Matthew Small, an executive at the educational software firm Blackboard, Inc., couldn’t have been surer of his goals for the merger of his Penn Quarter duplex with the one he bought above it. Modern was the message and New York designer Matthew Berman of workshop/apd was the medium for delivering a fresh new look to the reorganized floors where Small, his wife and their two young sons would live.
The duplexes occupy the top four floors of a 10-story glass tower on F Street. The couple had moved into their first apartment in the building after starting their family in the Virginia suburbs. Luckily, around the time their urban, 2,250-square-foot dwelling began to grow tight, their neighbor sold them his duplex directly above. With double the living space, the couple hired workshop/apd to brainstorm the consolidation.
Berman, the principal, and co-founder of the New York interior design firm is known for his design of a loft for CNN’s Anderson Cooper as well as for winning the Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans, sponsored by Global Green and Brad Pitt to create an affordable, sustainable community after Hurricane Katrina. What earned Small’s respect, however, pre-dated Berman’s street cred: “We’ve been friends since childhood,” Small says. “I knew his talent was hard-wired when we were kids. In an introductory high school class on architecture, he designed an addition to his family’s home that his father actually built. I never forgot that.”
Berman won the condo board’s approval with a mock-up of plans for the four floors. His team worked with a local structural engineer to penetrate a post-tension concrete slab in order to join the eighth and ninth floors. The Smalls’ dream of combining the duplexes included implementing something visually beautiful as a unifying element. So Berman designed a bold sculptural staircase to span the floors, placing it against the glass front of the building where it’s visible from the street as both a landmark and a privacy scrim. “The white Corian of the rail panels is a conventional material made fresh and different with an organic pattern we cut using computer technology,” says Berman. “The pattern casts shadows inside the condo that are different day and night.”
Finding expressive new uses for standard building materials is one of the firm’s trademarks. For the Smalls, Berman’s team selected a medley of natural materials as building blocks for organizing and simplifying the layouts on the four floors. The blackened steel that encases the elevator entries on two floors echoes the window frames and surrounds a fireplace in one of the living areas. Cerused white oak, plain-sawn to show the grain, gives the floors a light, reflective flair while extending up one wall of the narrow entry passage. In the master suite, built-in cabinets are made of straighter-grained, rift-sawn white oak for a quieter mood.
A major objective in the process of combining the two duplexes was incorporating organic elements in a modern way.
“A major objective in the process of combining the duplexes was incorporating organic elements in a modern way,” Berman says. Everywhere, durable finishes were chosen to make life easier with two growing boys: Caesarstone for the kitchen counters; outdoor fabric on the family area’s sectional sofa; and a live-edge plank-top table extension to the kitchen island. In the boys’ quarters on the eighth floor, a retractable wall with a blackboard finish provides the option of extra bedroom space for guests in the playroom.
While the finishes maintain continuity throughout, each floor has a distinct personality that reflects its function and furnishings. Siting bedrooms on the lower floors of the glass tower saved the best views for the living and entertaining at the top. On the ninth floor, the streamlined kitchen connects seamlessly with the adjacent family living area, thanks in part to a bookcase that supports a TV on the family room side while providing a backsplash surface on the kitchen side. “We wanted to extend the living area into the kitchen for a harmonious look,” says Berman. Eames chairs, a shag rug and a sectional sofa in the family living area convey the period modern vibe that prevails throughout the home. Upholstery patterns “help diversify the space,” says Berman, “and go with everything on all four floors.” The unity of color and pattern delivers a cohesive sense of home.
The top floor’s spectacular views suggested a cool, clubby sensibility perfect for entertaining. Workshop/apd’s interior design team showcased furniture and finishes from the ’50s to the ’70s while Berman contributed his fresh take on a credenza using the same Corian panels he used on the stair rails. The mix is Mid-Century Modern—an aesthetic he has beautifully reinterpreted for the 21st century. v
Writer Susan Stiles Dowell is based in Monkton, Maryland. Donna Dotan is a photographer in New York City.
ARCHITECTURAL & INTERIOR DESIGN: Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen, principals; Brian Thomas, senior designer; Kristyn Bock and Leslie Degler, interior designers, workshop/apd, New York, New York. CONTRACTOR: JAY EICHBERG, Eichberg Construction, Gaithersburg, Maryland.