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Gotham Romance

In her grand Fifth Avenue apartment, decorator Hethea Nye indulges her taste for luxury.

Born and bred in New York in the “high ignorant idealism” of the sixties, Hethea Nye went to Vassar and majored in English, then went to law school, and while there began decorating houses to escape the tedium of jurisprudence. Earlier in life she had imagined herself a novelist but in a moment of truth recognized that her gift for editing exceeded her gift for creating; now she describes herself as an “editorial decorator,” selecting perfect objects from what she regards as life’s cornucopia of marvels. “I think you need to have enough of a soul in your twenties to be idealistic, and enough of a brain in your forties to be at peace with yourself. I’ve recognized that I’m not going to be Mother Teresa, but I do give something back to the world. I give people places to live that delight them. It’s not a great gift to humankind, but it’s important; I create peace and quiet and happiness. I make people smile.”

Part of the joy of working with Hethea Nye would be working with Hethea Nye; she is entirely aware of her own charm but is only the more charming for that. Someone else could work in Nye’s style and come up with banality, but her energy translates brilliantly into the spaces she touches so that in each room one can sense the tremendous will and stamina that have gone into making it exactly the way it is, which seems, then, exactly the way it was meant to be. Her look is amalgamated lushness: lots of beautiful things, mostly English, some French, all arranged with a precision no European culture could muster which renders them purely American.

The apartment where she lives with her husband, Richard Nye, an investment adviser, and their one-year-old daughter, Kate, is vast and unabashedly grand. The living room is 25 by 36 feet, and the library next to it is almost the same size. Each of these rooms looks out across Central Park. There is a long gallery off the entryway, a run of bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, an exercise room, and a dressing room large enough for a small opera house. Everything about the place trembles at the edge of excess, but is it redeemed by wit. “It you do this kind of work long enough,” notes Nye, “your eye gets accustomed to beautiful things and beautiful effects. At that point, you either become jaded or you fix on eccentricity. Humor is a matter of attention to detail.” Some of her eccentricity is obvious: the andirons in the shape of Chinese figures; the proliferation of animal paws on every available chair, table, and ornamental box; the delicate watered silk curtain on a shower “I hope no one will ever use.” Some of it is better hidden — the satisfying color of the living room walls was copied directly from a stick of Hotel Bar butter.

When the Nyes bought their apartment it had been stripped of all architectural ornament. “I remember being shown around by a sweet, sweet woman who kept saying enthusiastically, “You’re really going to love the purple Formica dressing room.” Hethea Nye started off planning to remove some modern things and do some painting and then move in, but the project proved almost bottomless once she had started. Now there is only a single wall standing where she found it. The ceilings had been lowered; they were raised. Windows had been blocked in; they were opened. Oversize mahogany doors were made in England, and new doorframes were cut to accommodate them. Cornices were manufactured for each of the seventeen rooms in the apartment. The paneling and bookcases in the library were made new from old pine to match a spectacular 1740 pine fireplace, discovered at a London gallery, which is now the focus of the room. The shelves hold her enormous collection of period books in dark leather spines; unlike many collectors of books, Nye is a reader and the editions are of her favorite authors. The eighteenth-century paneling in the living room came from a salvage yard on lower Broadway where it had gone after being stripped from an apartment upstairs in the Nyes’ building; it fit jigsaw-perfectly. “First you deal with the architecture,” she explains. “Then you can worry about the contents.”

Restraint is not Hethea Nye’s greatest strength, and it is something of a relief that her business partner, Ralph Harvard, is an academic, rigorous in his training, aware that peculiar juxtapositions have to be deliberate. He is the one who decides whether or not it is admissible to apply a mahogany veneer to an Adam overdoor, who says which detailing is acceptable with which fireplace, who figures out how to hide the structural supports that materialize when the walls are being rearranged, who measures and calculates and decides how many bas-relief bows are too many. They work together in a tone of affectionate banter, as though she were a fey and mercurial muse and he a disciplined portraitist.

The source for much of Nye’s furniture and accessories (and the repository for objects Nye has decided to part with) is her New York antiques shop, R. Brooke, which she founded eight years ago and named for one of her favorite writers. Rupert Brooke’s romantic poetry, written during the first decades of this century, escapes sentimentality by virtue of its candid self-assurance. Likewise Hethea Nye: the abundance of painted effects and marble inlay and bullion fringing that she has unleashed in her apartment are called back from the brink of clumsiness by her ability to construct them as extensions of a fruitful life rather than as a means to achieve such a life. Nye’s look is opulent and theatrical, but also full of coziness and funny corners, the rooms the sort in which you could give grand parties or eat dinner quietly in front of the fireplace. “I hate stage sets,” she says. “If where you live helps with how you live, then you’ve achieved something.”