Bil Ehrlich, a young Harvard-trained architect, bought and gutted a derelict five-floor Manhattan town house and created, behind its old cast-iron facade, a huge white alterna-house. But it seems downright laughable today that the house might have once been seen to be cold and impersonal. Minimal, yes. Yet compared with the checklist of modernist decorating and art collecting tropes so in vogue nowadays, Ehrlich house is as personal as it gets.
And when you walk into the huge volume of the main living area, there is no question that he done just that. It is a space worthy of a Chelsea gallery: one great white wall stretches 65 feet from the front of the building to the back and 35 feet up to a skylight.
A quasi-mezzanine, containing a dining area and a kitchen overlooks the living room. Here, too, the art takes center stage: a Joel Otterson sculpture/shower stands in the middle of the master bedroom. But then again, the entire upstairs structure mezzanine and all is like one enormous sculpture, its rooms jutting out into the main space‚ huge rectangle, turned at a 30-degree angle, in a reference to the nearby Flatiron Building.
Ehrlich has quirky design and choice of location reflected his rejection of the prevailing urban landscape and enabled him to reconcile the worlds of architecture, art and design, which back then mixed in social terms at least about as well as oil paint and water.
It was a more rigid caste system…says Ehrlich, who is a co-founder of Artes Magnus, a company that issues limited-edition objects like Cindy Sherman‚ Madame de Pompadour-inspired china. You had artists getting involved in loft living and alternative spaces, he remembered. On the other hand, if you were in the more professional, conventional trajectory, you lived somewhere like the Upper East Side. I had close friends from both camps, and I didn’t want to make a statement that I was with either, so I chose a part of the city that was very anonymous. There was no Flatiron district then, this was no-man-land.
But has always bought what he likes. For him, art is more like a record of where you’ve been and what you’ve thought. I’m not into the hero worshiping and the craziness that goes on,‚ he said. I’m collecting my experiences.