Modern Man

By staff October 1, 2006

Sarasota condominium is identifying the mid-century design icons it contains. Even more fun is the invitation to sit back and enjoy them. Far from a museum space, Neal’s residence in sleek, modern Beau Ciel is first and foremost a home. Considering the current buzz about the second coming of mid-century modern furniture (or is it the third or fourth?), Neal’s philosophy—actually using the stuff for everyday living—should be helpful to would-be collectors.

In the sweep of an eye, classics like an electric blue Arne Jacobsen egg chair, a Corbu LC-6 dining table and two yellow eye-poppers (original 1970s chairs by French superstar Pierre Poulin) jump out. Neal cleverly uses his showpieces as punctuation marks for an otherwise neutral setting. To impart an edgier, 21st- century tone, his Donghia seating offers seductive up-to-date lines. But the bones of his living room—a famous AI (Atelier International) brown leather sofa—is  laid-back, masculine and built for comfort.

“I’ve always liked 20th-century furniture, and I’m impressed by the quality and selection now available in Sarasota,” Neal says. He’s also intrigued with the Danish classics available through local retailer dkVogue, and quips that by now there should be plenty of vintage pieces available in town. “I’ve specified a lot of them for clients on Longboat Key over the years.”

Robert Neal came to Sarasota when his brother, Paul Jr. (founder of Bradenton-based Neal Communities and father of Pat, who now runs the company) was developing his first local project, Whitney Beach on Longboat Key. “That was in 1967, a time of great expansion and condominium building on the key,” Neal explains. He designed a series of model homes for the Innis Brothers on Bird Key and for his brother’s development. The influx of new owners led to local commissions and projects in clients’ Northern homes as well.

Neal formed a partnership with designer Bob Beardsworth that soon expanded their business from Sarasota to New York. “In 1975 we bought a brownstone in Beekman Place that served as our New York office, and we split our time between there and Sarasota,” he says. “The late Ben Baldwin, a famous designer who also lived in Sarasota, was a great influence to us both, and eventually I bought a home in East Hampton, where Mr. Baldwin also summered.”

In Sarasota, Neal has lived on Shinbone Alley on north Longboat Key, in a house he gutted and totally remodeled (the project was featured in Architectural Digest), and in the Paul Rudolph-designed Harkavey House on Lido Shores. “Coincidentally, Rudolph was a neighbor and friend in New York,” Neal says. Beardsworth/Neal redesigned a number of houses on St. Armands, and maintained offices in town until Beardsworth’s death in 1993.

By the late 1980s, Neal had sold his East Hampton house and was living in a home in Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara. In 2004, he returned to Sarasota full-time and resumed his design business here. Neal says he chose Beau Ciel because he liked the building’s curvaceous design, and the condo’s floor plan fit so well with his furnishings. “Everything I had in California is here,” he says.

Inside and out, the building’s architecture reminds him of a cruise ship, and with eight round-the-world cruises under his belt, he should know. Neal has made 10 trips to Australia, and frequently visits Asia, South Africa, South and Central America. “Living here is like being on a Crystal Cruise,” he confides. And from the lobby’s dramatic steel staircase railings to its vivid art-glass sculptures and abstract art, the analogy plays out.

Ten stories up, Neal’s home in the sky appears to be nearly surrounded by water. The terrace is curved like the bow of a ship; the kitchen’s coffered ceiling bears a similarly angled arch, walls jut in several directions cruise-ship style, and a round window mimics a porthole in a marbled bath.  But Neal’s mementos are the antithesis of kitschy souvenirs. Works of art, architectural remnants and rare examples of native craftsmanship are strategically placed for maximum impact.

“During years of travel I have been influenced by Asian design,” Neal says, “and frequently I use artifacts from Bali and India to make my contemporary interiors more interesting.” For his own condo, Neal intersperses objects found on trips overseas with works purchased at high-level auctions and from a Sarasota client’s collection. “He’s since passed away, and I don’t remember his first name because I always addressed him as Mr. Sarna,” Neil explains. “But he made his fortune importing bells from India that were sold to department stores across the country under the trade name the Bells of Sarna; they were famous.” In his breakfast nook, for example, a bronze drum table from a Thai king’s barge dated 186 A.D. comes from Sarna’s collection.

In the entry hall, a Cambodian Buddha is juxtaposed with a whimsical contemporary console, the Asian antique an interesting counterpoint to a setting that also includes a 1940s landscape by French artist Mildred Bendall. “I bought the painting in London,” Neal explains, noting that the artist is said to have refused a proposal of marriage from Matisse’s son, Paul.

Completing the foyer vignette are a gallery-lit fragment of a column salvaged from a home in Central Java and an antique rug (in surprisingly fashion-right tones of aqua and chocolate brown) that Neal found in Tibet. “I had a tough time carrying that rug around the world, but it was worth it,” he says.

From the hall, Neal’s starkly simple dining room, with its 100-year-old Cormandel screen, comes into view. Once again, an Asian antique is used to soften straightforward contemporary design, this time a Le Corbusier table deliberately embellished only by a Steuben glass bowl. While Neal says he loves the look of Steuben (“I like the fact that it is clear and plain”), his glass collection is quite diverse.

A flower-encrusted vase (circa 1942) by Murano’s Barovier & Toso sits beside a Steuben bowl on an oversized oak coffee table. And on the living room’s white lacquer Cappellini storage unit, next to a hand-painted gazelle he toted back from Mali, Neal displays a Barovier & Toso rooster (circa 1960) along with candlesticks custom designed for him in Murano by Vetreria Toso.

The master suite holds more treasures: a 1940 Matisse monoprint signed by the artist in the plate, a sacred cow from India, a Chinese chest, a quilt made from Ikat fabric brought back from Bali, pillows covered in silk the designer purchased in India. They contrast with a natural ash bed custom made by Dakota Jackson, an Eero Saarinen womb chair from Knoll and a lamp by Jean-Michel Frank, leader of Parisian design from the 1930s until his death in 1941.   

In Neal’s combination office-guest room, a metal sculpture from the ’60s hangs over the bed. “It’s funny; I recently saw one just like it in a design magazine.” Neal says. Although the Arne Jacobsen Swan chair and Wormley bedside table come as no surprise, the steel engravings by David Roberts (circa 1846) hanging in the guest bathroom are a serendipitous delight. 

Neal says he made no changes to the residence other than to paint the walls and add glass mosaic tiles to the kitchen backsplash and master bath. “A lot of the condos in this building were bought on spec,” he says, “so I’m lucky no one lived in this one before.” And he maintains he was just as lucky that the layout worked so well with his things. With his carefully orchestrated interiors and incisively honed collections, we say, luck indeed.

Making Modern Work

Integrate styles: Neal’s comfortable and up-to-date contemporary furnishings are accented by mid-century design icons. 

Offbeat walls: Sidestep predictable white. Neal likes unusual color combinations; celadon and grayed white in the great room, loden green in the master suite.

Asian Influences: Neal spikes his contemporary interiors with Asian antiques and artifacts.

Travel memoirs: Indigenous fabrics, rugs, artifacts and artwork picked up in foreign lands personalize and soften hard-edged design.

Organic element: Neal grows orchids and places them strategically throughout the home. Their simplicity enhances the Asian Zen of his rooms.

Use restraint: Rather than fill a whole house with mid-century modern, use it sparingly for maximum impact. With clever juxtaposition, modernist pieces work with any décor.

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