When the über-wealthy want dramatic living spaces, they call design guru Tony Ingrao C’78.
By Christopher Hann
Tony Ingrao steps into the bathroom of the 4,800-square-foot penthouse he’s designing atop Manhattan’s most celebrated new apartment building, known simply by its address, 15 Central Park West. Although the apartment is still a construction site—exposed studs and electrical wires abound—the bathroom alone is larger than many New York City apartments. But that’s not the room’s only distinguishing feature. Ingrao points to where the bathtub will be installed and tells Bryan Brown, an architect from his design firm, that he wants the tub to retain its place in the room. It’s easy to see why. After all, not every bathtub comes with a 49th-floor panorama of Central Park.
As Ingrao and Brown go from room to room, they have much to discuss. In the library, they sort through dozens of samples of glass, trying to decide which will work best with the lighting that Ingrao has planned. In the dining room, they envision the polished-chrome ceiling dome that’s designed to reflect ambient light onto the table below. (“Let’s hope it works,” Ingrao says with a laugh.) Then there’s the art. The apartment’s owner, hedge-fund CEO Dan Och, one of the wealthiest men in America, possesses a collection of contemporary art by modern masters. For Ingrao, the art poses its own design dilemma. “The architecture has to respect the art,” he says. “It does give you some restraints because the art has to be unobstructed. But you also have to make it seem residential, not like you’re in a museum.”
In the more than three decades since he left Drew with a degree in economics, Ingrao has built his reputation on bold designs for bold-face clients. Mayer Rus, the design and culture editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine and the former design editor of House & Garden, describes Ingrao’s work as “operatic.” His office on East 64th Street, where Ingrao Inc. employs 26 people, is a four-story townhouse with white marble floors. Ingrao lives a few blocks away with his partner in life and in business, Randy Kemper, a former fashion designer who is now the creative director of Ingrao Inc. Their Fifth Avenue apartment has its own view of the park—it’s directly across from 15 Central Park West—as well as Ingrao’s own collection of art, which includes pieces by Picasso, Warhol and Rauschenberg. Weekends find them in East Hampton, on Long Island, where they keep a home once featured in House & Garden. Ingrao designed the five-acre landscape, shipping in more than 1,000 trees. “It’s kind of fun to play God,” he says.
Ingrao, who is 55, has designed homes for Goldie Hawn, Kim Cattrall and Howard Stern. He’s worked for two old-school football families, the Maras (owners of the New York Giants) and the Rooneys (owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers). For footwear maven Marc Fisher he renovated a 19,000-square-foot stone house in Greenwich, Conn. In 2002 his über-contemporary redesign of the Sutton Place penthouse owned by the hedge-fund honcho Richard Perry merited a 10-page spread in Vogue.
This afternoon Ingrao is meeting with Jack Welch, the retired CEO of General Electric, for whom Ingrao is designing a 4,500-square-foot addition to Welch’s 4,500-square-foot apartment on Lexington Avenue. Three other clients canceled appointments today, unwilling to schlep into the city in the lousy weather. “But not Jack,” Ingrao says. “He won’t cancel. He wants to order his sofas.”
Ingrao has been called a chameleon of a designer, able to create or renovate in styles from rustic to classic to contemporary. But he doesn’t exactly buy the tag. If he designs in many directions, he says, it’s because he’s immersed himself in the history of design as far back as his college days, when he spent his junior year in Europe. “I have a pretty strong knowledge of every period that ever existed,” Ingrao says. “I’m not the right guy to hire if you’re looking for something you can see down the street.”
Ingrao’s college experience in Europe—fall in London, spring in Brussels—proved pivotal to his career. Growing up in suburban New York, he visited the continent with his parents, but this time around he consumed it—the museums, the bookstores, the history. “I became engrossed in understanding how everything happened,” he says, “and that led to an interest in historical design.”
After graduating, Ingrao earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He spent the 1980s living in Paris, buying and selling European furniture. “I had a lot to learn as far as the construction techniques and understanding the society that it was made for and how styles changed,” he says. By 2006 his collection had grown so voluminous that he unloaded more than $5 million worth at a Sotheby’s auction.
Rus believes that Ingrao’s expertise in antiques distinguishes his designs. “He wants things that have genuine presence,” Rus says. “There’s a confidence about the interiors, about the disposition of individual objects and artworks. Tony has an ability to see a space, understand it in three dimensions and inhabit it with things that really bring it to life.”
With piercing blue eyes and black hair slicked neatly back, Ingrao brings to mind the late actor Richard Burton, circa Liz Taylor. Today he’s dressed in a black shirt and trim black pants, a black belt with an oversize silver belt buckle, a double-breasted black raincoat, and low-cut black boots. It’s a look he pulls off with ease. Paul Boren C’78, a Drew classmate who now works on national security for the U.S. Department of Defense, recalls that even as an undergrad in Madison, Ingrao could pull off any look with ease. “I could wear jeans and a T-shirt and look like I was from Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike,” Boren wrote in an email. “Tony could wear jeans and a T-shirt and look like he’s from the cover of GQ.”
In 2008 Ingrao received Drew’s Alumni Achievement Award. At a ceremony honoring the recipients, he was introduced by Nikki Shomer C’78. “He was so sophisticated—more exposed, more erudite and cultured,” says Shomer, who spent the same semester in London as Ingrao. “I have had screamingly fun times with him. He’s very playful and the best dancer in the world. It’s just that he doesn’t make a scene of himself.”
After lunch at Amaranth, a favorite Upper East Side bistro, Ingrao and Kemper are southbound on Fifth Avenue, Kemper at the wheel of a black Range Rover. At the office of Jonas, a high-end upholsterer on West 18th Street, Jack and Suzy Welch greet them like old friends, which, in a sense, they are. Ingrao designed the gardens of their home on Nantucket, Mass., and did interior design work at their home in Palm Beach, Fla. The four of them are led into a showroom filled with several hundred styles of armchairs, sofas, dining chairs, love seats and chaise lounges, all covered in white muslin. It looks like a showroom you might find in heaven.
At GE, Welch, who’s now 75, was once called Neutron Jack for having slashed tens of thousands of jobs while leading the company to record profits. In the Jonas showroom, he does not disappoint.
Eyeing a sofa, Welch blurts, “That back is terrible.”
Suzy: “It’s traditional.”
Jack: “I don’t know what you call it. We’re not going to be that low. I’ll never get my ass out of it.”
Suzy (pointing to another sofa): “That’s too rigid. I want a looser-looking … something not so boxy.”
Jack: “This is more like it.” (He sits.) “This is very nice.”
Suzy: “Not at all. This is what you see in your doctor’s waiting room.”
When Jack peppers Ingrao with questions about the firmness of this pillow or the depth of that cushion, Ingrao, ever solicitous, happily obliges. When Jack asks about prices, a showroom employee tells him the price is based on the length of the sofa. “So when these guys are screwing around with the back and arms and sides,” Jack says, nodding toward Ingrao and Kemper, “it’s not adding cost for me?”
The employee grins. “No.”
And so it goes for the next hour, until Jack and Suzy Welch have picked out three sofas and two chairs. Outside the showroom they’re all smiles—Jack extending handshakes, Suzy trading kisses on cheeks—before they slip into the back seat of a waiting black Escalade and are driven away. Two more happy customers.
Walking back to the Range Rover, Ingrao offers a wry smile. He’s seen the Jack Welch routine before. “He’s an actor,” Ingrao says. “He loves to be in the middle of it all.”
And it doesn’t seem such a stretch to believe that Ingrao loves it too.