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.”
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 When he first visited the LaFenderson (as the buzzer reads) loft, his imagination flooded with historical references: Lina Bo Bardi’s modern but hand-hewn Casa de Vidro, Carlo Scarpa’s color-blocked Casa Tabarelli, and the playfully furnished Menil House in Houston, among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.
Color became its own spatial framework, with Lawson channeling Scarpa in a series of vibrant interventions. “James and Stephen seemed up for a different formula,” the designer reflects of the idiosyncratic palette, which eschews white walls in favor of a shade he calls “cream of mushroom soup.” Against that neutral backdrop, bold splashes offer visual anchors—whether the kitchen’s striped paneling of individually painted boards, the library’s floating red bookcase, or the living room’s oversized wall-mounted fabric panels. Counterintuitively, Lawson explains, these bold gestures offer moments of rest. “It frees your eye from having to look at small things.”
And there are certainly many treasures to discover. LaForce and Henderson are avid yet unfussy collectors, deriving as much joy from flea-market finds as pedigreed pieces. Their vintage claw-foot consoles came from the collection of Picasso biographer John Richardson, their Gothic Revival center table from the Mario Buatta estate. Unattributed vintage sofas have nevertheless become scene-stealers thanks to the couple’s daring upholstery choices. Art, meanwhile, tends toward the small-scale and thrifty. In the den, dozens of works—many anonymous, others by friends—now form an immersive salon-style arrangement. (“Big rooms would have eaten them up, so we thought of them as wallpaper, grouped together floor to ceiling,” recalls Lawson.) Elsewhere pride of place has been given to provenanced pieces by the likes of Robert Indiana and Paul Cadmus, talents whom the couple affectionately call their gay forebears.
“We created an apartment that was beautiful and robust enough in its own right but still encouraged them to evolve their collections over time,” reflects Lawson, noting that the Josef Hoffmann picture nails on the sitting area’s kilim-lined partition make it easy to swap out works. He credits that success to LaForce and Henderson’s willingness to say yes. “When you have sophisticated clients, you can come with bigger ideas and more esoteric references,” says Lawson, for whom those conceptual constraints offered a rewarding intellectual exercise. “I don’t design out of thin air. I weave together things that I know and love.”
For their parts, LaForce and Henderson both thrilled to the decorative crash course. “Ryan is a lot like us, not haughty or precious,” says Henderson. “He is a little DIY and yet immediately talking about Lina Bo Bardi.” They’re references the couple can now share with their regular guests, be they crashing in the guest suite or on the library’s bespoke daybed, cleverly overscaled to accommodate overnight additions. Some nights the loft buzzes with a crowd of 100 or more, as LaForce and Henderson host events for any of their many progressive and creative causes. But on other evenings that hum quiets to a whisper, LaForce lounging in the den as Henderson cooks. Once dinner is ready, they’ll retreat to the living room for some well-deserved screen time—each reclining on his assigned sofa, plates on their chests, happily side by side.
This Manhattan apartment appears in AD’s October issue. Never miss an issue when you subscribe to AD.