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This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime,” said Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. Now anyone with a king’s ransom to spare — $15,000 a night — can check into the newly opened penthouse atop De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. The aerie has many of the supersized amenities one would expect from one of New York’s priciest luxury suites: a 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment, a loftlike living room and a 4,000-square-foot terrace with a heated spa pool and Hudson River views. But the hushed decor — incorporating coffee tables made out of boulders, a centuries-old French farm trough and a stair rail made out of an old rake — feels closer in spirit to a Provencal farmhouse, or even a Japanese Zendo, than it does to a five-star Gotham hotel suite.
The mastermind of all this sparse rustic charm is Axel Vervoordt, the Antwerp-based design guru credited with launching the popular Belgian look characterized by all those rough linen sofas that now populate Restoration Hardware.
The penthouse originally was slated for 2008. When De Niro and business partner Ira Drukier opened the hotel (where rates for regular rooms start at $550 a night) that year, they crowned it with a mansion in the sky — a two-story apartment topped with a copper mansard roof. But they had failed to vet it with NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “They demanded that we change it,” says Drukier. “We ended up using the space for storage.”
De Niro later visited Vervoordt (whose clients have included Sting and Kanye West) at his 12th century castle near Antwerp and asked for his help. The designer and dealer, who wrote the book Wabi Inspirations, proposed a contemplative retreat based on design principles rooted in the Japanese philosophy of wabi. “The idea was to create an installation more than decoration — to invoke a feeling of silence and space in the middle of New York,” says Vervoordt.
In 2010, Vervoordt and his colleague, architect Tatsuro Miki, took their plan to the commission. “I was very scared, but we tried to explain the wabi spirit: how it’s about thinking global and acting local and using objects that are earthy and humble,” says Vervoordt. The proposal unanimously was approved. “It was a fabulous moment. Bob [De Niro] embraced me.”
Four years later, the penthouse boasts a kitchen stocked with Japanese ceramics and antique cutting boards. It has a refrigerator and oven, but there’s also room service from Andrew Carmellini‘s Locanda Verde in the lobby. Vervoordt and his team spent years tracking down furnishings like an iron fire basket made of joist hangers from the Louvre. Meanwhile, the objectionable copper roof was removed and, in the spirit of wabi, recycled into gourd-shaped lamps for the terrace.
“Tribeca has its own ambiance and feeling,” says De Niro. “Axel wanted to respect that and pull in elements of the city. It’s more than interior design: It is art.”
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Jeriana San Juan