As New Orleans residential conversions march deeper into downtown, architects and developers are tapping into history while paying homage to the pioneers of old. Many of the buildings are enjoying a revival as they are converted into high-end lofts and pricey condominiums.
Such is the case of one particular loft, where each piece of art has its own story. Redefined by interior designer John M. Stephens, who purchased the space with cultural patron Jim Lestelle, the loft appears larger than its modest 1,500 square feet due to the manner in which Stephens went about its restoration and redesign.
“We had both lived in New Orleans for some time,” Stephens explains. “We each wanted to move from much more traditional spaces into a modern loft setting downtown.” Neither Stephens nor Lestelle had begun acquiring local art until moving to the central business district, with its many galleries nearby. “Most of the pieces that have been purchased are primarily from New Orleans art galleries. It has been very enjoyable going to the monthly art openings.”
The result of this serendipitous collection is a colorful body of works by regional artists on display in a tastefully renovated urban space. “What I tried to do was to work with a lot of what was already here while incorporating the various fabric choices and rugs,” Stephens points out.
For the living room, he selected a rug with an ethereal cloud design that was hand-knotted in Nepal with Tibetan wool and silk. It complements the very masculine pair of leather sofas and a rustic horned rocker made with genuine horns from Iowa. The silk and wool dining room rug, with a Chickpo D’hiver design, was also made in Tibet; it nicely shows off the contemporary glass and steel dining room table by Le Corbusier that was purchased at Ray Langley Gallery.
The loft is located in the historic, 100-year-old Walle building, which was the former home of the Walle Corporation, one of the nation’s leading label suppliers. The printing company occupied the building from its construction a century ago until 1995, and produced everything from Coca-Cola and Dr. Tichenor antiseptic labels to the posters of old-line Carnival organizations.
To accommodate the heavy presses and other equipment, the concrete floors in the building were reinforced with steel; the large windows were designed to allow fresh air for the pressmen prior to air conditioning. Smoke-stained internal chimneys are still apparent in the inner hallways, reflecting the coal-fired stoves that were used to heat the structure. Two penthouses were added to the roof as part of the 1995 renovation. The unit owned by Stephens and Lestelle is a two-bedroom, two-bath loft on the second floor.
Twelve-foot ceilings feature exposed concrete beams, lending a contemporary flourish to the space. Such natural elements complement Stephens’ interior design style. He has made use of all of the design features and structure of the unit, including the concrete support columns spaced symmetrically throughout, as well as the industrial colors. “There were pillars from the original factory that were dark green and red, which we kept,” he says.
In some cases, handwritten messages from the pressmen who once worked in the building were allowed to remain. One reads, “December 18, 1937: Paid for two cases of beer, bought two more on account.”
Stephens utilized a blend of traditional and contemporary styles with bold colors. “It expands the space visually, while spotlighting the art and furnishings. It also forces the observer’s eye to scan the space for other examples of style,” he asserts.
Stephens relied on natural elements, forms, shapes, and textures to make the loft warm and comfortable. This includes the Middle Eastern area rugs, leather, and natural horns. “I am also fond of similar styles in fine art, such as lines that represent animals, the human figure, and flora,” he notes.
On display in his midnight navy-colored bedroom is a dramatic charcoal drawing titled Rescue by Denyce Celantano that depicts a scene outside the Morial Convention Center following hurricane Katrina. It was purchased at Cole Pratt Gallery. “At first, it seemed to be too dark in every sense of the word for a bedroom,” Stephens reveals. “But Pratt persisted, as he knew the piece was perfect for the setting.”
Stephens became comfortable once he realized that the human sea portrayed in Celantano’s piece, while showing distress, nevertheless consisted of survivors, rather than those who perished in the awful tragedy. “I recognized that this piece of art could have a positive influence on the space, the kind of mood required and expected in a bedroom.”
A bold woodcut print installed on a large celadon-green wall in the handsome dining area conveys Stephens’ spirit of adventure and discovery. The multiblock color woodcut by Bosnian artist Endi Poskovic, titled The Western Tale in Green, was purchased at Sylvia Schmidt Gallery. “It illustrates the artist’s introduction to the U.S. as he journeyed across North America for the first time,” Stephens notes.
Other choice works of art in the ever-expanding collection include Raine Bedsole’s Copper Figure mixed media on panel; Leslie Staub’s Branch Silhouette gold-leaf board; Mitchell Gaudet’s Tablet: Urn and Tablet: Target works in cast glass and steel; Alex Beard’s Thrown and Thompson’s Gazelle ink on paper; Ray Donley’s El Perdido oil on paper; and Kay Sattler’s Sacred Frame, a hand-coiled, primitive fired clay piece gilded with 24-karat gold.
“The collection primarily consists of works of artists from New Orleans and the southeast U.S. who have garnered national attention, as well as other national and international artists,” Stephens explains. “I positioned the art to take advantage of the soaring height of the ceilings, the vibrantly painted walls, and the purpose of the living space. Our guiding principal for collecting art wasn’t the décor scheme, but rather the art itself.”