celebrates the view, then punctuates the space with a serene spot to write a thank you note or make a phone call. The alcove evokes an understated elegance as it gently blends marble, leather and lacquered wood.

Hagan has no window shades in her Madison Avenue penthouse office, but that comes as no surprise. The designer is known for creating rooms around a view. And light. Or a fireplace. Highly respected for her witty integration of architecture and interior design, Hagan was cited by New York magazine in 1994 as one of "New York's Hottest Interior Designers." Hagan explains the core of her design philosophy. "No matter how formal a room is, or how eclectic, or how colorful, light and space is where it all begins. Because then you're able to see a great collection, you're able to create a great mood. Without light there is no mood."

In a Tudor home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Hagan designed a "great room" around existing architectural elements, the northern sunlight and her clients' love for beautiful antiques. "I think the scale of this room was so exciting to work with, for there's a lot of exposed structure," she says. "This room is very informal by nature; as a result, we've used handwoven fabrics and leather and wicker and beautiful, heavy old woods. The colors are from those materials, and they're able to work with the architectural materials that are already there, like the heavy stone. And, because of the antique set of [animal] trophies, there is a subtle African influence.

"In this room there is a piano, a pool table, a big fireplace, a big stone coffee table where the clients' children play games," says Hagan. "I've been there for parties and it's great for entertaining. It's multi-, multifunctional."

Born in Colombia, Juan Montoya founded his design firm in 1978. A master of drama and sensuality, Montoya loves big, bold color and texture. His work is modern, yet classic, with a fondness for the eccentric. Heavyweight clients include Barneys New York, artist Fernando Botero and movie producer Mario Kassar.

For Rena Rowan and Sidney Kimmel of Jones Apparel Group Inc., a leader in better women's sportswear, Montoya focused the den of their Palm Beach, Florida, residence around a busy entertaining lifestyle, in which cocktails and contracts mingle like vodka and vermouth.

"This is the room where my client greets his clients," Montoya says. "The bar is used as an area for business. It is a room that has the television, a room that is not intimidating, a room that is easy to feel good in. I chose cherry wood as the main element in the room for the honey color. I used a few dramatic objects such as the sculpture, the Biedermeier furniture and the black mohair wool fabric to create something that is very light in a sense but is also very masculine. The feeling is very unisex."

Overlapping functions are not only organic in design, they are de rigueur. Parallel to fax machines in the bedroom or computers in the kitchen, the lines are getting blurred. "Nowadays people work with computers and the den doubles as an office, doubles as a screening room, doubles as a conversation room," Montoya says. "It is a place where you congregate. A place where you interview.

"When I choose an object, it is a part of a symphony. It can be a vase, a piece of furniture, anything that will create surprise.... I want things that will make someone smile," he says lightheartedly.

When you enter a room designed by Clodagh, your senses quicken. Maybe it has something to do with Tao and yin and yang, for she uses a consultant versed in feng shui (the Chinese art of placement) on every project. Or perhaps it is a reaction to environmentally sound elements. In any event, Clodagh's installations have a tendency to comfort the spirit. She is a pioneer in the use of textured natural materials, and many of her recent projects have been published in leading publications, including Architectural Digest, Vogue, HG and Progressive Architecture.

In describing the foundation of a den, Clodagh does not hesitate: "It's about comfort, sensuality, a feeling of protection. Because it's like an animal's den--humans are very animalistic in their instincts and it is a place that you want to feel safe. You want to feel seclusion. You want it to be acoustically kind of quiet, not brisk.

"It's a place where you can be alone without feeling lonely. A place where your personal spirits reside. The stone you picked up off the beach in Corsica in 1956, the poetry that you like to refer to," she says with a smile.

Designed for the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in 1992, Clodagh's den communicates the possibilities of a fantasy retreat through misty drapes. "The story was almost about love in the afternoon--where somebody might wait for somebody," she muses. "There is a daybed, a reading chair and an ottoman, so maybe two people could be there eventually. I used copper fresco on the walls to make it really rich and warm. The floor was done in demolition brick in order to bring the outside in, then I placed an extremely valuable antique rug on it. It's not exactly like a cave, but there is something very reassuring about the way the curves flowin the room."

Like a getaway on the open road, the ultimate den offers an escape. For many people it is the incarnation of their dreams, an expression of who they are in their most private moments. For many designers, understanding the client on an intimate level is where the artistic process begins. It is about creating a haven, a temple or a sanctuary. This is the room to sample that rare single malt Scotch, take inventory or just stretch out with a good read, a cashmere blanket and a Montecristo No. 2.

Erica Jordan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.