color-&-design

Mural, Mural on the Wall, Which is the Largest and Most Inventive of All?

In 2015, designers Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker were shown a 35,000-square-foot, dirty gray concrete wall that would be the view from one-fifth of the more than 1000 apartments in “The Max | 606W57,” a development being built on 57th Street near the West Side Highway. The site was a former parking garage adjacent to the New York City Department of Sanitation’s truck depot.

The real estate developers Tom and Fred Elghanayan, founders of TF Cornerstone, knew they had to beautify the view to command luxury rents. They turned to Karlssonwilker for this deceptively simple, yet incredibly complex challenge.

Over the next five years, the designers—whose client list includes an international roster of museums and other design-forward organizations—figured out how to transform the wall into a dreamy cloudscape with winged creatures flying above, a little tsunami and the city skyline below, and poetry throughout. Now, each apartment that faces the wall has a remarkable and unique view. If a unit faces the street or the Hudson River, the tenants can enjoy the mural from the building’s courtyard garden, gym, or hotel-like gathering spaces. Nonresidents can view it from across the street, where this formerly desolate part of town—home to auto showrooms and repair shops as well as the Department of Sanitation—has transformed itself to serve residents with upscale coffee shops, a Pilates studio, a preschool, even a pet daycare center.

Apartment windows frame the art and the garden (photographed in March 2024,
before the leafing out and first blooms).
Creatures fly over poetry.

All this took time to come about. Karlssonwilker submitted design proposals that featured fields of grass, meadows of flowers, and verdant forests. There was a lengthy exploration of robots that would scale the walls, shoot paint, and change the vista with every 100-foot climb and descent. At first, the developers felt the $2 per square foot cost to get the robots in motion was reasonable. Still, complications ranged from potential insurance liability to the need for approvals from the Public Design Commission, the Community Board, and the Department of Sanitation, whose wall it technically is. “Ideas are not always bought by the client,” explained Karlsson, “but we keep working until an idea we love is loved by the client, too.”

A page from TF Cornerstone’s approval documents. © TF Cornerstone
The site under construction. ©TF Cornerstone.

The designer-client discussion soon turned to this: What would be there if the wall didn’t exist? Well, there would be sky, clouds, water … and the NYC skyline—a view one would never tire of. And the color scheme? It needed to be soothing, offensive to no one, pleasurable to all.

View from the street through the building to the south wall. What would it look like if the wall wasn’t there? This photo contains the answer.
Heavenly finger? To some, this section is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. ©Karlssonwilker, Inc.
A skyline circles the foot of the mural. Buildings owned by TF Cornerstone are highlighted with texture.

I recently had the pleasure of joining Karlssonwilker partners Hjalti Karlsson and Vera Yuan at the property and taking a tour led by TF Cornerstone principal and SVP Zoe Elghanayan. Every client meeting should be like theirs: a relaxed discussion, a look at the past and the future, and an analysis, in this case, taking in views of the mural from apartments on different floors and discussing such issues as where to extend the mural and in what year the paint might need a touchup.

Left: Client meeting in an apartment kitchen. L-R: Hjalti Karlsson, Zoe Elghanayan, Vera Yuan. Right: The meeting continues in the garden space between the building and the wall.

View from the garden.

When the four of us sat down to chat, my first question was, “How did you meet?” Elghanayan’s response: “Through a referral.” It’s a truism that the most exciting projects come to designers not by waiting for the right clients to discover them, not by cold-calling, and not by falling for email pitches promising lists of fabulous prospects, but by referral.

As it happened, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, had commissioned Karlssonwilker to design an anniversary book for the organization she previously led, Creative Time. The designers invented what they called the Real-Time Recording Machine, which, driven around Manhattan on a glass-walled truck, captured snapshots of sounds, colors, and people’s comments that were applied to individual covers so that each book, like the works of the artists Creative Time champions, was a unique work of art in itself.

TF Cornerstone realized that if Karlssonwilker could come up with that, they could devise something equally original and valuable for them. They were the only design firm consulted.

“Karlssonwilker has been a pleasure to work with, and I don’t feel that way about everyone,” Elghanayan said with a smile. She is especially keen on the poetry. Tucked into the mural’s composition are 16 poems, six in the public domain, including works by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman, and ten written especially for the project by mambers of the Poetry Society of New York. “We collaborated with the Poetry Society to choose local poets to write up to 200 words that celebrate New York neighborhoods and their history and architecture,” Karlsson explained.

“I’m a big fan of image and text combinations in art,” Elghanayan pointed out. At TFC, we’re so inspired by the city, and the poetry adds an important dimension. It’s a story wall. I was so proud to bring the local poets here for a tour,” she added, pointing out how the art program throughout the interior of the building continues the theme of image and text. “In many ways, the mural enhances and supports the art program,” she said. “It also enhances TFC’s reputation for going the extra mile to enhance the quality of life for residents.”

“Storytelling has been an ongoing motif in Karlssonwilker’s” work, Yuan noted. “Without the poems, it wouldn’t be the same wall.”

View with poem.

“Hand-painting the Trade Gothic typeface was challenging,” Karlsson recalled, but we worked through it on-site with the painters.”

If the design process was lengthy, the painting process was speedy. A rigging was set up. The outlines of the mural were printed in vertical strips. Holes were popped through the outline and transferred to the wall with charcoal. A team of painters from Artfx Murals, responsible for some of the most spectacular outdoor murals around New York City, worked on it at full tilt for four weeks straight.

Mural time-lapse, ©Karlssonwilker, Inc.

Every major design project begs answers to questions like: What has it accomplished for the client’s business? Has it helped raise the company’s profile or revenues and made it easier to accomplish its goals? Has it inspired others to pull off a similar sleight of hand?

“The mural has helped reduce the amount of turnover in units that would have been facing a blank wall,” Elghanayan said. “Feedback during apartment tours has been positive. In fact, bad weather appears to increase how well the mural is received, which speaks to its success as an extension of reality. Karlssonwilker accomplished a phenomenal design feat that can’t be easily copied,” she emphasized, “and if someone tried, I imagine it wouldn’t be as successful. Also, given the grand scale of the wall, I don’t think too many others would take on the beautification challenge that we did.”

If you’d like to see more of “The Mural at the Max,” visit karlssonwilker.com or drop by 606 West 57th Street and take a look for yourself. (And, on a hot summer day, swing by Karlssonwilker’s studio in Ridgewood, Queens, and get some very special ice cream.)

Header photo and additional photos in story provided by author.

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