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Don’t Design a Dwelling Across the Sunsets if ‘You’re By no means There’ to See Them

Enrico Bonetti and Dominic Kozerski made headlines in January with the opening of Atelier Jolie, the space in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood they designed for actress Angelina Jolie’s brand in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s onetime studio.  

But their New York firm, Bonetti/Kozerski Architecture, has a long history of working with celebrities, from Donna Karan and Rick Rubin to tastemakers Ian Schrager and André Balazs. Along with hotels, galleries and high-end retail spaces for brands like Audemars Piguet and Tod’s, the duo has focused on residential spaces since launching the firm in 2000. 

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“We’re currently completing a house in Capalbio, south of Tuscany, along with a very big San Francisco apartment, and two Manhattan penthouses,” Bonetti told Mansion Global from his Chinatown office, a sleek space tucked above a warren of restaurants inside a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alley below Canal Street.

Bonetti talked about the value of artisans, designing his own living space, and why luxury means space and time.

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Mansion Global: When you start working with a residential client, what’s the first step in the process?

Enrico Bonetti: We basically ask how they live their lives. You might have an apartment on the river, facing west and seeing sunsets, which is fantastic. But if you’re never there because you work late, we have to work on other aspects that are more important. When we did Donna Karan’s home, for example, we focused on light in the morning. It was important for the kind of life she used to live there. 

Do elements cross over between your retail and residential designs? 

We’ll study a particular material or detailing in a retail project, then like it so much we’ll apply it in a residential project, or vice versa. In the Tod’s flagship on Madison Avenue, we worked with a limestone called Grigio Vincenza. We love how it looks: bluish, with little fossils inside. We needed a neutral background; the light hits it beautifully, and it doesn’t distract from products. But we might use it in an apartment because of its tactile qualities.  

How have client demands changed over the 20 years you’ve been in business? 

Clients ask for a feeling or sensation. That hasn’t changed. It might be something like, “I want to feel cozy.” We decide what that means and choose materials to deliver it. 

What has changed is more of an acknowledgment of green qualities of materials. It should have always been present, and it used to be 500 years ago because you didn’t want to waste material. Only recently has everything looked so cheap that you could throw away materials and harm the environment. 

You often bring artisans in from Italy, France or Switzerland. What do they add to projects?

We really appreciate our relationships with artisans. Every project is complicated, but for our artisans, the more complicated it is, the more they enjoy it. They want to achieve something that hasn’t been done. 

I just came back from Italy, where I looked at marble we’re using in an apartment at 160 Leroy [in Manhattan]. This is a vanity carved from a block of Calacatta marble. I was in Verona to indicate to the artisans where to carve and chisel for the effect we wanted. 

You and your business partner bought a 1970s house in rural Pennsylvania to spend time with your families. How did you design it?

The house is something of really great quality we never thought we’d find, especially in a place like that. Unfortunately, the previous owner had painted over the California redwood that cladded the house―you can’t get it anymore, and we couldn’t take off the paint without doing damage. We tried paint colors to mimic redwood, and they all came out brown. Then we found a gray that was like the wet bark of a tree. It was perfect, and the house kind of disappeared.

The original owner of the house also had Italian and French pieces from [iconic Manhattan furniture company] the Pace Collection stored in the basement. We restored them. And we added things we always liked but couldn’t find a client for, like 1970s Brazilian design, along with custom pieces.

You’ve worked with clients on several continents. How do ideas of luxury vary from place to place?

Every culture has a different idea of what luxury is. We worked with a Chinese client who was going to educate us about the Chinese idea of luxury. We came to understand that many wealthy Chinese consumers like more than one material together. A single material is not considered special. So if we did a stone or marble floor, we’d have to have metal inserts or something shiny and visible. And the concept of luxury is more connected to technology than to the handmade. They almost see something machine-made as more refined than an artisan product. It’s the opposite of the Japanese approach. 

With clients around the world, is it a creative or logistical advantage to stay headquartered in New York City?

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Everyone wants to come to New York, so clients come to us. We travel to see sites. The variety of New York—and how fast things change—is a great inspiration. Every day when I walk to the office, I take pictures of things I see that are relevant. Two months later, I might remember what I photographed and use it. 

What’s your personal definition of luxury?

In the end, it’s space and time. If you have more space and you have more time, that’s luxury.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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