Working with a Blank Tech Canvas

A move to Mahnattan gives a homeowner a chance at integrating brand new electronic systems.


Mark Schlesinger turned an unused wall in his living room into a work of art. Light fixtures positioned within a cove wash a rainbow of colors across a wall made of glass beads and covered with fabric. Photo by Scott Braman.

M.C. Hammer and Duran Duran were the icons of the music world. People were wearing their hair big and their pants as wide as a parachute. And when it came to electronics for the home, X10 products were hot. It was the 1980s, and Mark Schlesinger remembers the decade well. “I go way back to the beginnings of X10 technology,” he says. “I bought the stuff while I was a poor medical student.”

At the time, X10 technology offered electronics enthusiasts like Mark an inexpensive way to automate a home’s lights, thermostats and other appliances. Many of the products could be installed by do-it-yourselfers by simply plugging them into existing electrical outlets or wiring them into the wall like an ordinary light switch.

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As you might expect, Mark’s New Jersey home was packed with X10 gear, including a special computer program that told the lights, thermostats and security system how and when to react according to certain conditions like the time of day. It was a fairly elaborate setup for its time, so it had required the help of a professional home systems installer to get it going. Mark had turned to Tom Callahan of Sawyers Control Systems of Frenchtown, NJ, for the job.

Up with the Times
Twenty years later, the system still runs fine. But times change, and what was once the coolest way to control a house had started to feel a bit old-fashioned. “There are so many more choices these days, particularly when it comes to the types of devices you can use to control things in your house,” Mark says. “I had been using only keypads in my house, which now seems pretty rudimentary compared to today’s sleek touchscreens.”

Mark also found the absence of an audio and video distribution system troublesome. “I felt that my next system needed to be able to not only control lighting, heating and cooling, and security but also pipe music and video throughout the house.”

Fast-forward to 2003. Mark, who was now chairman of the department of anesthesiology at Hackensack University Medical Center, was eager to try city living for a change. That meant leaving his ’80s-style automation system back in his country home in New Jersey and moving into a penthouse in Manhattan. There, he and his partner, James McKee, would fuse some of the hottest technologies on the planet with a modern and sophisticated decor.

An Eye for Design
In addition to being an electronics hobbyist, Mark has always had a knack for interior design. The two avocations came in handy during the two-year renovation of the penthouse. Right off the bat, Mark knew exactly what kinds of systems he wanted for the space. But he also knew that it was the design of the dwelling — not the technology — that he wanted to showcase.

Naturally, Mark and James were inclined toward low-profile devices like plasma TVs and touchscreens. These types of components would blend in nicely with the exotic finishes and furnishings they had planned for their new pad. The only thing standing in the way was a shell of steel and concrete: The entire building was constructed of it, which would make it nearly impossible to build screens, speakers and other components into the walls and ceilings. Mark had a few clever solutions in mind, but he wanted to run them past an old friend: Tom Callahan of Sawyers Control Systems. Over the years, Mark and Tom had maintained a great working relationship. “I would continually come up with new ideas for my house,” Mark explains, “and Tom, the practical one, would convince me either to hold off until the technology matured or give me his blessing.” For this project, the two decided to construct a drop ceiling in certain areas. The space within the new ceiling would provide a conduit for wiring and a place to build in several pairs of speakers. The ceiling would even become a choice location for one of Mark and James’s plasma TVs.

“We had originally planned to mount a plasma TV to the bedroom wall,” Tom recalls. “But the interior designer wouldn’t have it.” So into the ceiling the 42 incher went. Attached to a custom-designed motorized lift, the TV swings up when it’s not in use so that it lies horizontal within a pocket that was carved out of the ceiling. Pressing a button on a portable Crestron touchscreen moves the set back into viewing position. Should Mark fall asleep with the TV on, a timer automatically shuts it off and pulls it back up into its hiding place.

Another spot where TV trickery was applied was in the dining room. Mark liked the idea of having a plasma to watch while he ate but was unsure about how it would fit in with the design. “A TV would give me some company during dinner, yet I really didn’t feel like one belonged in a dining room,” he explains. Thanks to some clever design work, a system was devised that allowed the 42-inch plasma to stay under wraps most of the time. Instead of hiding the set within the architecture, though, it was mounted to the wall behind a series of moveable frosted glass panels that shroud the TV from view and function as a beautiful piece of modern art.

One thing the plasma TVs (including a 50-inch set on the second floor) do have in common — besides all being Fujitsus — is the ability to display video in high definition. “What a difference HD has made,” Mark raves. “Everything looks so much more realistic that I almost don’t want to watch anything that’s not in high definition.”

TV in Small Slices
In addition to big-screen TVs, there are numerous miniature screens available that look nothing like TVs at all. In fact, most of the time, Mark uses these smaller units to set his apartment’s lights, temperature and whole-house music system. Right from the screen, he can select a tune from the hundreds of songs that are stored on the hard drive of his music server. Or he might go to a screen to check the outdoor temperature and then adjust the thermostat before he leaves for work. Best of all, with the touch of a finger, any of the wall-mounted touchscreens can turn into a TV. “This is one of my favorite electronic features of my apartment,” says Mark. Any source that’s available to his home’s plasmas, including cable TV, satellite TV and a DVD server, can be accessed from touchscreens in the bathroom and foyer. In the kitchen, there’s a freestanding 14-inch Sharp Aquos LCD TV that can also tap into these programs.

Back in the ’80s, Mark might have peppered his home with stacks of VCRs, satellite receivers and other video components so that each TV could play a wide assortment of media. But aesthetics rule in this abode, and that meant banishing the black boxes to a closet on the second level. In addition to the video sources, “Tom’s closet” holds AudioRequest music and video servers, a Crestron whole-house music system, an HAI home automation system and a Lutron Radio RA lighting system.

Artistry in Motion
In New Jersey, X10 technology had introduced Mark to a world of effortless lighting control. From a keypad, he could turn off every light before bedtime or let the timer inside the control system adjust the brightness of the lights automatically. He demanded the same level of convenience and simplicity for his Manhattan penthouse … and then some. The Lutron Radio RA system — which is better than Mark’s original X10 system at filtering out electrical noise — offers push-button control of every light in the home. A come home button, for example, brightens several lights so that Mark can find his way to the kitchen when he comes home late from work.

But it’s more than simple dimming and brightening that attracts Mark to lighting. “To me, lighting is the most important part of a space,” he says. “It’s an art form in and of itself.” To demonstrate the artistic aspects of light, Mark asked Tom to install the I-Color system from Color Kinetics. The fixtures, which are arranged within a cove, wash a rainbow of colored lighting over a beaded glass wall in the living room. The lights shift gradually from one color to the next, according to a program that Mark wrote himself. The effect is stunning and gives Mark an opportunity to flex his artistic muscle.

A Natural Evolution
The smart and sophisticated systems in Mark’s penthouse demonstrate a natural progression of electronics. Twenty years ago, Mark was perfectly happy with the wall-mounted keypads and analog TVs in his New Jersey residence. But eventually, touchscreens and high-definition sets started taking over. Mark’s stunning new home epitomizes the evolution. Flat-screen TVs, multitasking touchscreens and digital storage for music and movies are just a few of the trendy pieces that keep his residence on the cutting edge.

Breaking it down
Dump the DVDs – You’ll hardly find any DVDs scattered around Mark’s Manhattan apartment. That’s because the movies are stored in a Sony 400-disc DVD player. The player is linked to a VideoRequest VRQ-1 hard drive that lets Mark select a movie by looking at a list presented on the screen of any TV.

Fair-Weather Friend – It’s a simple little device, but it has made life a lot easier for Mark and his partner, James. A small sensor from HAI feeds the outdoor temperature reading to every touchscreen in the home. It’s much quicker than waiting for the weather report on TV.

In Living Color РPlain old light fixtures are pass̩. Mark uses the I-Color system from Color Kinetics to wash hues of blue, green, orange and yellow across a beaded glass wall in the living room.

Equipment list

    Home Control System

  • Crestron Pro2e processor
  • Crestron CNX BiPAD8 audio distribution controller
  • Audio & Video Sources

  • Integra 7.4 receiver/amplifier
  • Integra 8.3 DVD player Hughes HD
  • DirecTV receivers (2)
  • DirecTV HD TiVo receiver
  • AudioRequest Fusion Pro 160 digital jukebox
  • AudioRequest VRQ-1 VideoRequest video server
  • Sony 777ES 400-disc DVD player
  • Security & Climate System

  • HAI Omni Pro II system
  • HAI RC-80 communicating thermostats (4)
  • Lighting Control System

  • Lutron Chronos Radio RA B Series system
  • Lutron Radio RA switches and transmitters (34)
  • Master Bedroom

  • Custom-Made Electro-Kinetics plasma lift
  • Fujitsu 42-inch HD plasma TV
  • Crestron 2-way wireless touchscreen
  • SpeakerCraft CRS-Four speakers
  • Dining Room

  • Fujistu 42-inch HD plasma TV
  • SpeakerCraft CRS-Four speakers
  • Second Level

  • Fujitsu 50-inch HD plasma TV
  • Crestron two-way wireless touchscreen
  • SpeakerCraft CRS-Four speakers
  • SpeakerCraft in-wall subwoofer
  • Kitchen

  • Sharp 14-inch Aquos LCD TV
  • Crestron Mini-Touch wireless touchscreen
  • SpeakerCraft CRS-Four speakers
  • Foyer

  • Crestron TPS-3000L touchscreen
  • Living Room

  • Crestron TPS-2000L touchscreen
  • Color Kinetics IColor LCD lighting system
  • SpeakerCraft CRS-Four speakers
  • Master Bathroom

  • Crestron TPS-3000L touchscreen
  • SpeakerCraft MT Four speakers
  • Deck

  • Klipsch SA-1 outdoor speakers (3 pairs)
  • HAI outdoor temperature sensor

Electronics Design and Installation
Sawyers Control Systems Inc.
Frenchtown, NJ

General contractor
Glen Luppino

Ed Manna
Technology on Demand
Yorktown Heights, NY


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