The hot pink stair rail, egg-yolk-yellow radiators and cabbage rose wallpaper on the ceiling in the front hall are a dead giveaway that this is not a conventional Brooklyn Heights townhouse. “Fearless” is how one of the homeowners describes its freewheeling style. “We like what we like, and don’t care if it ‘goes,’” says her husband.
When the couple, who have three children between 18 and 22, moved to the four-story row house in 2012 after years of Chelsea loft living and a stint in Battery Park City, they brought their love of contemporary art with them. Quirky works of graphic design, sculpture, painting and collage, some bought at charity fundraisers or commissioned, cover the walls and march up the stairwell.
Their own children’s framed grade-school creations share space with larger-than-life Polaroids by renowned artist Chuck Close. Colorful acrylic-on-canvas “squiggles” by Upstate artist Josh Sperling, a six-foot-long silver tassel by Brooklyn design team Fredericks and Mae, and an aluminum foil dinosaur’s head from Land Gallery in Dumbo, a studio and gallery for artists with developmental disabilities, are among scores of eye-popping artworks hung cheek by jowl in every room, without apparent mathematical regularity.
“There are lots of holes in the walls. I’m always moving stuff around,” says the female half of the couple. “There’s a joy that comes from not worrying too much about it.”
The casual mix of furnishings includes splurges like a George Nakashima raw-edge bed and an elaborate chandelier by David Weeks as well as, as the husband puts it, pieces “from three apartments ago.” Outrageous patterned wallpapers, all from Brooklyn makers, and statement light fixtures, including a pair of oversized Italian modern pendants that cast an ambient pink glow over the kitchen, keep the funhouse vibe going.
It gets even wilder in the backyard, where a dozen large, gourd-like papier-mâché sculptures by Chiaozza, another Brooklyn-based art and design duo, varnished for outdoor use, are studded about in lieu of (ho-hum) plants. “We’re not green thumbs,” he says.
But it’s not simply “anything goes” at the home. There is an aesthetic assuredness here, born of two people with innately arty instincts. She is a former children’s book editor who is now in product development, grew up on the Jersey shore with a mother who “made headboards out of driftwood long before that was a thing” and a seminal memory of an aunt who hung a tapestry on the ceiling because she’d run out of wall space.
He, a Westchester native and now the chief financial officer of a Manhattan-based branding company, had a dad who worked on Madison Avenue and a mom who was a hobbyist photographer. She tends to lead the way in furnishing and art buying.
“I have strong opinions and can be very particular,” she says. For his part, adds the husband, “I’m colorblind and don’t care nearly as much.”
Although the nest is nearly empty, with only one of their offspring still living at home, the house’s playful decor has been largely kid-driven. “Our family is three-fifth kids,” she says. “They make up the majority, so everything has been done with them and their needs in mind.”
Nothing is too precious to bump into or spill something on, or for their tiny mutt to jump on. The wife says she has often arrived home from work to find one of her children proudly giving a house tour to a friend. “There’s so much delight in the way we live.”
When the couple began to think about leaving the rapidly changing real estate landscape of Manhattan, they considered Harlem, Riverdale and even New Orleans. “We wanted a neighborhood that couldn’t really change,” she says. Ultimately, “Brooklyn Heights called to us.”
They bought the house from a couple who had owned it for 50 years (and were told that the prior occupants had also been there half a century). It had undergone a fair amount of modernization and was in decent mechanical shape, but most details had long since been stripped away. This suited them just fine.
“It was a blank canvas,” he says. As they renovated the space to their needs with the help of Manhattan-based architects Sage and Coombe, says the wife, “We didn’t feel we were destroying anything.”
To re-create the openness of loft living, which the couple had loved, they poured their resources into a rear extension on the two lower levels, giving both the parlor and garden floors long, sweeping sight lines. Relocating the kitchen from the front parlor to the middle of the floor was the other major architectural move. Its white custom cabinetry makes for an easeful transition between the high-ceilinged front parlor, now a book-lined dining room, and the comfy glass-walled living room in the new addition.
Making the living room two steps up allowed for greater ceiling height on the floor below, an expansive space referred to as “the kids’ living room,” where there’s a pink shag rug, a purple pool table, and a freeform seating unit built into a wall. Collections on display include toy fire trucks by the dozen and an assortment of hula hoops. One flight up the art-lined stairwell from the parlor floor is the master bedroom and an orange-walled home office, while the kids’ rooms are at the top of the house.
In prioritizing the new extension, the couple put other projects on hold. They haven’t redone the floors, which remain narrow wood strips from a 20th century renovation, or the 1950s-era bathrooms. Instead, they emphasized the vintage pink and green bathroom fixtures and floor tiles with whimsical patterned wallpaper in coordinating colors.
“We couldn’t do half of what people told us the house needed,” she recalls. “I love looking at people’s homes in magazines, but more often than not, they’re perfect and unreachable. Our house is a lot of imperfect…but it doesn’t have to be perfect to be home.”
[Photos by Michel Arnaud | Styling by Jane Creech]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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