Step Inside a Historic Manhattan Apartment Transformed by Design Star Ryan Lawson

When people ask James LaForce and Stephen Henderson for the key to a long and happy relationship, the New York power couple of 34 years offer three pieces of advice. “The secret to marriage is a king-size bed, separate bathrooms, and separate sofas,” jokes Henderson, a writer, alluding to the quotidian bliss of parallel play. Space, in other words, can be a salve. But space also poses its challenges, as the duo discovered upon buying their new Manhattan apartment.

Set in a historic Chelsea factory building, the loft spanned some 6,000 square feet, with broad windows and an auxiliary studio apartment incorporated into the generous floor plan. For social butterflies who love to entertain but also delight in their downtime together, the question became how to make sense of that sprawl. “We recognize it’s a luxury,” says LaForce, a communications and marketing maestro, noting they envisioned the space as a venue for fundraisers and gatherings. “It would be a waste to have it unused.” So they called their friend and decorator Fernando Santangelo, who, as fate would have it, wasn’t accepting new projects in their timeline. “He said he was too busy but that there was this really nice kid across the hall from him,” recalls Henderson. “So we got the kid across the hall—and he was great.”

Designed by Ryan Lawson, the Manhattan loft of Stephen Henderson and James LaForce features a library with a floating bookcase by Green River Project and a custom daybed upholstered in a Claremont velvet; the armchairs are vintage Danish and the wall sculptures (left) are by R.W. Russell.

That talented neighbor was Ryan Lawson, a long-standing if under-the-radar thought leader on the New York design scene, with big ideas and a deep knowledge of the decorative arts. When he first visited the LaFenderson (as the buzzer reads) loft, his imagination flooded with historical references: Lina Bo Bardi’s modern but hand-hewn Casa de Vidro, Carlo Scarpa’s color-blocked Casa Tabarelli, and the playfully furnished Menil House in Houston, among others. “None of these should exist together, and yet in my head it all made sense,” recalls Lawson, motivated to make his charismatic clients proud. “The space needed a narrative to live up to their exciting lives.”

Surgical layout tweaks finessed the overall flow. To heighten the sense of arrival, the entry was reconfigured to usher visitors through glass doors into an elegant foyer, distinguished by the Donald Judd–inspired shelves that had been installed by the former owner, painter Tom Levine. The kitchen, previously an internal space, was opened up to an adjoining room, letting in light and creating side-by-side cooking and lounging areas. And ceiling planes were simplified, with any exposed conduit removed and architectural lighting reduced to a strict geometric language of squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles. Wherever possible, meanwhile, Lawson highlighted the hand of the artisan, from the mouth-blown glass panes of those internal partitions to the monochromatic grids of tile that distinguish each of the four bathrooms.

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