Acclaimed set designer Derek McLane (two of his current shows are Into the Woods and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) had just moved out of his Gramercy Park home. His marriage had ended and now he was looking for an apartment where he could start a new life.
As if that wasn't hard enough, the place he was looking for had to have enough space for his three kids (Cooper, now 21, Hudson, now 17, and Kathryn, now 15) to each have their own rooms when they were there. He'd seen a lot of apartments but nothing seemed right. Then, one day, he wandered into a West Village triplex. To his surprise, there was something about it that made him feel hopeful again.
"When I first saw the apartment," he says now, "I felt that it was romantic in a 'happy ending' sense. I was trying to be optimistic at the time; looking forward."
It consisted of the top three floors of an 1880 brownstone for a total of 1800 square feet. There are four and a half bedrooms (one of them is only big enough for an air mattress on the floor), a study, living room, dining room, an open kitchen, two and a half baths, and an outdoor deck. "I loved the proportions of the living room, with its high ceilings and the tall, slender windows," he says. "And I love this block and the way that it feels sort of 19th century. You feel the presence of the street — which I think is lovely.
"I overlook a backyard and I can hear birds. And there's a school down the block so I hear children's voices."
How could he not rent such a beautiful, spacious apartment? More than that, he's renewed the lease every year since June 2011.
"The floors get smaller," McLane says, "as you go up. So the top floor is really just the master bedroom with a small study. The second floor has the kids' three bedrooms and one tiny room for any of their friends who might stay over. And the first floor houses the living room, dining room, a half bath, and the kitchen."
There are other pluses: three fireplaces two of them actually work, and the wall of the stairway leading to his apartment is made of the original bricks.
And, throughout the apartment, McLane's inventive decorating takes center stage. One wall of the living room has built in bookcases that surround a fireplace. But, instead of books, he placed 18 vintage industrial lamps on the shelves.
"I love books," McLane says, "and I have some on other shelves. But they look so messy to me. Too many different colors. And I wanted something that felt a little more me — mixed industrial objects in a way that felt pretty and romantic. And the lights do look like very soft candlelight because they're clear filament bulbs, and when they're dimmed way down they feel like candlelight.
"And because I'm renting this place on a year-to-year basis, I couldn't do any permanent construction. So I had to do things that were sort of portable and relatively simple to do."
(He also set up another kind of light bulb installation in the master bedroom. It's made of bulbs on aluminum rods in varying heights. Again, they look like candles and they were the prototype of the Oscar set that he designed three years ago.)
And he's managed to time travel in the living room. His trick: he took reproductions of antique wing chairs that look very 1800s and covered them in a contemporary bright pink fabric. That way, he's managed to bridge the 19th and the 20th centuries. And there's more: the couch is a 2015 version of a Victorian sofa upholstered in modern gray linen with button tufting.
He added a fabulous steel coffee table with blossoming flowers and branches laser cut into the steel.
More magic in the living room: he had a mirror cut to fit the space from over the fireplace up to the ceiling. Then he antiqued it with an oxidized design that the created. McLane has made several trips to India and brought back some wonderful treasures, like the antique, carved wood Ganesh (a Hindu god with a man's body and an elephant's head) that sits on the dining room wall.
"I bought that when I was around 22," McLane says, "and on my last day. I miscalculated my money and didn't realize that I didn't have enough money to get to the airport. So I took some of my clothing out to the street and sold it. It was my own little street fair."
He doesn't miscalculate any more. He wanted wallpaper in the dining room, but didn't want to go to the expense and trouble of one day having to take it down. So he chose Tempaper. It's a paper that simply peels off the wall without leaving any marks behind.
Also in the dining room are table made of old, unpolished marble pavement stones from Philadelphia, a collection of antique typewriters, and a black and white photograph of a very young and very beautiful Brigitte Bardot.
And all the while he was designing his home, he kept extra busy designing sets (his current shows are Into the Woods, Beautiful, Posterity, Gigi and Living on Love) winning awards (among them: a Tony, an Emmy for the Oscars telecast, several Obie's, and more) and high praise. (The New York Times called the Into the Woods set "marvelous," the Hollywood Reporter said it was "a thing of beauty," and British Theatre said "the audience is constantly reminded that they are not watching a musical, they are inside one.") So life these days is a far cry from the time when he was unhappily apartment hunting. Now, to top it all off, last summer he married Lia Vollack. She's the president of music at Sony Pictures.
"I'm really excited that I've managed to create a new family here," McLane says. "Introducing my kids to a stepmother is notoriously a challenge, but it's gone great.
"I love nothing more than having a lot of family here. Thanksgiving we had 36 people. I love to cook and I would have gladly done all the cooking myself. But I was working on the live production of Peter Pan. There just wasn't time. It was pretty crowded, but I put most of the furniture on the back porch and set up tables. It was crowded, but it was wonderful."
And it was the happy ending the apartment seemed to promise that first time he saw it.
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