Location: Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn, New York
My home is a 600-sq. ft. parlor floor apartment in a mid-1800s townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. It has two bedrooms—I use one as an office—and a spacious, newly renovated backyard. I actually was raised in the upstairs duplex apartment (my family has since moved away), and two years ago, after 14 years of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I moved into this former rental unit. Taped to the inside of my office door is a tattered, Dr. Seuss growth chart: an artifact from my childhood bedroom that had been two floors above.
I should say that, going into this project, I didn’t really know much about formal interior design, beyond having some intuitive sense of décor and a loose vision of the feeling I wanted each room to evoke. “Mid-century” meant nothing to me, for instance. I had never heard of Room & Board, and I didn’t know that French leather club chairs—or for that matter, taxidermy—were a thing.
So I started from scratch. Weekend after weekend, for more than a year, I hunted New York City’s furniture and lighting stores and browsed websites, looking for what I loved. I also met a few furniture makers through my social circles, and when it became clear that I couldn’t find an existing item in stores, we discussed ideas, swapped sketches. When does it occur to you that you’ve become truly obsessed? How about when you find yourself one morning on a Finnish sauna supply website, choosing between different types of wood sauna buckets to use as a trash bin—a trash bin!—for your New York bathroom.
To begin with, I knew that I wanted each room to evoke a different era and setting—to have a kind of transporting quality. I also wanted these spaces to appear clutter-free and serene. As inspiration, I drew on my exposure to foreign cultures, as a traveler and journalist, and also, of course, my imagination. The framed photos I have on my wall—of places such as Cairo, Burma, Laos, Tajikistan—are all images that I shot while on assignment for the New York Times or other publications. The tribal weavings and assorted artifacts I’ve collected all conjure different travel experiences, as well. In this way, I wanted my decor to reflect back to me my own life story.
The bedroom, for example, calls to (my) mind a South Asian colonial hotel room. It didn't concern me to be exact or authentic, but a few items do anchor the look: woven bamboo ceiling fan blades; a wood lattice wall panel; an antique RCA radio lacquered with scenes of China, which had been holed up my parents’ closet for years.
In the office, I wanted to capitalize on the exposed brick wall and evoke some 1950s-era Explorer’s Club, decorated with tribal artifacts and rugs and fossils that I’ve collected abroad. There are also items like a 1936 globe and much older map of Brooklyn, an old painting of two Bedouin children, and a tattered, anti-smoking public health poster that I got from a schoolteacher’s home in Laos. I worked with a Brooklyn taxidermist on a small piece of two sparrows in conversation on a branch, for my mantle. And I couldn’t find a desk that had both the gravitas of an “executive desk” and the smart, modern features of a “computer desk”—so after I met a Woodstock, NY wood worker at a New Year’s Eve party, we came up with something one-of-a-kind. He was inspired by the mid-century maker Italian Carlo Mollino, and the design has ingenious, curved legs and nifty features like a secret back cabinet to hide peripherals and wires.
I decided that I wanted the bathroom to contain items that paid tribute to “bath culture” around the world—like Turkish towels, which I confess became mostly decorative after I discovered that Turkish towels aren’t very absorbent. There’s also that birch sauna bucket for the trash bin, and a vintage, copper hammam soap carrier I found on Etsy. On a recessed shelf above the sink, I've displayed a trio of colorful chewing tobacco tins I got from a vendor in Bangladesh. On the wall over the toilet—mainly to be whimsical, but also as a kind of art—I’ve framed the fronts and back of five foreign banknotes, depicting the faces of past dictators and landmarks of their countries. (I turned to eBay for these.)
On the kitchen walls, I hung some of the vintage advertising signs that I had collected when I was 14, and found old tea tins—that depicted “exotic” foreign tea plantations—for my loose leaf teas.
The living/dining room took the longest. Initially, I was inspired by an imagined notion—nothing by the book—of what a home in 1950s Havana might have looked like: plantations shutters, leather chair, a tropical plant, rum. Or maybe 1970s—anyway. I had to turn to a shutter-maker in Georgia, because apparently they’re hard to find off-the-shelf. I had inherited a painting of the presidential palace in Haiti—close enough to Cuba, right? There’s a small, Poul Cadovius mid-century cabinet I use for a bar, and this cool Minka Air fan circulating overhead.
Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with French club chairs, and became obsessed with the distinctively curved, “moustache back” designs; it took many months to find the perfect brown chestnut color and clean condition, sitting in a dealer’s warehouse in California. The dining table, meanwhile, was inspired by a BDDW design; I met an actor from “Homeland” who also happens to be a furniture maker, and he found and planed this elegant slab of black walnut. And I found the shapely brass legs in a Williamsburg store. The pendant lights I got from the Beacon, NY glass studio sale of Niche Modern
The garden—that’s another story. It was an overgrown tangle when I moved in, half cement and broken bluestone. A friend and I conceived of a design that had three distinctive spaces, and made use of that old retaining wall, concealing in its cracks a hose that cascades water down the face of the stones, like a mountain spring.
I’m proud of how all of these pieces come together as a whole, resulting in a look that’s neither a set piece nor a haphazard jumble. But ultimately, I’m most pleased with the feelings that each space in the apartment evoke for me. Sometimes, I’ll just stand at the entrance to a room, stopping to admire the way the light is streaming, or the still mood—the serenity—of that moment. All of those hours of hunting were worth it.
• Interested in sharing your home with Apartment Therapy? Contact the editors through our House Tour & House Call Submission Form.