Sexy Fishbowl

Modernist chic in a Nu'uanu apartment

>> Some people may view apartments as strictly utilitarian quarters, just concrete cells with kitchens. That’s not neccessarily so.

Jonathan Staub, the architect responsible for this colorful condominium renovation, says, “There’s a part of high-rise living that people have lost touch with. They think it’s just a shelter, a bed, a refrigerator. When the reality is that it’s really a sexy environment, because you have that fishbowl effect of looking out onto the world. It’s like being up on a monument in a way. You just have to be willing to engage that.”

The owner was ready and willing to engage the high-rise lifestyle. Newly moved from San Francisco, and on her own, she was determined to create a perfect, customized space for herself. “I felt like, I’m 40 years old, I want to have a nice place. Not one that’s funky here, or not quite right there. I wanted to start from scratch and create something exactly the way I liked it, a light and open space, something that would be easy to keep looking nice and clean.”

She already knew Staub, now a senior associate designer with Philpotts and Associates, having met him when they were living in adjacent lofts in San Francisco years earlier. So the two went apartment shopping in 2000, looking at more than 25 places before settling on an 1,100 square foot, 15th-floor apartment in Nu’uanu.

The existing unit was mainly characterized by dull carpeting and cramped rooms, but the “bones of the place” called out to them, says the owner. The building’s unique, cloverleaf layout gave each apartment three open sides; just about every room enjoyed its own window.

The two immediately gutted the place, ripping out everything down to the pipes and wires and knocking down the walls from the third bedroom and the kitchen. They were left with a bright, open layout, and an expansive central living room area, perfect for the owner’s love of entertaining.

The bright, juicy colors of the walls and furniture contrast with the uncovered windows and blonde maple-wood flooring, and bring a much needed warmth to the airy space.

Blond maple and light travertine flooring throughout gave the owner the clean, modern feel she was looking for, and Staub filled the apartment with big, bold, citrusy colors, including one yellow and one orange wall on either side of the living room. It’s an idea that sounds overwhelming on paper, but in person makes for a warmer, more inviting atmosphere.

“In more enclosed spaces, color can contract a place, but in this case it really worked to anchor the space,” Staub says. “Because it’s very lofty and ethereal. It kind of floats out there. With so many windows, and so much white and blond, the glare could be huge, but the colors engage the light and mute it.”

In addition to the bright splashes of color, Staub further personalized the space by adding a few more unconventional touches: a hugely proportioned, maple-framed mirror on the dining room wall, untreated cinderblock walls in the bedrooms, an open lanai immediately inside the front door that creates a breezy foyer area with a breathtaking view.

“That’s one thing about the mass-manufactured society we’re in now,” says Staub of these offbeat details. “People forget about the whimsy, and just go for comfort, or aesthetic integration. And you miss that pause, or that peculiar piece that becomes a memory maker. It doesn’t have to be expensive; those memory makers can be from the swap meet. What it takes is courage. You have to say, I don’t care what people say, I love this.”

The owner did indeed love her beautiful new bachelorette pad, but, as so often happens, her life took an unexpected turn shortly after she moved in. A nice one, fortunately: she fell in love, married and had a son. But a sexy fishbowl is no place to raise a kid, so she and her husband moved to a house in Maunawili.

The owner now rents the apartment out, but dreams of returning one day to reclaim her perfect space. “I want to retire here,” she says. “I think it’s kind of timeless. I think I’ll still love it when I’m 65 or 70, and my child is off at college.”

An Alvar Aalto bent-wood dining room set reflected in the custom maple-framed mirror.
A refurnished Edward Wormley gondola sofa from the 1940s and a Paul Frankl console table.
Quirky, yet clean, furnishings, such as a Paul Laszlo chair, give this apartment an eclectic, modern feel. Large windows offer views of both downtown Honolulu and Nu‘uanu Valley, and flood the space with light.
Designer Jonathan Staub intentionally left the cinderblock surfaces in the bedroom exposed. “It gives more dimension to the space,” he says. “I love that juxtaposition between refined and raw.”