ertain details might be expected in a Miami-area penthouse residence overlooking picturesque Biscayne Bay: floor-to-ceiling windows that offer unobstructed views of the water; expansive, eye-catching spaces in which to entertain guests; and maybe even a dash of drama–a grand staircase, perhaps, or lavish finishes befitting a luxury hotel.
This Brickell penthouse had none of the above when architect and interior designer Sandra Diaz-Velasco first set foot in the space. Instead, she found rooms with low ceilings and angled walls, all surrounding a floating metal staircase. The assortment of windows did little to emphasize the compelling vistas, and materials such as glossy black marble made the 1978 dwelling look every bit its age.
But, as the best architects can, Diaz-Velasco also saw potential for a welcoming home that would satisfy her empty-nester clients’ desire for bright open spaces highlighting the sweeping surroundings. And the first step in the right direction, she determined, would be to replace the obtrusive central stairway.
Diaz-Velasco, working with her husband, general contractor Jose Andres Velasco, had the old staircase removed, then designed a dramatic new one made of wood and stone to occupy a different location: a former hallway near the home’s main entrance. That clever decision singlehandedly opened up the layout, yielding a space with a seamlessly integrated kitchen and living area in which the homeowners and their frequent guests can easily interact. It also produced a distinct foyer–a must, Diaz-Velasco says.
“A penthouse needs to have a foyer that directs the circulation throughout the space,” she explains. “This one didn’t have a nice receiving area, so we had to create it.”
The renovation continued upstairs, where the pair reshaped the master suite as a simple linear space in which key design elements serve dual purposes. For instance, the bed’s headboard doubles as a wall for the walk-in closet. And a custom built-in separates the bedroom from the adjacent bathroom, where a frameless glass shower door functions almost as a window, allowing a glimpse toward the bay.
After relocating the stairs and eliminating a second-floor bedroom, Diaz-Velasco was also able to reorganize an upstairs guest room, fashion a second-floor laundry room and achieve a dramatic double-height dining room on the main floor. “By reclaiming that space for the dining room, we were able to create a sense of grandeur and naturally illuminate the space,” she says. “That area had been so dark, but now it’s filled with sunlight.”
To bring in even more sunshine, Velasco raised the ceilings in every room. Some now conceal an array of home technology, including a 55-inch television that can be lowered between the kitchen and the living area. “The husband loves the technology, but his wife didn’t want to see a bit of it,” Velasco says. “Hiding everything emphasizes the illusion that the living space is large.”
Toward the end of the renovation, the team was left with luminous, expansive rooms and a handful of unalterable angled walls. So they resorted to a variety of creative solutions: In the master bedroom, Diaz-Velasco reworked an awkward corner into a private balcony with a 180-degree bay view. For the living area, she found a modular sofa that gracefully hugs a window wall. And in a guest bedroom, she covered the porcelain floor with an irregularly shaped hair-on-hide rug.
The home’s angles also inspired a motif of geometric forms, including rectangular porcelain flooring throughout the residence, living area coffee tables that represent a line intersecting a circle and a dining room light fixture composed of oversize squares. “That chandelier created just the effect we were looking for,” Diaz-Velasco says. “It’s playful and huge, but it doesn’t feel massive because the squares are open.” Furnishings, meanwhile, honor the clients’ request for all-white pieces–with a few exceptions. “The homeowners love white,” Diaz-Velasco explains, “and I thought we were going to have a problem, because I’m not the ‘Miami white’ architect. I said, ‘I know you love color because your artwork is colorful. To make your art collection part of the project, we need to incorporate colors that relate to it.’ ”
As such, Diaz-Velasco drew motivation from a vibrant orange sculpture by Luis Jimenez in the dining room and a geometric painting from Mateo Manaure’s Polychrome Column series in the living area. She specified a rainbow-hued collection of area rugs, added sunny yellow accent pillows in the living area and, with the owner, commissioned artist Melissa Mason to create a colorful abstract-expressionist painting for the second-floor landing. Dark wood wall paneling, which the architect strategically incorporated throughout the residence, “makes those bright oranges, yellows and reds pop even more,” she says.
Diaz-Velasco also convinced her clients to embrace texture, like oak-veneered kitchen cabinetry, a concrete-tile staircase wall and wood-grain porcelain tile flooring on the second level. An accent wall clad in a gray natural stone veneer adds depth and interest to the living area. And in two hallways, a three-dimensional wallcovering wraps the space with texture so striking, it begs to be touched.
By logically reconfiguring the interior and working within a quiet yet high-contrast palette of light and dark neutrals, Diaz-Velasco added drama without detracting from the homeowners’ most prized possessions: fine art and waterfront views. In form, composition, color and texture, her design rivals those focal points while never daring to steal the spotlight.
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