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Collectors’ Paradise

A contemporary condo is a breathtaking canvas for a young-at-heart couple’s art.

BY March 9, 2022
Collectors Suzanne and Norman Cohn
The couple filled their condo with clever entertaining spaces and gallery-quality artwork that’s thoughtfully presented. “We are always looking for a unified fluency between home and gallery,” lead architect Cecil Baker says. “Suzanne is a master of that dance. She understands the importance of keeping the domestic elements in harmony with the art.” (Photo by Tina Sargeant)

When the elevator doors open into Suzanne and Norman Cohn’s Naples condominium, visitors find themselves in a cocoon of darkness and near-total silence. Surrounded by mirrored walls and greeted by a smiling Buddha, the outside world falls away. A thread of white light in the floor beneath your feet beckons you down a corridor, past a towering glass wine cellar lit from within to a dining table that is itself a work of art. From the dazzling, open living space surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, there are views of mangroves and the blue Gulf beyond.

Not many people in their 80s would decide to take on a major renovation, but the Cohns are not your average octogenarians. At 83 and 88, Suzanne and Norman are involved with the arts in their hometown of Philadelphia. Norman still works at the Advertising Specialty Institute, his family’s business that connects manufacturers of promotional items with companies, schools and sports teams—and he has no plans to retire. Suzanne, an active arts patron, is filled with curiosity and energy, qualities she attributes to surviving the Holocaust as a child in Poland. Her father encouraged his children to “celebrate life” instead of wallowing in sadness when they emigrated to Australia after fleeing the Nazis and spending years hidden with Christian families.

The Cohns are also no strangers to creating a grand home from scratch, having recently redesigned and renovated a penthouse apartment in Philadelphia and, before that, they spent decades renovating the circa-1909 Palladian-style mansion where they raised their five children. When work took Norman to Naples a few years back, the Cohns found themselves smitten with the city’s low-key vibe and thriving cultural scene. Suzanne’s sister and her husband had also recently retired in the area, making Naples’ pull even stronger. 

The hunt for a winter condo took years. “It would be an exaggeration to say we looked at every condo in Naples, but we certainly looked at most of them,” Norman says. A 2019 visit to the under-construction Mystique in Pelican Bay put an end to their searching. “Walking into the lobby makes my heart sing. That didn’t happen in any of the other buildings,” Suzanne says. “We wanted something unadulterated—something that would just make us feel calm and Zen-like—and we feel that way every day we walk into our building.”

Back in Philadelphia, the couple had not only recently relocated from their stately house on the Main Line to a glamorous penthouse in the city; they’d traded the ornate, antique-filled aesthetic of their previous home for an ultra-contemporary, clean-lined style. “It was an evolution of our tastes over time that took us to a pared-back look,” Suzanne says. They craved the same sleek yet eclectic style for their new Mystique condo, so they called on Philadelphia architect Cecil Baker, principal of Cecil Baker + Partners, once again. “Doing our apartment in Philadelphia affirmed that the bones are important,” Suzanne says, adding that with a pristine backdrop, “whatever you put in can have a voice of its own.”

Their priority was to capitalize on the west-facing view and floor-to-ceiling windows by opening the main living spaces. “I’m sure there are other places in the world that have as beautiful a sunset as Naples does, but none that we know,” Norman says. For Suzanne, focusing on the view was personal: “My early life was framed in darkness under floorboards and in attics. I’ve always dreamt of sunsets.” 

Baker’s firm is known for designing private residences with significant art collections, and the Cohns’ Naples condo was no exception. Equally important to the spectacular view was how the couple’s extensive collection, particularly their glass art, would be showcased. Longtime patrons of the visual arts, the Cohns wanted their home to function as a gallery. And with limited wall space thanks to those massive windows, it was essential they plan art placement from the start. “We are always looking for a unified fluency between home and gallery, so one doesn’t overpower the other,” says Baker, who wants his clients to be comfortable but also highly attuned to the art within. “Suzanne is a master of that dance,” he says. “She understands the importance of keeping the domestic elements in harmony with the art.”

Baker got to know the Cohns’ collection before drawing up plans. He and Suzanne would discuss where pieces might go in the home, but Suzanne would also surprise Baker with new acquisitions like the large ghost-like light Gweilo by Parachilna in the living room, which Baker immediately redesigned the room to accommodate. “Certain spaces went through a lot of iterations,” Suzanne says. “He designed the bones for the interior—exactly the right shape and space for the art.”

Even the furniture pieces are works of art: Suzanne called all the artisans and artists she’d collaborated with in the past to commission custom pieces for their new home. Canadian craftsman Colin Schleeh created the dining table—a honed steel design that appears as if it’s been torn down the middle—following Suzanne’s direction for something that exuded strength and fragility. For the living room, a woodworker created a bench to highlight a fabric that the couple purchased in India almost 50 years ago.

The Cohns also tasked Baker with creating an entertaining space on a grand scale. Norman and Suzanne are seasoned hosts with a deep love for food and wine. You won’t find a single conventional fork, plate or glass in the home. When the couple traveled, they would buy ceramics and glass that caught their eye. “When we began buying glass, we didn’t think of ourselves as collectors,” Suzanne says. “We were drawn to things that provided a lovely table setting. Then we began commissioning artists to make plates, goblets—that’s how it all started.” With a deep and varied collection to draw upon, Suzanne loves creating new combinations for each gathering, mixing Asian contemporary, European and American pieces.

The open marble-clad kitchen was designed with parties in mind and has a dedicated raw bar area. Norman’s extensive wine collection, which he loves to share with guests, is a piece of architecture in its own right. Even Norman’s office, with its beautiful, curving desk, was designed to double as a buffet for large parties. “Two days before, Suzanne will remind me: ‘We are going to be using this for our dessert presentation, so please get everything off of the desk,’” Norman says, referring to his wife’s penchant for turning his office into another nook for entertaining.

To highlight the art collection to its fullest, Baker called in lighting specialists who typically work in museums. “Those isolated moments where the lighting makes something special are enormously important,” he says. Lighting also doubles as art in the flat-paneled chandelier, commissioned from late German artist Ingo Maurer, that floats above the bar topped with a slab of glass by California artist John Lewis.

The Cohns’ home is infused with moments of whimsy, like a lightbulb that appears to have sprouted wings in one powder room (another work by Maurer) and an installation of kinetic insects endemic to the Gulf commissioned from Viennese studio Mischer’Traxler, whom the Cohns spotted at the most recent Art Basel in Miami. It is also peppered with personal photographs: Snapshots of their grandchildren mingle with photos of the couple posing with former and current presidents.

The renovation process was slowed by the bumps and hiccups that many homeowners experienced in the last two years, but last April, the couple finally moved into their new home. “What we did is unconventional in many ways,” Suzanne says. “But even at our age, we still dare to dream.”