|Project Name||Villa Albertine Atelier||Posted in||Interior Design||Location||
972 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10075United States
|Full Name||Hugo Toro||Completed||2023|
Prominently located on fifth avenue in New York’s Upper East Side, the historic Payne Whitney Mansion, one of the few remaining, and most lavish, landmarks of the Gilded Age, has housed the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States ever since the 1950s. The five-storey stately mansion is also home to Villa Albertine, a new French institution launched in 2021 to support artistic and intellectual exchanges between the US, France and beyond. Under the leadership of its visionary director Gaëtan Bruel, Villa Albertine is now rethinking the traditional residency model, offering customized residencies for artists and thinkers across ten major US cities, as well as professional programs, events and grants.
Bruel’s latest initiative is Villa Albertine Atelier involving the restoration and redesign of the landmarked mansion’s fifth floor studio which originally served as the writing workshop of American poet, children’s author and philanthropist Helen Hay Whitney. Selected through a competition organized in collaboration with Mobilier National, Franco-Mexican, Paris-based architect and interior designer Hugo Toro has boldly complemented the space’s architectural heritage with bespoke pieces which both showcase French decorative arts and pay tribute to Helen Hay Whitney. Swathed in vibrant red, green and gold hues, the revamped atelier, now serves as an intimate setting for dinners, meetings and small receptions for artists and writers, and is as much an exemplar of French craftsmanship and creativity, as a testament to Toro’s artful eclecticism and refreshing originality.
Designed in 1902 in high Italian Renaissance style by Stanford White, the defining architect of the Gilded Age, the Beaux-Arts mansion was a wedding gift to Helen and her husband, William Payne Whitney, from his uncle Oliver Hazard Payne, the then treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. Completed in 1909 at the tail end of the Gilded Age, it nevertheless exemplified the period’s penchant for decorative excess and unabashed opulence, most notably with the “Venetian Room”, a hall of gilded mirrors featuring a cornice of metal lattice entwined with exquisite porcelain flowers and 18th-century European furnishings—dismantled in 1949, the room was restored once again in the late 2010s.
While not meant for formal entertaining, Helen’s fifth floor study is not lacking in decorative flair, boasting a grand barrel-vault ceiling covered with neo-Renaissance motifs. The ornate ceiling was painstakingly restored by the Louvre and Palace of Versailles conservator, Cinzia Pasquali, as was the “tommettes de Provence” flooring by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, a type of glazed terracotta tile that once featured in some of New York's most prominent Beaux-Arts landmarks.
Having to work with such a unique, historical canvas is no easy task, especially if your goal is to not only conjure the spirit of its original owner but also to showcase contemporary French design. Toro’s creative approach to such a brief was to draw inspiration from Helen’s work, in particular her poem “My Brook”, wherein she describes an idyllic scene in nature centred on a rippling stream.
Working in collaboration with some of the finest French craftsmen, Toro designed a series of bespoke pieces embracing a water-themed design language of earthy and mossy hues, sinuous, ripple-like lines and organic forms including the interlocking lily pad-shaped tables that form a long meeting/dining table paired with white oak chairs, both crafted by Atelier Boutin, and wavy, handblown glass chandeliers that resemble the foliage of a willow tree. An emerald and white rug, custom-made by Maison Pinton, echoes the algae-inflected streams and ponds of Central Park, while curvaceous, richly-textured, mustard-coloured sofas, masterfully upholstered by Racines Ateliers with Pierre Frey fabrics, take on the role of muddy embankments. A sculptural fireplace, designed as a majestic focal point featuring a Bourgogne stone bas-relief by marble workshop Atelier Lemaitre, further enhances the décor’s nature-inspired theme.
Toro’s custom-designed pieces creatively blend Art Nouveau, Art Deco and contemporary influences in line with his “diverse, endless and eclectic” aesthetic, amplified by vintage pieces from the 1980s such as the C XM3 armchairs by Xavier Matégot in chromed metal and beech wood and the Ronald Cecil Sportes’ metal floor lamps, more recent designs, as well as pieces from Toro’s own collection like the Amanecer wall lights in Persian yellow travertine. Complemented by handpicked sculptures and ceramics, Villa Albertine Atelier’s redesign is like a love letter to the best of French decorative arts, from the oldest traditions to the most modern approaches, a letter that is just as nostalgic as it is inspirational that speaks of Helen Hay Whitney’s multifaceted character and poetic nature.