Fashion executive Kent Belden partners with designer Kara Smith to create a contemporary refuge in an avant-garde Manhattan high-rise
The West Chelsea neighborhood of New York City is synonymous with contemporary art. Devoid of the tree-lined, townhouse-dotted enclaves one might find farther downtown, the area between Ninth and 11th Avenues and 19th and 28th Streets is the closest thing the crowded metropolis has to an architectural blank slate. Not surprisingly, it’s a hotbed of galleries filled with colorful canvases and larger-than-life installations; in the space of a few blocks, one might easily come across a Cindy Sherman photo essay, an Ai Weiwei video on loop in a glass-enclosed room, and a citrus-hued mobile by Alexander Calder.
Where else, then, would Jean Nouvel choose to build a landmark than this boundary-pushing area? The Pritzker Prize–winning French architect, whose works include Paris’s garden-walled Musée du Quai Branly and the forthcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi, completed the 23-story tower in 2010 on a Hudson River–facing stretch of 11th Avenue. With a shape at once jagged and curvaceous due to its distinctive facade of tessellated glass, the structure rises in sharp-edged contrast to its equally avant-garde neighbor, Frank Gehry’s undulating IAC Building. For those fortunate enough to live in the Nouvel-conceived behemoth, art truly meets the eye at every turn.
Fashion executive Kent Belden knew just how lucky he was when he and his husband, Dr. Louis Re, happened upon a rental unit in the tower in 2011. “We sold our previous place surprisingly fast and had two weeks to move our entire home—not to mention our 100-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lucinda,” he recalls. The couple spent two years in a pet-friendly apartment on the sixth floor, reveling in the views and the amenities (which include a concierge and an indoor-outdoor lap pool). When a two-bedroom on a higher floor came up for sale in 2013, they couldn’t pass it by. “We realized how much we loved the building and the neighborhood, so it was just a matter of the right unit becoming available,” says Belden. “It was worth the two-year wait.”
As president and founder of the Only.Agency, a company that represents fashion stylists for boldface names such as Heidi Klum and Beyoncé, Belden spends his days immersed in style. “I’ve been fascinated with fashion and design my entire life,” he says. “Fashion became my career, which allowed interior design to be a hobby—and a hobby is always so much more fun.” When it was time to design the apartment, however, he turned to an old acquaintance with industry expertise: Kara Smith, president of New York- and California-based SFA Design (and a former fashion designer herself).
Belden approached Smith with a clear vision for the space: to “keep the modern core of the design but cozy it up and add color.” The firm soon got to work bringing his ideas to life, making bold decorating choices that represented a fusion of Belden and Smith’s ideas. A clean-lined sofa from A. Rudin upholstered in acid green velvet grounds the living room. A Swarovski crystal chandelier presides over the dining table, and classic link wallpaper by Hermès livens up a small powder room. “For me, it was about creating a mix of comfort and masculine lines with a focus on luxe materials,” says the designer. “Definitely nothing cliché like a black leather sofa.”
The long, linear layout, with its open kitchen and 110 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows, was an almost perfect fit for the couple. But Belden, a frequent host, didn’t see the sense in keeping the best spot in the house to himself. “What was intended to be the master bedroom had major views; it seemed a shame to waste the space on a room that only we would enjoy,” he says. “We decided to make the smaller bedroom our master and use the larger room as a library and guest retreat. [Seeing] the Statue of Liberty from your bed is a special New York moment for houseguests.”
Another important consideration was the couple’s impressive art collection. “When my husband and I first met, one of the things we immediately bonded over was our love of photography and contemporary art,” says Belden. “Early in our relationship, we saw a Nan Goldin retrospective at the Whitney, and it was transformative—we’ve been collecting [photography and contemporary art] for several years since.” Designating each stunning piece—from a Crayola-bright Andy Warhol series and a prized drawing by Maira Kalman to a five-foot-tall Terry Richardson photograph—became a job unto itself. “We considered the art placement first and conceptualized the design of the space from there,” says Smith. “[The goal was to] find bold neutrals that would also complement the art.”
Thus the larger-than-life Richardson image of In-N-Out burgers seems made for the white-walled kitchen; the four neon-tinged Warhols, although the undeniable focal point of the living room, share the spotlight with polished nickel side tables and a quietly iridescent sofa. In the library, the Ed Burtynsky photograph of Los Angeles freeways is a pitch-perfect addition above the custom-designed walnut media cabinetry and overdyed red rug. The fluid lines of a Calvin Klein bed upholstered in navy velvet are a lush juxtaposition for Nan Goldin’s verité-style imagery in the bedroom.
Despite the cutting-edge architecture and big-ticket art, the vibe chez Belden-Re is still decidedly lived-in. “I spent those two years in the rental unit envisioning what my long-term home in a Jean Nouvel building would be. And when the project was complete, it was beyond my expectations,” says Belden. “I wanted a home, not a gallery—and that’s what this is.”