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Parisian Chic

An interior designer transforms a plain space into a posh, European-infused pad for a young-at-heart husband and wife. 

In the casual dining area, a glossy white palette gets a bright jolt from a series of red painted canvases by Seattle artist Tim Hovde and yellow glass vases from the Marx-Saunders Gallery.

Mod mirrored panels in the hallway reflect light as well as the opposite wall of family photographs.

For some folks, the perfect retirement involves a quiet, peaceful life far from the hustle and bustle of a city. But Anthony Michael’s latest clients, a pair of North Shore empty nesters, were in search of the opposite. So in 2011, they pounced on a 3,500-square-foot condo in the Waldorf Astoria. Their next step? Hiring Michael, a fearless designer and native Chicagoan, to outfit their new urban headquarters.

Having previously worked with the couple’s son—and received glowing reviews—Michael officially passed the test after the wife visited one of his recent residential projects. Blown away by his attention to detail and offbeat, yet elegant use of materials, the wife felt certain that Michael was the man for the job. So with that, Michael requested that the couple throw out words to describe their ideal space. “Warm” and “safe” came up, but so did “edgy,” “modern” and “sleek.” For the past 35 years, they’d lived among Kirman rugs and classic English Tudor furniture in a palette of browns, reds and blues. But with their desire for a fresh start, they craved a more contemporary style that would reflect their urban setting. “I wanted to do the opposite of everything they had in their last house,” Michael says. “Every new environment deserves a new attitude.”

With this goal in mind, the wife sorted through decades upon decades of possessions, placing aside just a few pieces that were too personal to sell. Among them, a 16th century Japanese screen, a grand piano and boxes of family photos. She sold everything else in an estate sale. “I tell my clients that when you’re downsizing, you have to be very prudent about what you keep,” Michael says. “At first, it may be tough to let the little things go, but the process can be both cathartic and empowering.” By limiting the old stuff, Michael had more freedom to experiment. But, he needed some major inspiration—which, as any interior designer will tell you, can be found in the most unexpected places. While combing through old photos, the wife casually mentioned how much she loved a snapshot of herself and her daughter in the early ’80s on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Michael latched onto that image, and the home’s French-inspired, Art Deco aesthetic was born.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the building—constructed in 2010 and formerly named The Elysian—was designed by Lucien Lagrange, a French-born architect, and that its lobby’s decor references the ’20s and ’30s. Or that Michael studied at the acclaimed L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. But this project wasn’t without its creative challenges. For one, the “complete vanilla box of a space,” as Michael describes it, boasted a very basic layout. Then, due to the budget—plus the project’s strict six-month timeline—new construction was tossed out the window. Michael also had to keep the clients’ top priorities in mind. As grandparents to four energetic youngsters, ages 5 to 9, they were adamant that the condo be kid-friendly. And because the couple planned to settle in the space indefinitely, Michael had to cater to the changes that come with aging.

Some industry pros might have felt limited by such requests, but Michael embraced them without skipping a beat. “Everything in this place is incredibly easy to maintain,” he assures. Michael scooped up comfortable, low-slung sofas and chairs and positioned light switches and fixtures in easy-to-access locations. The tastemaker also searched high and low for synthetic fabrics that could withstand spills, such as Crypton and Sunbrella.

Then, to capitalize on the abundant natural light and work with the existing white trim, Michael opted for a neutral, mixed palette of whites, ivories and grays. So how did he make such cool colors appear warm? Texture, texture and more texture. Michael hid existing floors underneath plush rugs and swathed dull walls with grasscloth, faux suede and goat skin-inspired coverings. On top of that, he fashioned custom architectural details in the form of wood moldings and mirrored trim. “These clients were willing to be daring,” Michael admits, “and they trusted me.”

Perhaps his most ingenious maneuver of all: customizing virtually every piece of furniture, whether it involved a paint treatment, a metal coating or a fabric swap. “I think that’s the art of what we [designers] do,” he says, “and when we do it well, you can’t tell what’s really expensive and what’s not.” He converted tops of tables into wall art, and created futuristic lucite boxes to enclose vintage prints from Paris. When an exhaustive search for a modern wine table came up empty, he simply designed his own glass-topped number for the kitchen that can hold 144 bottles at a time.

To store more mundane supplies, like paper and light bulbs, Michael incorporated handsome furniture with drawers. “We had to make every little inch count,” he says. In the bathroom, the wife’s jewelry rests in beveled glass cabinets from Bungalow 5, and in the hallway, an antique bureau packed with supplies virtually disappears in front of a dramatic grid of mirrored panels. Michael’s response to his affinity for reflective surfaces? “A little sparkle here and there never hurt anyone,” he says. Even the husband admits to being drawn to the glitz. “I think the living room feels like floating elegance,” he says. “I love that it looks rich—not rich in the vulgar sense, but rich in the full sense.”

In rooms where the budget was restricted, Michael used paint to create eye candy. A Greek-key stenciled ceiling in the guest bedroom practically begs to be admired during mid-day naps. And in the master bedroom, deep gray walls—inspired by the wife’s eye color—create a cocoonlike effect. The most reserved room of all, the study, features plenty of modern touches in the form of furniture, but certificates, awards and old books serve as reminders of the past. Just outside, the hallway lined with family photos organized in chronological order highlights the major milestones in the couple’s lives.

“To be honest, we were nervous about making the change,” says the wife. “But I haven’t stopped smiling since we arrived. And our friends are just blown away!” The way this couple sees it, they got their dream home, minus the stress and time commitment typically associated with moving. “It wouldn’t have happened without Anthony [Michael],” she swears. “I had other things that I wanted to do with the rest of my life!”