From the October/November 2011 Issue:

Entertaining Ways

    Writer: Meg Fox | Photographer: Peter Rymwid | Design: Carisa Mahnken Design Guild |

Obstacles Become assets in a cleverly designed basement inspired by vintage finds

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enlarge | Adjustable pulley lights fitted with reproduction Edison bulbs create a warm, moody glow. Designer Carisa Mahnken used once imposing iron lally columns to her advantage. Framed in mahogany with custom corbels they now delineate the seating areas and echo the fine details of the antique bar.
When a Far Hills family decided to finish their lower level, their directives were to “create a space that didn’t feel like a basement,” designer Carisa Mahnken recalls. The couple—who enjoy entertaining—envisioned a fun atmosphere for small and large gatherings apart from the rest of the house. “I didn’t want to replicate the spaces they had on other levels,” says Mahnken, principal of Carisa Mahnken Design Guild, a full-service design/build firm in Mountain Lakes. Instead they wanted to create unique areas that would function as entertainment space or that would be intimate enough for frequent use by the family alone.

The idea for an Irish pub came from the homeowners—complete with a large bar and a commercial-inspired restroom. They also envisioned space for their teenage children to hang out separate from the adults. And because everyone in the household plays an instrument, a stage would be the perfect venue for practicing and performing.

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enlarge | The circa 1890s bar, modified slightly to fit alongside the back wall at right, was a staple piece that inspired the whole room, Mahnken says. Original 3/8-inch thick glass doors have a William Morris vine motif. Ice-box hinges and meticulous carving details are among the features replicated on the newly built mahogany cabinetry and adjacent bar, which houses a sink, wine refrigerator, party size ice-maker and other modern amenities.
Space Plan Challenges
Like most unfinished basements, this one was alive with the sounds of mechanical equipment and was crawling with metal support beams, gas lines, and HVAC ducting that divided the space in challenging ways. “Many of the details of the project — including copper tray ceilings, the fireplace, the stage, and the barrel-vault hallway — were designed to disguise the mechanicals,” Mahnken says. “In the end, those workarounds turned out to be our favorite features.” Built-in seating made the most of a quirky corner in the teen room, for instance, while a low-hanging ceiling inspired an arched niche in the bathroom.

One lone window drove the placement of the teen zone, an area that would benefit most from daylight use. Designed to be funky and durable but still fit with the commercial feel of the pub, a tin ceiling provides access to mechanicals while distressed black laminate floors withstand the likes of spilled nail polish and markers. Built-ins provide a craft surface for messy projects and storage for supplies. The diner bench, purchased from a restaurant supply house and upgraded with metallic faux leather, “provides the ideal hangout space, complete with a jukebox and reproduction Navy chairs,” she says.

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enlarge | Low-hanging mechanicals inspired the barrel vaulted-ceiling in the wine and cigar tasting room. A mix of stonework produces an aged effect along with plastered walls and distressed built-in cabinetry. Because the terra-cotta flooring looked too perfect, it was distressed with two coats of walnut brown stain, which the contractor wiped on and off in increments. Mahnken commis­sioned the center floor medallion from an artisan in Turkey.
Pulling it Together
The rest of the areas—bar, connoisseur room, bathroom, stage and exercise space—“were fitted like puzzle pieces” within the constraints of the mechanicals, Mahnken says. The idea for the connoisseur room (wine tasting/cigar room) came later in the space-planning stage. “We realized it would be nice to create a more intimate space” where you could get away from a large party, smoke a cigar, talk business or entertain a few friends, Mahnken says. There low-hanging mechanicals inspired the idea for the barrel-vault ceiling, a feature that preserves as much height as possible while setting the stage for the cozy area. Exterior-quality French doors and heavy-duty fresh air ventilation keep the smoke from filtering into other spaces. That and the designer’s selection of less smoke-absorbing materials: stone cladding, leather seating and hammered copper countertops. Custom cabinets conceal a built-in humidor and a television.

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enlarge | “The homeowners all play instruments,” so everyone enjoys practicing or performing on stage, Mahnken says. Beyond the curtain is a karaoke system, lyrics screen and sound-system equipment. Traditional stage lights change colors and keep the focus on budding rock stars. Open millwork details are designed to preserve the acoustics. The decorative screen, cello bench, stool and assorted accessories are antique. When the antique bar was modified, millworkers used leftover wood to construct the dartboard cabinet at left of stage.
Spirit of Authenticity
While the homeowners wanted an Irish pub atmosphere, they wanted it to be elegant and authentic rather than contrived. As a result, Mahnken reached out to her network of salvage dealers for historically inspired finds. Among the discoveries was a bar that German immigrants made in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1890s. As the story goes the bar was brought by barge to a Hoboken establishment where it served patrons for generations. Now it brings its own sense of history to the Far Hills home, where it was lovingly restored and slightly retrofitted to fit along a back wall.

“The great part about using salvage is that something unexpected can come back from those searches and inspire the whole room,” Mahnken says. The new built-in cabinetry and adjacent sit-down bar, for instance, echo the old bar’s original carvings and ice-box hinges. And “iron lally columns, now sheathed in mahogany and decorated with custom corbels,” match the details of the vintage bar and define the seating areas around it, she says. Any leftover pieces from the retrofit were used to construct a dartboard cabinet in the billiards room.

“The homeowners have great taste and appreciate uniqueness,” Mahnken says, so the commercial-inspired bathroom —like the bar—evolved around antique finds and the details they inspired. According to Mahnken, the circa 1905 his-and-her swinging stall doors were recovered from a former junior high school in Atlantic City. The leaded-glass entry door, transom window and closet doors were salvaged from local buildings and restored. Quartersawn oak trimwork was milled and distressed to complement the doors. As a nod to the Irish pub, “the custom mosaic floor and wall borders reference a subtle Celtic motif and comprise six shades of marble,” Mahnken says. Subway tile, exposed plumbing and a Calcutta marble washstand all contribute to the room’s commercial look.

Among the basement’s special touches are those you can’t see, Mahnken says. Features such as specialty-foam insulation, ventilation, humidity control, and sound and water proofing systems used in its construction. Such qualities “ensure that the space doesn’t have a basement feel” and make it every bit as comfortable as the rest of the house, she adds.


SOURCES Overall: design/build firm, Carisa Mahnken Design Guild (CMDG) in Mountain Lakes; general contractor, Next Generation Homes Inc. in Far Hills; cabinetry and millwork, Noble Woodworks Inc. in Staten Island. Bar: circa 1890s bar against wall, CMDG; reproduction bar, cabinetry and millwork, Noble Woodworks Inc.; copper tin ceiling, American Tin Ceiling Co. in Bradenton, Florida; sofa, lighting, and copper firescreen, CMDG; vintage coat rack, Bonny Neiman Antiques in Summit; bar stools, Hancock and Moore through Nobel Rugs & Home in East Hanover; area rug, The Rug Importer in East Hanover; appliances, Karl’s Appliance in Caldwell; fireplace tile surround, Motawi Tile through Imaginative Design Center in Bedminster; wall color, basecoat paint above chair rail, Benjamin Moore Wilmington Tan (HC34) with custom glaze; wall covering below chair rail (Anaglypta) with custom glaze, John Marrett Decorative Finishes in Mendham. Billiards Room: antique pool table, Blatt Billiards in New York City; billiards chairs, spool chair and pool rack, Greenbaum Interiors in Morristown and Paterson; lighting, CMDG, custom dartboard cabinet, Noble Woodworks Inc. Stage: drapes, vintage cello bench, stool and accessories, CMDG; guitars, homeowners’ collection; paint, Benjamin Moore Peal Green (HC-121) with a custom glaze. Connoisseur Room: cabinetry, Noble Woodworks Inc.; plasterwork, John Marrett Decorative Finishes; coffee table, Greenbaum Interiors; copper counters and leather chairs, CMDG; reclaimed terra-cotta tile floors, Mediterranean Tile & Marble in Fairfield. Teen Space: laminate floor, Pergo from Lowe’s; tin ceiling, American Tin Ceiling Co.; vintage table base, aluminum chairs and custom diner bench, CMDG; lounge chairs, homeowners’ with new casters from Home Depot; painting, Bonny Neiman Antiques; stool, Sears, reupholstered with metallic faux leather from Kravet; recycled rubber cork board and assorted accessories,; stainless steel counter and drawer units, IKEA; blackboard panels, Staples; wall paint above chair rail, Wilmington Tan (HC-34), paint below chair rail, Dartsmouth Green (691), chalkboard paint, all by Benjamin Moore. Barrel-vault hallway: plasterwork finish, John Marrett Decorative Finishes; floor tile, Mediterranean Tile & Marble; lighting, CMDG; Bathroom: custom marble countertop and tile, Mediterranean Tile & Marble; stalls, circa 1905 through Recycling the Past in Barnegat; millwork, Noble Woodworks Inc.; assorted vintage items (leaded glass entry door, transom window, closet door, settee, painting), CMDG; urinals, Kohler; light fixtures and sink base, Restoration Hardware; wall color, Benjamin Moore Great Barrington Green (HC-122); ceiling paint, Benjamin Moore Wilmington Tan (HC-34).

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