Habitats/upper West Side; From Dull and Uninspiring to Cozy and Elegant
THE walls, the kitchen cabinets and even the bedroom floor were all the same color: a dull, grayish white. The doors to the closets were hollow. A cheap bookcase rested against the wall of the study. Moldings were used erratically in boxy, architecturally undistinguished rooms. A too-large air-conditioner dominated the top of one window, its ungainly cord stretched high across a wall.Habitable, yes. Inspiring, no. But to Brian Tobin, who flew to New York from Tokyo in March for a few days of apartment hunting, it was ideal. He had lived in New York before, and he knew what he liked. The duplex apartment on the Upper West Side was near Central Park, and it had a potentially lovely garden where his two golden retrievers, Rusty and Max, could spend their days while he was at work.A trader of Japanese stocks for Salomon Smith Barney, he wasn't afraid to make quick decisions. After a brief bidding war conducted from Tokyo, he bought the apartment for $470,000 and immediately called a contractor recommended by a friend.One month after he bought it, exactly on schedule, he moved into the brownstone duplex at 24 West 83d Street, now painted in a rich palette of cantaloupe and green. It is a cozy and elegant place, and not simply because of his cherry furniture and green leather couches.Crown moldings circle the ceilings. Baseboards hide all wires and give a neat finish where the wall meets the floor. Substantial custom-made doors open into the guest room and the closet in the living room. The walls are smooth and seem to glow, the result of new plaster and an expert paint job.The renovation of the apartment cost him $40,000, no small sum for a collection of seemingly minor details. But taken together, they give a formerly undistinguished apartment character and clean lines.Someone else might have spent the same amount of money putting in a new kitchen, or new bathrooms. He has kept them intact, focusing instead on the myriad of small flaws that burdened the apartment with its tacky, anonymous feel, like a place too often rented, with no one putting a hand to it, making a mark, giving it substance.For Mr. Tobin, 39, who has made eight international moves in the last 16 years, the $40,000 was a magic and inviolable number. He decided at the start that he could spend no more than that, because he wanted to spend only 10 percent of the purchase price on both renovating and decorating. He believes that is the amount he can recapture if he has to sell soon. Any more he considers risky, given his conviction that the real estate market has peaked.And from previous experience with renovations, he understood that if he put a lot of money into, say, a gorgeous bathroom, it would have looked out of place in an apartment with rickety doors and ugly light fixtures, and he might never have recouped his investment.Mr. Tobin praises his contractor, Richard Baronio & Associates, for doing the work on schedule and within budget. They, in turn, say that Mr. Tobin was an unusual client, because he was decisive, acted quickly and never changed his mind, saving both time and money.Work began on the apartment one day after the May 7 closing. In the living room, excess ceiling lights and sconces were removed. Mirrored doors to the closet were replaced because, Mr. Tobin says, they ''looked flimsy and cheap, like a hotel room you wouldn't stay in.''The living room had a simple brick fireplace that seemed to recede, almost to disappear. By adding a simple wood mantel designed by Georgina Sanger, a design consultant for Baronio, he gave it much more of a presence. The sloping ceiling was replastered, to make it flat. A thin coat of plaster on the walls helped provide a base so the paint would have a smooth, even finish, Without that skim coat, Ms. Sanger says, walls ''look mottled, with that eggy texture.''The small guest room off the living room was given a new doorway and doors, and it will be home to the television set, which Mr. Tobin dislikes but considers a necessary evil. All the exposed wires were buried in the walls, because he didn't want any of them visible. The cord from the air-conditioner now plugs into a nearly invisible socket, and new molding around a new, much smaller unit greatly diminishes its presence.All the kitchen cabinets, and the front of the refrigerator, were painted the same cantaloupe color that covers the walls of the living room and dining area. It's a small kitchen, but efficiently designed, and for a confident cook, like Mr. Tobin, who can carry on a conversation and still manage to turn out three kinds of pasta for a dinner party -- gnocchi with pesto, tortellini with cream and mushrooms and penne arrabiata -- it is clearly adequate.The biggest draw may have been the garden, where Mr. Tobin cut the ivy way back but otherwise did little. ''After the sun goes down and the fireflies are out,'' he says, ''people say this isn't New York. It's the Hamptons.''DOWNSTAIRS, the bedroom is painted in salmon, with white trim. The white marble floor in the bedroom was covered with wool wall-to-wall carpeting. ''I couldn't see myself waking up and stepping on marble,'' Mr. Tobin says. A second and unnecessary entrance into the apartment was closed off and turned into an extra closet, for things like ironing boards.A small study off the bedroom has a built-in bookcase, created at Ms. Sanger's suggestion from a freestanding unit that had been left there, seemingly destined for the Dumpster. With a baseboard on the bottom, molding on top and the sides filled in, it now looks substantial.Mr. Tobin wanted to do more -- wainscoting, for instance -- but the budget wouldn't allow it. A previous experience in London, where he bought a small two-bedroom apartment and gutted it, taught him some lessons, he says. ''A four-week job turned into four months, and I spent 30 percent more than I wanted to,'' he says. He installed expensive wall-to-wall carpeting throughout, for instance, which he now considers a mistake.''In London, I thought I was going to stay for a long time,'' he says. ''Now I'm more realistic. I could get transferred, or not have a job.''He says he has learned that it is important to live in a place for a while before making drastic changes, and to make do with what you have. He would like, for instance, to remodel the bathroom, putting in new tile and fixtures, but has decided that would be unwise.''Instead,'' he says, ''I spent $26 on a new shower curtain. And it's not bad.''