Walking along the streets of Tribeca, in lower Manhattan, it is possible to get a glimpse of old New York: 19th-century brick warehouses and buildings with cast-iron façades line cobbled streets. They serve as a reminder of the area’s industrial past, when it was home to textile manufacturers and wholesalers selling butter, eggs and cheese.
The industry is long gone and Tribeca – bordered by Canal Street, Broadway, Chambers Street and the Hudson River – is now home to some of the city’s most expensive property. In the past few decades, its former factories and warehouses have been stripped, refitted and filled with contemporary art and furniture. These industrial-chic interiors have paved the way for similar transformations in cities worldwide from London’s Clerkenwell to Berlin’s Mitte districts.
Tribeca’s transition has been a gradual one. In the 19th century, it was a centre of industry, helped by its proximity to the docks and the railroad terminal at Hudson Street but, by the 1950s, most of the businesses had moved out and the area suffered a slump. In the 1970s, live/work zoning designation gave a new lease of life to the former industrial spaces and many artists who had faced rising rents in nearby SoHo moved into the area. By the 1980s, the masses had cottoned on to the advantages of “loft living” – thousands of square feet of space, high ceilings, exposed brickwork and views over the Hudson River.
Today the area continues its upwards trajectory: last year Forbes named Tribeca the seventh most expensive postcode in the US and signs of gentrification range from expensive furniture stores to trendy galleries and restaurants.
It is common to see interiors that play on a building’s industrial past by incorporating utilitarian surfaces, stripped-back walls and salvaged objects such as aluminium lamps and steel work tables. Metal, concrete and wood are prevalent materials and lend an aesthetic that is both ultra-contemporary and rough around the edges.
“There is some romance in that it is in keeping with the actual building,” says Rhea White, who runs an architecture and design firm in New York with her partner Steve Schappacher. “In practice, this could mean using metal lighting which pays homage to the loft’s heritage, reintroducing wired glass windows or exposing original features by stripping back central columns to their original metal.”
For White and Schappacher, the appeal of such spaces is their non-residential features. “We recently looked at a former ice warehouse where all the floors sloped to a central column,” says Schappacher. “We thought that it had possibilities that other places did not. We found another apartment with beautiful terracotta structural vaults on the ceiling. It is the unique qualities that are inspiring.”
Because these buildings are so unusual, White and Schappacher do not approach interior decoration in the way they might a more conventional living space. Wallpaper, for example, is not necessarily going to suit a 20ft wall. Instead White has covered a whole wall in steel, inspired by other metal features in the space such as cast-iron capitals and original sliding fire doors. In another apartment, she selected sound baffling material, more commonly seen in engine rooms of ships than houses, as a textured wall covering.
There is plenty of scope to be just as experimental with furniture but it is essential to consider the proportions of the space and to prevent furniture from looking lost and ungrounded. “The scale is the most important thing,” says White. “You see beautiful lofts where it just looks like the furniture is floating out there in the middle of nowhere. People get scared to go big. But you need to get big pieces that anchor the space.”
David Rockwell, founder of the Rockwell Group, an architecture and design practice, lives in Tribeca in a former fabric manufacturing building. His home has a main floor and two further levels housing his daughter’s room and a solarium leading to a roof deck. Rockwell has chosen large pieces including a coffee table made from reclaimed birch branches and a hand-painted folding screen in order to take advantage of the floor space.
The heart of his house is a huge wooden farm table, which he says also serves as everyone’s office. Behind a large bamboo bookcase, he has created a secret staircase for his children and on one wall is a large triptych, made from different fabrics.
Rockwell’s favourite part of the house is the roof deck, where there is an outdoor grill and a 5ft-wide chair that rotates 360 degrees so people “can have views of the city and look at every new building”. Tribeca’s urban roofscape, peppered with spaceship-like water towers, is yet another reminder of how this area has evolved as well as a study in the versatility of its buildings.