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Originally published Monday, November 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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House of mirrors and fog

On Location: A couple turns an 1880s house in San Francisco into a personal museum of art and design.

The New York Times

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SAN FRANCISCO — Walking through the cool-toned modern home of Henry Urbach and Stephen Hartman, a visitor quickly learns that there was no design decision made — no stick of furniture purchased, no knickknack admitted inside — without being subjected to serious scrutiny.

You admire the soft gray walls and are told that the various tones of gray were chosen because they matched the shades of fog the couple encountered one day while walking near Point Reyes Station, Calif.

That design stenciled on the fireplace is nice, you say to make conversation, only to discover that it was inspired by the trees across the street in Buena Vista Park. A tattoo artist etched it right onto the blackened steel.

"The arabesque of foliage stenciled into the fireplace extends the motif of the adjacent custom banquette and disperses across the hearth like wisps of smoke," Urbach clarifies. "The pattern references the dense, almost feral trees across the street."

Urbach, 49, until recently the curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and his spouse, Hartman, 52, a psychoanalyst, have approached the design of their home as if it were a conceptual art exhibit for two.

The apartment's many mirrors aren't for checking for stray nose hairs.

They "complicate spatial relationships," Urbach says.

And closets aren't a place for stashing old college sweaters.

They "exaggerate and attenuate the relationship between displaying and storing things," he tells you.

What about the apartment's most whimsical element, a white porcelain urinal hanging on a wall nowhere near a stadium men's room?

It's a sculpture by artist Alex Schweder that they hung near the kitchen to "disturb the conventions of domestic living," Urbach says. "It sounds maybe a little heady, and it was, but it also wasn't. We played with these ideas. It's part of how we enjoy being home."

The couple bought the second-floor apartment in a hilly neighborhood they had long admired just south of Haight-Ashbury, along with a detached studio, for $950,000 in 2006, shortly after moving here from New York. Over the next five years, they worked with Douglas Burnham, a local architect, and spent another $140,000 to transform the interior of the 1880s house.

Cheery yellow walls became gray and white, and a space-hogging fireplace was replaced with a smaller, sleeker model. A floor-to-ceiling storage compartment was added to the living room, cleverly engineered with a pivoting door.

Avid collectors of art and design, the couple have filled the apartment with works by Mauro Restiffe, Tobias Wong and Ryota Aoki, along with midcentury furniture like a groovy '60s chandelier by Carlo Scarpa that hangs above the dining table.

With the great art and new layout — two bedrooms, an efficient kitchen, a small study converted from a walk-in closet, almost 1,400 square feet in total — Hartman thinks of the second-floor space as "a robust New York apartment in a green city."

He's so enthusiastic about it, he occasionally can't help interrupting Urbach.

"I have to break in for a second; am I cutting you off?" Hartman asks at one point.

"Yes," Urbach says testily. "There's a lot of information so let me do it, OK?"

The couple moved to San Francisco, after two decades in New York, when Urbach accepted the museum position. For the first year, Hartman remained back East and they commuted, until they gave in to the California lifestyle and relocated permanently.

Now they are again living and working apart much of the time. With the museum planning to close next June for 2 ½ years for an expansion, Urbach said he decided to leave the job in April 2011 to accept a position as director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. He lives on the property in New Canaan, Conn., and every few weeks he and Hartman take turns flying to the opposite coast to meet.

"Sometimes I say we have a city house and a country house," Hartman says. "They're just 6,000 miles apart."

But after five years of carefully considered nips and tucks to create the home they wanted, the couple have no plans to leave San Francisco. Just don't call what they did a renovation.

In Urbach's words, it is "a series of micro-interventions that come together as a whole that resonate with one another that give us exactly what we need."


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