The Aesthete

heads up

Architectural designers Enrico Bonetti and Dominic Kozerski bring European flavor to their all-American playground

by Ian Volner photography Alex John Beck

It should take nothing away from their architectural talents to say that Enrico Bonetti and Dominic Kozerski are two of the best-dressed designers in New York City. On a bright, brisk morning in mid-October, the kind of day that brings out identical black cable-knit turtlenecks in design offices all over town, the founders of the firm of Bonetti/Kozerski are sporting, respectively, a tailored suit accessorized by a fatigued leather bag and a lavender shirt with no tie under a suit of striking topaz. At the corner of Lafayette and Astor Place, amidst the clutter of construction and the bustle of rush-hour traffic, the two men look unaccountably cool.

Yet this is their natural habitat. For the English-born Dominic and the native Bolognese Enrico, Lafayette Street has become a kind of memory lane, a boulevard of un-broken dreams that that runs straight through the 12-year history of their shared practice. Kozerski’s “daily inspiration” is his morning motorcycle ride over the Brooklyn Bridge and up Lafayette to the firm’s Soho studio“In London there’s lots of bridges,” he says, “but bridges in New York are all about industrialization and these big steel beams.”

Bonetti has spent the last eight years in an apartment just a block away on Broadway. This morning, they’re following the latter’s route to work, down Lafayette to their office on Prince, starting with the modest concrete clearing around Cooper Square that affords Enrico his living-room eastern exposure. “This is one of the few places where you can see something in the center from different points of view, which is more like a European city,” he says. It’s a place he feels at home, and one that seems to reflect the firm’s singular blend of hard-edged New York-ness and European refinement.

“I think there’s an exoticness to us because we’re Europeans.”

The experience of being Europeans in America is key to the designers’ practice, as it is to their encounter with New York City. “One of the reasons why we set up our office here is that we developed a specific model of business as designers who are not from New York,” Enrico explains. “We have a mixture of other sensibilities.” Dominic concurs: “I think there’s an exoticness to us because we’re Europeans.” The duo’s continental appeal has drawn in high-profile clients— among them fashion designer Donna Karan and hotelier Andre Balazs — who are attuned to their rarefied, eclectic modern style. And in just over a decade they’ve has moved from office renovations to luxury residential interiors to their latest commission, a new private school on Manhattan’s West Side.

With taste as rarified as theirs, the two can’t help but pick apart some of the more problematic features of Noho’s built environment. Bearing south along Lafayette toward Lower Manhattan, the first and most striking structure to hove into view is Gwathmey Siegel’s controversial Astor Place Tower, the piano-contoured condo that opened in 2005 to slightly less than universal acclaim. “If only it was taller,” says Dominic, “it would become like this point you would see and orientate yourself toward. It would go beyond just being a condo. It would feel like a real New York thing.” His business partner is somewhat less enthusiastic about increasing the building’s height — “It would block my view,” says Enrico — but agrees that the “glass cage” of a high-rise, standing atop its blocky base, doesn’t do much for the area. Compare that to a nearby garden apartment Enrico points out, further down the block and several stories up, whose louvered skylights issue an abundance of ivy and shrubbery. “Those big windows, that glass — it’s really nice,” says Dominic: once you spot it, the apartment seems to become the focal point of the whole urban fabric that surrounds it.

Both designers are old enough to recall when that fabric was very different than it is today. Dominic came to New York to study at the Cooper Union just opposite, and he remembers when the tower site was a parking lot. “It always felt like it was a part of the triangle,” he says, noting that the square seems to have lost some of its public character since it was filled in. Even now, the walls seem to be closing in around Astor Place, with the skeleton of the new Fumihiko Maki building for Dominic’s alma mater topping out directly to the north. That project certainly marks a change for the neighborhood, yet the designers feel it could also bring with it a welcome sense of continuity. “The reflective glass…is going to reflect that one,” says Enrico, pointing to the grand façade of the early 20th-century Wannamaker Annex on Eighth Street.

Other things on Lafayette never seem to change at all. Enrico gestures to the door of a building across from the Public Theater, whose street-level storefront — formerly one of the city’s better-known dealers in modern furniture — is now a fashion boutique. Despite the turnover, the new occupants have kept in place a gorgeous aluminum door, whose ocean liner-like portals instantly recall the work of French master Jean Prouvé (a touchstone for Bonetti/Kozerski, who share something of Prouvé’s industrial-mechanical romanticism). On a deeper level, much of Lafayette Street still bears the imprint of its complex past. Dominic notes the profusion of wedge-shaped buildings and vacant lots, a legacy of the street’s having been carved out of already built-upon blocks in the 1900s. “We’re intrigued at the way cities evolve and develop,” he says.

There’s a mysterious sort of economy between the helter-skelter streetscape of New York — and of Lafayette Street in particular — and the work of the firm. As the designers describe it, things seen every day on the street seem to work their way into the creative subconscious. “Sometimes,” says Enrico, “we don’t realize until later where an idea came from. Then we say, Oh we saw that right on the corner!”

“Because New York is a city that’s always had periods of growth and change... there’s all these things that to us as Europeans seem so unique.”

Stopping in for a coffee at a favorite local café (La Colombe, whose original location was in the firm’s office building), Dominic expands on the same theme. “The thing we both envy about New York is that we both really like unusual materials being used in unusual settings,” he says. “Because New York is a city that’s always had periods of growth and change, like you see on Lafayette, there’s all these things that to us as Europeans seem so unique.” Back outside, the designers keep pointing out oddball miscellany along the route — the bruised granite of old sidewalk slabs; the strips of cowhide hanging in an old leather supplier near Houston; the bricks in the Prince Street wall of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral — all of which manifest a certain patina that’s very much evident in their work.

Just as the city has formed them, Bonetti and Kozerski have started taking a hand in shaping the city, in more ways than one. The Lafayette route takes them past the building that’s home to their new office for repeat client Balazs; the warped antique windows they installed on the Lafayette side, seen from several stories below, fit right in with the street’s lived-in glamour. And the firm’s story has even begun writing itself into the story of the city. Just before reaching Prince Street and heading up to the office, the two pass by nightlife fixture Pravda Bar. The establishment has been a go-to spot for the designers and their associates for years — so much so, in fact, that one employee ended up marrying the longtime bartender. A blow to New York cocktail culture, perhaps, but not to the conscience of the Bonetti/Kozerski team: bartender and bride left the glitter of Manhattan for a higher calling.

 “He became a priest,” says Enrico.