This story originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.


When Warner Johnson moved to New York after college, he rented an apartment in the West Village, attracted by the neighborhood’s charm and proximity to his job on Wall Street. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, after returning from a stay in Paris, that he began to consider living in uptown. Intrigued by its rich architectural heritage, he began to explore Harlem, the textured brownstone streets of Queen Anne, Gothic Revival churches and Palladian civic buildings. He decided to visit the Graham Court Apartments after reading a newspaper article about the building’s history.

The majestic entrance to the house.

The 1901 Clinton & Russell-designed monument, commissioned by William Waldorf Astor, occupies a full city block on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, sometimes called the Park Avenue of Harlem because of the tree-lined median that divides the wide artery. With an impressive central courtyard and a majestic doorway wide enough for a horse and carriage to pass through, the building is a monument to the region’s past prosperity.

When Johnson first visited the 3,000 square foot space that would become his own, Graham Court’s Beaux-Arts facade was still majestic, but much of its interior had fallen into disrepair. Chocolate-brown paint coated the Cuban mahogany paneling in the dining room, and the oak doors in the lobby were swathed in an almost dull yellow. The white oak parquet floor needed updating and an old carpet covered the marble mosaic floor of the foyer. But it turns out that Johnson, now the president of an internet company, loves scruffy chic.

Take a tour of a historic Harlem residence

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Johnson has always had a soft spot for scrapes and moths, and he’s collected furniture suited to that taste over the past 20 years. “I love orphans,” he says of a sofa with springs sticking out when he bought it. “They should be authentic, but something should be a little off. Just because a part is worn out doesn’t mean you throw it away. This reflects a comfort of life.

“Something should be a little off. Just because a part is worn out doesn’t mean you throw it away. This reflects a comfort of life.

His own comfort of life translates into a permanent state of slight disarray. Rugs from Morocco and Turkey and a zebra skin from South Africa, treasures collected during his travels, lie haphazardly rather than in the center of the room. A worn matador’s jacket hangs from a sconce in the master bedroom, where 19th-century studies of the peoples of Central and West Africa are placed askew on the wall. “I don’t treat things delicately,” Johnson says. “I’m not too good at getting out of coasters.” It’s part of growing up in North Carolina, he explains. “My grandmother’s house was a mix of mahogany pieces, old rocker or country chairs, a hodgepodge of things on the dresser.”

Johnson calls the look “Miss Havisham meets Harlem”. In the living room, Déco armchairs in faded fringed burgundy velvet face an immaculate pair of Directoire chairs upholstered in wheat-colored linen as part of Operation Fortification, as he refers to his upholstery campaign. “In the South, money was not so important, but still there was a set of manners, a way of behaving,” he says. “There was a pride in being African American that was reflected in the homes. There was a dignity for them. Then in Paris, I saw how they mix and match.

bedroom

The master bedroom features paintings from flea markets and a bedspread by Simrane in Paris.

To unify his pie collection and present his classic, ethnic and eccentric finds in an informal, personal and tasteful way, Johnson enlisted interior designer Edward Cabot, a longtime friend who also owns an apartment in Graham. Short. One of Cabot’s suggestions was to paint each piece a different bold color, and the designer and client traveled to London to select dove gray, Delft blue, Beijing yellow and other rich Georgian hues. The variety, from the olive green living room to the midnight blue billiard room, tones down some of the wear and tear on the furniture and accentuates the architectural details like the cove ceiling moldings. “Edward understands me and knows how to put things into context,” Johnson says. “My style is very casual, but if you try to tie me down, be careful, I’ll change.”