Lithgow Osborne’s Funky East Village Flat

This story originally appeared in the February/March 1994 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.


Lithgow Osborne lives in lower Manhattan on the west side of Avenue B, just north of Tompkins Square, also known as Revolution Square, above a shop that vaguely claims to sell “sandwiches” but which, at least by ten o’clock, is on this particular morning, is permanently closed. The area is commonly known as Alphabet City, but Mr. Osborne does not like this designation and prefers to call his area the Far Village.

Something has gone wrong with the sci-fi device that, like so many buildings in New York, would have allowed Mr. Osborne to let his guests in without having to go downstairs. He then opens the door with his own two hands. His manner is friendly and his appearance casual.

A great-uncle bought this large floral painting during a Grand Tour of Europe. It languished in Osborne’s grandmother’s attic until she took it out and added her own accents. In front of it a 17th-century Dutch terrine, a papier-mâché vase by Paul LeRoy Gehres.

The narrow, unobtrusive staircase gives a bit of an idea of ​​what his apartment will look like. It turns out to be what realtors used to call ‘bijou’, or what mere mortals would call ‘tiny’, an impression made even more so by the fact that a ton of photographers are there with all their usual paraphernalia. A few steps from the front door leads to the kitchen, whose window looks down in grace on an approach to a garden. Because here we return – via a dining area that could seat four people with great ingenuity – to the living room. It is slightly larger, with two windows overlooking the avenue. The curtains are closed and I imagine this is their more or less fixed position.

As we sit comfortably and talk, our tranquility is shattered by a photographer who, wanting more light on the stage, changes all this. The curtains are drawn, like miniature theater curtains, instead of parting as in the homes of the less demanding. Mr Osborne glances down the street for a moment and gives a restrained exclamation of disgust: “Acch!” he shouts. “The real world!” He says he once thought about moving — presumably to a more civilized part of Manhattan — but has now given the idea more thought.

funky

Scenes from the neighbourhood, in 1994.

He has made a wise decision: his apartment is charming. The wall separating his living room from the next house is masonry painted the color of straw, and the furniture is a more muted shade, the color of hay. I use these comparisons on purpose because, as Mr Osborne explained, the overall effect, while never unkind, is a bit rustic. When I tell him that the room looks like an illustration to a Beatrix Potter story, he says he takes the comment as a compliment. It’s meant to be. The only sign of urban modernity is a radiator under one of the windows.

Mr Osborne is such a gracious host that, as we talk, he shows not the slightest concern about what the photographers in another part of his domain are up to, although they are well known to vandal as some sort of upmarket.

bedroom

Osborne’s cousins ​​gave him the early 19th-century bed. Cherubs are from costume designer Sarah Edwards. The lamp belonged to great-grandfather Endicott Peabody, headmaster and founder of Groton. Above that is an Adrian Milton.

The other front room is the bedroom. It is predominantly white and the bed has a canopy with a crochet fringe, which makes Mrs. Tiggywinkle effect further enhanced. Behind this room is a small library that Mr Osborne calls his office. This completes our tour of the property, except for the bathroom, in which the bath and sink are painted iron, to which I am quite used, but must be almost unknown to anyone born in the porcelain age. It’s impossible to wonder how Mr. Osborne squeezes himself into such a small tub. Unlike his habitat, he is by no means bijou; in fact he is as big and willowy as a tree, and he manages to move from room to small room with effortless grace.

In addition to providing the tenant with a refuge from the stress of the city, the apartment is to some extent also a sanctuary from the past. As he accompanies me here and there, elite names fall like soft rain from Mr Osborne’s lips. These include the Sedgwicks of whom most Lower East Siders only know the ill-fated Edie. In the corner of the living room is a bust of the first Lithgow Osborne, the American ambassador to Norway during the ‘Second War’. This effigy of him was made by a Danish lady. While she was working on it, she and her nanny fell in love. They married and became the grandparents of the present Mr Osborne. Mr Osborne is what used to be called well connected. In the bedroom hangs a small pastel color of a country house owned by his family and framed pictures of relatives hang everywhere.

living room

A bust of Grandfather Lithgow by Grandmother Lillie; a painting by Stephen Tashjian. On the mantelpiece a sign of Cousin Penelope Tree.

His taste in photographs is eclectic to say the least. Among them is a small blue photographic print from an exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery at 57e Street. It was produced through an extremely elaborate process by Mr David McDermott and Mr Peter McGough. These two now famous artists live even deeper in the past than Mr. Osborne, and further from the heart of Manhattan. They have a house on Avenue C. That’s about as far as you can go: I don’t think anyone has ever gone beyond Avenue D, or at least come back to tell the story.

Although a self-proclaimed interior decorator, Mr Osborne has managed to avoid the pitfall that undoes so many members of his profession. He did not aim for a dazzling effect. On the contrary, the general impression that his apartment gives is a controlled, cozy disorder. He says he shares this confined space with someone else – you wonder how. On the other hand, he constantly renames the function of the different rooms. They seemed just right to me, but I know interior designers are forever shifting, regrouping, and re-evaluating their prized possessions anyway.

I feel that Mr Osborne’s way of life represents style at its best. He has found a way to cleverly put together the objects that appeal to him, so that, however great their diversity, they form an idiosyncratic but never bizarre backdrop for a peaceful existence.

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