Entering the apartment of photographer, collector, and philanthropist Adelaide de Menil, which she shared with her late husband, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, is a mystical experience, especially at night, when boundaries disappear between what you see and what you think you see. The mushroom-brown felt-covered walls of the entrance foyer open onto a room that looks like a forest. And are those real or stuffed birds nestled on tree boughs in the corner? Below the trees are three perfect Windsor chairs, a low African wooden bed laden with books and journals, and two Giacometti table lamps. There’s a John Chamberlain sculpture on one side of the room and a large fabric snake sculpture by Lalanne on the other. Above, a glorious red Calder mobile slowly moves over the leaves. De Menil is equal parts mysterious, gracious, and intimidating; one gets the sense that the pieces she has collected and lived with for a very long time are not really what she wants to discuss.
When de Menil and Carpenter purchased the apartment 30 years ago, they added the imported-French-stone floor (“the big item here,” de Menil says) and replaced the staircase that leads to the mezzanine. “My husband always said, ‘We have a one-room apartment with four bathrooms,’ ” de Menil recalls, referring to the fact that the tree-filled loftlike living room opens directly onto the largely empty dining area; the bedroom and study are upstairs on the mezzanine with views out over the treetops of Central Park. When asked about the headdresses mounted in the cases in the forest room, she explains they’re from New Guinea, “where Edmund and I both spent the better part of 1969.” The apartment is very different from the house de Menil grew up in, designed by Philip Johnson for her parents, John and Dominique de Menil, in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, with sensual interior décor by Charles James. Here, the most lavish aspect of the apartment is the forest, which came about out of necessity. “When we moved in, we thought it would be a good idea to have a mirror lining the wall of the living room,” de Menil explains, “but we very quickly put in the trees; we didn’t want to end up looking at ourselves in the mirror all the time.”
*This article appears in the April 18, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
The Living Room, Seen From the Mezzanine
Three magnificent Windsor chairs as well as a John Chamberlain sculpture (left) can be spotted through the foliage.
A Hawaiian tapa cloth is framed on the wall behind a Giacometti standing lamp. The Shaker dining table is paired with director’s chairs.
The View From the Mezzanine
On the second floor of the apartment, one is eye level with not only the Calder mobile but the ever-changing leaves of Central Park.
Looking Back From the Dining Room
A Shaker rocking chair is balanced on its two back legs.
These stuffed birds once adorned a fireplace screen. De Menil decided to display them in a case in the living room.
The Entrance to the Living Room
A Lalanne serpent is coiled by the corner.