An Organic, Eccentric Plant-Filled Home in Long Island City

An Organic, Eccentric Plant-Filled Home in Long Island City

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Alexis Buryk
Jul 15, 2017
(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Name: Deborah J Stein, painter, designer and owner of Bonbon Oiseau Workshop and James Knudsen, lighting director, production lighting designer and owner of Quazar Productions. (With Maxine and Icky the cats and Pablo the pup)
Location: Long Island City, New York
Size: 1,100 square feet
Years lived in: Rented 4.5 years

Like us, our homes have moods. On a sunny day, they're cheerful and bright; at night, they can be quiet and contemplative. My tour of Deb and Jim's home happened to fall on a gray Spring day, with threatening rain and a solid cloud cover; the type of day when curling up with a cup of tea on the sofa is just the thing to do.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Deb and Jim are both creatives, and their home is infused with an energy of curiosity and play. They love entertaining, and it's clear that whenever someone enters their apartment, they feel immediately welcome. Having spent time all over the US and the world, their home style fuses a sense of rootedness with the ephemeral, crafting a lush and inviting space in which to work and live.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: My (Deb's) style is part pretend botanist, part wanna-be anthropologist, and a lot of self-proclaimed and self-taught farmer. In my artwork, jewelry design and at home, I'm curious about the organic eccentricities of nature and putting colors together to see what happens. I like putting anything together to see what happens. And I love to grow things. Sometimes too many things.

All of our objects, artworks, textiles and plants (and pets and people my husband adds) grew into collections pretty organically and slowly over time. It seems like almost everything we bring home is just a series of little inspired moments—we're drawn to beautiful things or funny things or poetic or awe-inspiring things and those things become meaningful to us, like a visit to a rug maker in Mexico or Turkey or finding a painting that's falling apart in a dusty curiosity shop in India, or a swallow's nest made of horsehair from a horse ranch in New Mexico or a piece of art from a friend (that we are lucky to have lots of). These vignettes grow from bringing (sometimes lugging!) these things home and with the plants and the light and the space, it's like composing an impermanent picture. I can walk away and come back and rearrange the whole thing again and it's usually sort of beautifully fleeting, sort of like a garden. Also, I feel like it's my duty to rescue plants from IKEA.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

We were all over the map (literally) in our twenties separately and together—we moved around a lot. We didn't have much but traveled all over Southeast Asia, India and Europe for a year before settling back in New York where most of my family lives. So I love living with all the little things we've chosen to bring home from our travels or were given by friends or handed-down to us by family and the sense of movement and energy and remembrance of some sweet or great moment this creates. To me, this is what home means, so I surround myself with things that make me (and I think Jim too) feel good with the present and inspire us to do better and give us hope—there is always a lot of love and possibility here and I don't really have to spend much money for that opportunity. Some people do this with words, I do this with little tiny objects and plants.

Inspiration: This is difficult but I think it's this: I spent a few monsoon-y summers making a temporary home in an old British hill station in the Gharwal Himalayas called Mussoorie in Northern India. It's when I studied art in India in my twenties. It was this beautiful, verdant, long sprawling group of villages really, in which the lower parts of the town rolled uphill, clinging to the sides of the hills following a narrow winding road up to the top where there was a language school and a Rhododendron forest (some of the villagers thought it wasn't safe for single men to walk through the forest alone, lest the fairies in the flowers steal their hearts).

I remember walking up the steep winding hill to go to the Landour Language School at the top every day in the heavy rain. There was so many shades of super-saturated green with moss and ferns and the forest—I passed crumbling tin-roofed Victorian gray stone and white plaster cottages with old names like Ivy bank and Wolfsburn with colorful and rusty tin cans filled with plants and flowers, some nailed to the wall...plants everywhere. Some along the steps, others along the ledge of the stone wall, which were prolific there and I loved it.

I must have discovered my love of strange arrangement, asymmetry, wabi sabi, slow-living, bright Indian colors and textiles, and learned that wild plants, like violets and iris and begonias that grew in the cracks of cobblestone walls, were the ancestors of the plants we now know and love. The place was rich in history and mystique and a mix of Indian and Tibetan color, thrift and literal living on the edge—I picked up on that early and it "stuck to my heart" as they say in Hindi.

Favorite Element: The light and the old quirks of this old place are awesome as are the mantels and the sense of space! There's always a blank canvas to build on! The light in the dining room has turned out to be the greatest greenhouse/studio/meeting place I've ever lived in. We do almost everything in there: eat, talk, listen to music, paint, have friends and family over. It's where we usually end up. We love to cook and I love my kitchen and the tiny fire escape garden—our tiny patch of green in the urban landscape we live in here in LIC. I also love the living room which is more serene. I like it all actually and feel pretty lucky to live here!

Biggest Challenge: The living room is narrow, and creating breathing space AND having furniture is a trade-off sometimes—we don't have a proper coffee table for that reason but we move things around a lot so I can do yoga in there. In general, I have to pull back a lot, and often find myself decluttering more than I'd like. My natural inclination is to cover every surface and fill the place up with too many stories (!) so I have certain walls and shelves and rooms where I don't put as much stuff to give our eyes a rest. I have to keep myself from overwhelming Jim's Danish-Midwestern sensibilities ;). It sometimes feels like an exercise in decluttering and then re-cluttering. It changes constantly, which is actually a fun challenge.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

What Friends Say: We invite people over as often as we can and it's so nice to hear and see on their faces that they feel relaxed and at home here. My mom says that there's something to see everywhere, that it's like a museum with so much to look at! One friend said it's like a "wunderkammer" and that I have a Bloomsbury aesthetic. Another said they love how it's constantly evolving. An old friend from art school said, "a greenhouse, an animal shelter and a dive bar walk into an apartment…" I thought that one was pretty good.

Biggest Embarrassment: Everyone thinks I can sew, I guess because I can make jewelry, but I'm terrible at using a sewing machine. One of my best friends even gave me a sewing machine. I've taken classes and buy stacks of beautiful fabrics with pillows and skirts in mind, but I have some block where I just don't take the machine out. I keep saying I'll do it and then I think of a hundred other things to do instead.

Proudest DIY: This place was a big DIY—we moved in after the previous tenant left in a hurry after 20 years—it was kind of messed up—the floors were wrecked and there was paint splattered everywhere. The kitchen had no actual cabinets. So we asked the landlord and he let us paint the dining room floor white and we stained thick planks of pine from Home Depot for shelves in the kitchen and also sanded and painted the existing cabinets from plain mildewed wood to bright white. Over time we put up a pot rack and made more shelves.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Jim and I collaborated on an art installation for the children's tradeshow Playtime and designed glass lamps that would create an aurora effect on the walls. We asked my cousin who worked in a glass-blowing factory in Asbury Park to make the lamps for us! I've designed textiles printed with our photos on fabric—we use them in the house now and I love them…I also gold-leafed the dining room inset-set wall recently but to be honest, our whole life is a series of small DIY projects. Jim is a lighting director so he DIY's the lighting and electricity in here often.

Biggest Indulgence: We indulge mostly in travel! But when we first moved back to NYC there was shop called Jamson Whyte…we didn't have a couch for like, two years. It was our first apartment together and I went and bought an Indonesian day bed for a whopping $700 (we'd just gotten back from Indonesia)—-it was the most money I'd ever pulled out of my wallet for anything—even a car. I just kept imagining it in our future Tribeca loft instead of our 400 square foot Morningside Heights walk-up. We almost got rid of it but I'm so glad we didn't! We have coffee there in the early mornings and read or look out the window. Relatives slept on it during Hurricane Sandy, and this summer we have a young ballerina coming to stay with us, so we'll make the office room into her room by moving it in there—I'm excited to see the change!

Best Advice: Buying something directly from an artist or a maker is immensely gratifying because you will always remember that moment and the hours of hard work and love that went into that thing. Even better if it was made ethically. Inspiration taps into instinct but copying is never as much fun, just follow your heart and your style will emerge. Do whatever's funner. Perfection is overrated.

Dream Sources: ABC Carpet and Home in NYC is always an inspiration and Merci in Paris is too; Terrain for plant and garden things; I'd love for Patrick Weder to design our furniture (starting with a bed and bedside tables!); Susan Connor's pillows and textiles. Would also like to carry home artworks from McNally Jackson Picture Room and giant art books from McNally Jackson, MoMa and the whole collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon's Oak Spring botanical books. Oh and we'd love a Jielde lamp, in case anyone wants to buy one or more for us ;).

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Thanks, Deb & Jim!

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