This Bond Street loft was designed like a mini MoMA for its art collector owners. Photo / Rick Lew

How David Howell Is Reconstructing New York

The New Zealand architect has made a career transforming high-end apartments in the Big Apple. He shares how he sees himself as a creative Robin Hood

When David Howell first arrived in New York, he was disappointed. Not in the city itself — the romance of the architecture, the fact he could walk everywhere, the $1 slices of pizza — all of it had him entranced and energised.

“What I didn’t really comprehend was that I’d be trading the ability to work on new houses — in New Zealand, everything is new,” he says. “But I love New York.”

Thirty-one years on and now in his early 60s, the architect has become somewhat of a go-to guy for Manhattanites seeking to transform their luxury apartments, lofts and townhouses. Working predominantly with internal spaces, preserving, reconfiguring, redesigning and rebuilding has become David’s bread and butter — and despite thinking he’d never alter the NYC landscape, he has gone on to design seven buildings there from the ground up.

“We’ve worked out a vernacular we like that references a classic New York building … I don’t want to do some signature, crazy design,” he says over a wine during a brief trip home to see family. “[A new building] should be contextual, to contribute to the city, not about the architect wanting to be a designer.”

It’s this humble approach that has endeared him to his clients — he puts his success in the Big Apple down to his Kiwi heritage being well received. Through his company, David Howell Design, he has worked with the rich, the famous and the well-endowed-of-art on countless prestigious addresses from Madison Avenue to Union Square, and one particularly rock ’n’ roll apartment in the One 57 building on “Billionaire’s Row”, listed on the rental market last year for US$69,500 [$103,000] a month.

The view over Central Park from One 57. Photo / Guillaume Gaudet

The results are beautifully captured in photographic form in his new set of books (published by Point Publishing and packaged in a cloth-bound slipcase) simply named Apartments, Lofts, Townhouses, Houses, compact enough to fit the space-conscious coffee tables on which they’ll reside.

David explains the books are an artistic homage to each project, and a way to share his work with other creatives — namely, the photographers who’ve captured the homes over the years.

“I think one of my responsibilities as an architect is to collaborate with as much of the artistic community as possible,” he explains. “I consider myself part of that community by distributing money from people who earn money in a non-artistic way, like bankers, lawyers, whatever. It’s about, ‘How can we take as much money from those guys and put it through the longest trail of artists and collaborators?’”

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His own home, his firm’s first ground-up condominium project in New York that features in the Apartment book, showcases his love for New Zealand craftspeople, such as artist Stephen Bambury and furniture-maker David Trubridge. Meanwhile the Houses book features several stand-alone homes he has designed outside of the city, with little in common other than their extreme environments.

Among the most memorable: a ski house in Utah that sits at the base of a mountain, its striking angular construction encompassing an internal glass and steel bridge; a grand, beachside home in the Hamptons that looks like it’s straight out of TV show Succession; a sprawling traditional hacienda-inspired home (owned by luxury furniture designer John Houshmand), near the Unesco World Heritage site of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, in which a lone builder constructed the intricate brickwork in its domed boveda ceiling.

David looked to the original passive houses from a century ago, monasteries that dealt to the arid conditions with high ceilings that trapped the heat yet allowed the wind to blow through, cooling them.

The interior of Casa Adela in Mexico. Photo / David Joseph

“How do people live without air conditioning and fans and electricity? They lived in these out-houses so they could shut down the wind. They often had a pool in the middle but they were basically passive houses. They had no energy, just candles, and the sun that moves around the house.”

The design jobs weren’t always so ambitious. One of his first jobs was to choose the fabric on a client’s cushions. With “zero” interior design training, he graciously agreed. The client later requested a new kitchen.

“You’ve got to be humble. You don’t know who you’re meeting and what they really want. So my philosophy is to meet everybody and talk to them. Often the really cool projects don’t present themselves in a very direct manner. People often just want to see whether they’ve got a rapport.”

He agrees his affable nature — and his refusal to work with “mean and nasty people” — has allowed his career to flourish in the notoriously competitive city. That, and that he came along with unique design ideas.

“He’s obviously incredibly talented, but he’s also very self-contained to be able to go to New York and do what he’s done — it’s quite extraordinary,” says art dealer Gary Langsford, one of the few New Zealanders to live in a home by David Howell.

Although the vision for the sculptural New York loft-inspired Upper Queen St home, with its striking concrete shutters, gallery-like interior and enclosed terrace, was actually Gary’s, it was David who executed it, transforming what was a windscreen repair shop into the distinctive four-level home and commercial space he shares with partner Vicki Vuleta (owner of designer furniture showroom Design 55, which takes up the lower floor).

It was a hugely challenging project, says Gary. David approached it with characteristic self-belief.

Inside the Alta Ski House. Photo / Nic Lehoux

“To have that confidence and awareness of yourself to be able to achieve what he has in a city like New York when you come from a little country like New Zealand … When I first started going to New York, there were no Kiwis there — everybody went to London. So it was quite a brave move to head off and actually stay and spend your life there, and set up an architectural practice.”

Work dominates his time in New York, says David, and it’s clear he enjoys reflecting on it. He likes to analyse what makes something great.

“Why do you watch great sports people? You’re looking for that moment in design where things come together … I’m very fortunate, I love lots of parts of my job. I love things when I see something beautifully made or structured or crafted, and that could be a pair of jeans. It could be a cathedral in Barcelona. It could even be a piece of music. Why do my girls [twins Bianca and Sintra], at 21, listen to the music I listen to?”

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This, by the way, is Rolling Stones, David Bowie, lots of rock ’n’ roll.

“I find that very interesting, that it appeals to generations.”

His appreciation for craft is why he’s had his book collection hand-bound. It’s also why he has recorded each project in the first place. He credits his love for quality photography to good friend, photographer and film-maker Kerry Brown, with whom he has spent much time with in New York. It’s thanks to Kerry, he says — along with fellow Kiwi photographer and friend Patrick Reynolds, who captured Gary Langsford’s house — that David has amassed a collection of good cameras.

When Canadian shutterbug Nic Lehoux photographed the ski house in Utah, David drilled him on his game plan. “And he said, ‘I just start taking photos.’ And I thought, that’s so brilliant. Just start.

David and Steffani’s Gramercy apartment. Photo / Emily Andrews

“Patrick once said to me, architecture is one of the only art forms that, unless you are in the building to witness and understand through another artist’s perception through photography, isn’t the same as seeing it yourself. You are seeing and judging architecture and appreciating or understanding it through someone else’s eyes.”

Not all brilliant architecture needs to be timeless, he adds. “And just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s good.”

Much of his work in New York is about deriving the difference, he says. “You deal with more historic buildings than you do in New Zealand. And certainly the culture and philosophy of building New York is more romance and historic than progressive and modern like New Zealand.”

He’s always loved New York, the way it can mirror your energy, bringing you up or dragging you down. He arrived in the Big Apple in 1991 as a “naive young man from Havelock North”, travelling on a QEII Arts Council grant. It wasn’t an easy process shifting gears from New Zealand architecture to a city that has “imported” its culture from Europe, with its Greek columns and Renaissance-inspired towers, and then getting his legal ducks in a row to open his practice.

“But it was fun. New York has a phenomenal inventory of beautiful buildings built around 120 years ago, when limestone and steel became part of the building fabric.”

What the books communicate is a huge diversity of clientele, of styles and tastes. One particular NoHo loft owned by two art collectors is more like a gallery, a “mini-MoMA” with a kitchenette-style coffee and drinks bar and a diner-style booth, because why cook if you can afford to eat out in New York?

A striking red desk and navy wall in a Chelsea townhouse. Photo / Emily Andrews

Another loft near Broadway has an elevated cigar-smoking room, complete with its own independent ventilation system. Designing these spaces is about bringing light in or bringing original features into a modern lifestyle, but often, there’s no limit to “building visions and dreams”, says David, much as he has done in his current and previous homes, the latter a converted commercial space the Beastie Boys once used as a practice studio.

David’s wife, Steffani Aarons, an interior designer, also works in the firm, adding her sophisticated touch with high-end furnishings.

“It’s increasingly hard to reconcile,” he says of working on the most luxurious properties. “If you look at global issues, how can you be privileged and rich and doing this crazy stuff in Manhattan?

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“For me, it’s not the scale of the project or the style of it. It’s more about the person and whether I think I can really contribute form, and design something interesting and meaningful for you and my team to work on. That’s what makes me go to work.”

Now that he and Steffani have sold their cabin in the Catskills, they’re wondering what’s next. His wife and girls love the Hamptons, where many of their friends congregate in the summer, but David says he’s more of an upstate New York kind of guy.

“I’m more about the bush. When I’m not working I want to go up to the Catskills and stay in a half-finished house, sleep on the floor and build stuff all day long.”

Spoken like a true Kiwi architect.

David Howell’s book collection, Apartments, Lofts, Townhouses, Houses, RRP $160, is out now. Pointpublishing.co.nz

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