Over the last two decades, Stephen Fanuka has built up a client list that includes Tony Bennett, Lindsay Lohan, and Beyoncé; coaxed his average project price to $350,000, according to a 2008 New York Times piece (that figure has likely grown since); landed a primetime reality TV show (Million Dollar Contractor on the DIY Network, which just kicked off its third season); and published the home-repair guide What's a Homeowner to Do? with New York Times contributor Edward Lewine. In turning a modest family business—where he crafted custom cabinets with his dad—into a gig where he regularly interacts with the wealthy and/or the famous, Fanuka, who's regularly referred to as the "contractor to the stars," has made the profession of general contracting—overseeing construction sites, organizing vendors, enforcing renovation timelines—seem as glamorous as, say, architecture or interior design. Here Fanuka talks to Curbed about the difference between luxury and excess, apartments with lazy rivers, and building a bank safe in a private home.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury is excess. Some people will turn around and say excess is waste, but people are willing to pay for excess. Luxury could also mean comfort. You can take it both ways. It can be comfort and practicality, or excess. It really depends on how much is in your bank account.
What's more fun?
By far excess. Now you are getting to do things possibly for the first time. I just did a job that had a bookcase with a door behind it. The client didn't want the door to open at 90 degrees; they wanted an 180-degree turn on the bookcase. I had to custom make and engineer a hinge that had never been made before. I actually invented a $7,000 hinge just to do the job. They didn't care what it cost and for the 90-degree difference—and obviously it cost a lot.
What other crazy things have you done in the name excess?
I've seen apartments with lazy rivers. I've seen Van Goghs on the wall, then you push a button and a Monet flips around. I've seen people fly in someone from across the world just to do feng shui. That's excess.
What's the most ridiculous request you've ever had from a clieny?
I had to hire a bodyguard a cat for an entire year. The clients had no kids and she didn't want to displace the cat, so she said she needed a team to protect the 17-year-old, diabetic cat around the clock during the renovations. I had one man follow that cat all day long and that's all he did the whole year.
What about construction related?
I've done a listening room where I used bullet-proof material as the floor treatment. The room was 30-by-30 [feet] and we spent a million dollars on sound proofing, including modified electricity to actually take away sound. We probably spent about $3M on that room, and the entire furniture plan was just one chair to sit in and listen to the music.
Has anyone every spent an outrageous amount of the project's budget on one specific material?
You can spend a lot of money on stone. Bring the contractor to wherever you go to pick out material—like marble. You can fly your contractor to the mountain. You can go to the stone yard, or you can go to the actual mountain.
How far would you go for a client?
I had a client who never once asked for a proposal. I just sent him a bill at the end. As long as I was on time, I was fine. I delivered a wooly mammoth tusk and I installed bomb detectors for their mail so they could screen their mail to detect for stuff like anthrax. They had a specific wine fridge they wanted and I couldn't find it. I knew I was going to get fired because I wouldn't be done on time. We had a team calling everybody in the country—this was 15 years ago before you could find everything online. We finally found it in Canada. I had three days left and I had to get in there. I sent a guy to Canada just to hand-deliver a wine fridge. Whatever they want, they get.
Do clients often want you to build secret rooms? Like S&M rooms?
I've done a secret wine cellar. And we actually built a bank safe in someone's home behind a wall—literally a bank vault—I don't know what they were putting it in. We actually built a secret wall to hide the walk-in vault.
What are some of the biggest mistakes in the contracting world?
Colors can be a big mistake. I had a woman who was so convinced she wanted this historic color in the brown family; I said to her, "Colors can be funny. You should try it on different walls in different rooms." She didn't want to listen. I put the sample up and she liked it. I didn't, but she still wanted it. A couple of days later she calls me, saying, "You shitted all over my walls." It looked like diarrhea and she is looking at me like, "You aren't going to charge me for this, are you?" I had to repaint the fucking room another color. Colors can ruin a job. You have to educate the client.