Ralph & Julie’s Spacious Altbau in Berlin

published Apr 25, 2013
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(Image credit: Lydia Brotherton)

Name: Ralph Martin and Julie von Kessel, their children Lulu (7) and James (3), and Tony the cat
Location: Berlin-Kreuzberg, Germany
Size: 175 square meters/1,884 square feet
Years lived in: 2 years; rented

The story of how novelist, journalist and ex-New Yorker Ralph acquired such a spacious, classic apartment in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, with a rent that hasn’t been raised in over 20 years, is the stuff myths (and dreams) are made of. The space was earmarked for their family over ten years ago by the previous tenant, a friend and work colleague. Ralph, his wife Julie and their growing family patiently waited five years to move into the warm, multi-kulti neighborhood and their future home.

(Image credit: Lydia Brotherton)

One of the many advantages of moving into an extremely affordable Altbau Berlin apartment is that Ralph and Julie were able to devote the Euros they were saving in rent to renovating their gorgeous home. One of the few disadvantages of such an old Berlin apartment, however, is that many decades’ worth of bizarre, jerry rigged ‘improvements’ are inevitably built into the walls and layout. Following their long-awaited move, Ralph and Julie set about restoring the original details of the apartment while making the crucial changes to the floor plan and the apartment’s basic functionality that they needed for their growing family and a lifelong stay.

Despite the scale of what they undertook, the renovation process was fairly ad-hoc: Ralph and Julie drew sketches and plans, working out their own solutions to the odd original layout. Major changes included knocking out a windowed pantry and a dark, windowless bathroom to make room for a large, light-filled full bath and additional guest toilet (not pictured). They also drastically rearranged the layout of the kitchen, flipping all the appliances and worktops to the opposite wall. Other remodeling efforts included removing the lowered ceiling in the hallway to expose a beautiful latticework of copper piping, and refinishing the wide wood floorboards and parquet. The bright, glossy green in the kitchen was a last-minute but distinctive choice that jolts the elegant Altbau into the 21st century.

(Image credit: Lydia Brotherton)

The collection of furniture in the apartment was also more ad-hoc and happenstance than design. Moving in with only rugs and basic IKEA pieces, Julie and Ralph have been fortunate to inherit a range of useful (and beautiful) antiques from relatives. And as it would happen, the antiques are the perfect counterpoint to the large, airy rooms, providing visual weight to balance the all-white walls, confectionery moldings, and soaring ceilings. The combination of IKEA with high-born antiques also means that the living spaces, including the two colorful and cozy children’s bedrooms, are highly functional and none-too-precious. Indeed, with its constellation of accidentally perfect rooms, towers of children’s toys, wide French doors, and crumbling balconies, the apartment feels happily lived-in, with a modern magic in its old Old Berlin walls.

(Image credit: Lydia Brotherton)

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: IKEA meets antiques.

Inspiration: What we could afford and what we inherited.

Favorite Element: Our coffee machine (a Delonghi espresso maker) and the green kitchen floor.

Biggest Challenge: Keeping clutter at bay; integrating inherited antiques with IKEA; maintaining the minimalist furnishing of big rooms with two children.

What Friends Say: It’s big.

Biggest Embarrassment: The makeshift closet with sheet door containing our wine “collection”, vacuum and ironing board.

Proudest DIY: The green kitchen floor.

Biggest Indulgence: A fully tiled bathroom.

Best Advice: Make two bathrooms out of one.

Dream Sources: Proper design stores (like Stilwerk in Berlin).

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Resources of Note:


  • Kitchen Floor: “Alitalia Green”
  • Walls: “Reinweiss” (off-white)
  • Trim: “Signalweiss” (bright white)


  • Iron Mirror: flea market
  • Chest of drawers: inherited antique
  • Mirror above chest of drawers: inherited antique
  • Poster: C/O Gallerie Berlin


  • Chrome and glass coffee table: flea market
  • Sofa: on long-term loan from a friend
  • Orange lounge chair: IKEA
  • White leather chairs: gifts
  • Rug: a present, from an antique store on the Kurfürstendamm
  • Corner cabinet: inherited antique


  • Desk: a gift from a previous landlord who was a furniture designer
  • Desk lamp: from a Prenzlauer Berg lamp shop
  • Dining table and chairs: inherited antiques
  • Bookcases: Billy shelves from IKEA


  • Cabinetry: IKEA, professionally installed
  • Kitchen table: antique
  • Chairs: IKEA
  • Lamp shade: Exil, Berlin
  • Cabinet (below clock): inherited antique


  • Red blanket: Hudson Bay blanket, a birthday gift!
  • Wardrobe: Pax system from IKEA
  • Cabinets and bedside tables: inherited antiques
  • Single beds (in children’s rooms): IKEA
  • Bunk beds (in children’s rooms): left by the previous tenants
  • Patterned curtains: belonged to Julie growing up
  • Desk and white chest of drawers: IKEA
  • Large Wardrobe: inherited antique

Thanks, Ralph and Julie!

(Images: Lydia Brotherton)

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