Flexible, transmutable elements can shape a new space


“He works for a Singapore entertainment business,” says architect Robin Elmslie Osler, AIA, LEED AP, “but he spends a lot of time in London, and he has a place in Mumbai.” In establishing his Manhattan pied-à-terre, she says, “the big challenge was that he has a lot of art, and all of it is quite large.” With its generous square footage and 13-foot ceilings, this converted industrial loft in SoHo offered ample space, but lacked spatial definition. Elmslie Osler deftly reworked its cavernous volume, using a series of movable “art walls” to create a flexible environment suited for both oversize paintings and average-size people.

Elmslie Osler’s plan locates the apartment’s primary spaces—a kitchen/dining/living room and the master bedroom—along its single outside wall. An office and guest bedroom share the window well at the building’s core. “SoHo lofts can be very deep and long,” Elmslie Osler says, “so we always use materials that can pull light deeper into the space.” Acid-etched glass sliding doors and wall panels transmit filtered light from the light well and perimeter windows into landlocked interior spaces.

The building’s character and history also influenced the material palette, Elmslie Osler says. “It’s in one of those original manufacturing buildings. The floor joists are less than 12 inches on center; you could put a few Mack trucks on that floor. And the owner wanted that industrial character to remain intact. He didn’t want a super-slick downtown loft.” The theme of earthy solidity begins in the entrance hall, where visitors encounter a wall paneled with hardwood boards salvaged from a Brazilian barn. Horizontal gaps—some with hidden lighting—reveal glimpses of the original brick behind the new surface. The same wood, varied in color and pocked with nail holes, covers the floor.

A concrete cube anchors the central living space, with the kitchen and guest bath seemingly cast into its monolithic mass. The concrete surface actually consists of precast panels hung on conventional stud walls, Elmslie Osler notes, but in visual effect, “the whole thing is this concrete block.” Concrete also clads the wall between the master suite and the living area.

Rounding out the industrial-chic theme are the blackened steel movable walls that also lend the loft its shape-shifting character. Like the entry and guest bedroom, the master suite is two risers up from the living area—“We didn’t want him to feel like he was sleeping in his living room,” Elmslie Osler says—and to gain further privacy, the owner can use the sliding art walls to cover any combination of the two large openings and the horizontal window in the concrete bedroom wall. In the living space, a hinged panel of similar design conceals the unit’s freight elevator. “The only time that will ever be used,” Elmslie Osler explains, “is if he’s doing more construction—or adding more art.”