Creative Life: Family and Community Inspire Bed Stuy’s Kai Avent-deLeon

Avent-deLeon at home. Photo by Michel Arnaud

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Minimalism gets a bad rap. When you’re talking about a home, it’s a word that connotes austerity, a lack of humor, a disinterest in comfort. In practice, though, minimalism doesn’t have to be the inverse of softness, warmth, welcome—the attributes most would agree we want in our homes. Kai Avent-deLeon’s Bed Stuy apartment is instructive: minimal but inviting, uncluttered but rich, understated but also distinctly unboring.

Avent-deLeon is a daughter of Brooklyn—granddaughter, really. Her family has called Bed Stuy home for decades; her landlord is a relative. That close relationship means that she had some input on the recent renovation of the parlor floor apartment that she shares with her partner and their one-year-old, Che. That renovation wasn’t tailored to her but geared toward the long run, the future tenant.

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The travertine table adds a contrasting texture to an interior room

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The armchairs are Avent-deLeon’s design; the painting over the credenza is her work, too

Because Avent-deLeon considers the home almost a way station. She has a way of life that’s unattached to objects or a particular design scheme, combined with a serious case of wanderlust and an entrepreneurial mind; thus, she imagines living in this particular apartment two years at the most.

Don’t worry, though: Avent-deLeon is committed to the neighborhood where she was raised. It’s where she opened her store, Sincerely, Tommy, known for its idiosyncratic mix of fashion and accessories from a wide range of emerging and independent designers (the store also sells a smattering of housewares and decorative objects). And it’s where, later this fall, she’ll open the boutique’s offshoot, a combination hostel and restaurant.

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The red dining chairs are Avent-deLeon’s design. “Those were actually made with my son in mind. I don’t think there was any reference in mind other than something that just seemed more playful.” The chair in the corner, by designer Kelly Infield, adds another irreverent note to the formal room

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The painting is by Mattea Perrotta

To an outsider, it might seem both enterprises represent an all too rare instance; Bed Stuy is one of New York’s most unpredictably evolving neighborhoods. But it has a long history of positive evolution driven by locals. “I think historically and culturally, there’s always just been this very rich history of community. I know from some of the research that I’ve done, seeing black people and this sense of ‘having our own’—it’s something that is so rare for us, and something that you cherish,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve always had this energy of being very community based and welcoming.”

Welcoming is what the parlor floors of these old brownstones were for. In this case, the space has been recontextualized for modern life and transformed into a standalone residence. The walls are white and the bedding neutral; the pier mirror is not needed to bring more light into the space, as once intended, because it already feels so bright and airy.

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The recently updated kitchen, which may have once been a butler’s pantry, mixes vintage cupboards with new counters and subway tile

There’s a sofa in the bedroom, making that space the de facto living room. A more formal sitting area lies in the interior space adjacent. Beyond is the kind of dining room where you can imagine lingering over an hours-long dinner party. The baby’s room abuts this (one of those compromises of urban living that ends up being sort of practical—you can hang out with guests but still hear the baby). A kitchen and bath are at the apartment’s rear.

“I definitely love some modern things, but I’m actually really drawn more to rustic,” says Avent-deLeon. “But I feel like if I’m moving into a brownstone, the original fixtures and hardware should always be the focal point, and you kind of have to work around that.” Thus the furniture’s clean lines and natural textures are a kind of riposte to the home’s architecture. “I chose to go with a marble dining table and the travertine coffee table because I feel like they bring some light into the space and kind of offset the heavy wood that’s in this apartment,” Avent-deLeon notes.

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“I think, growing up in New York, you just have a different sensibility about art and you kind of develop tastes at a very early age. My parents were really active and intentional about making sure I was doing a lot of different creative things. So I’ve always really been drawn to minimalism.” The works over the bed are by Rosemarie Auberson. “Lately I’ve been finding a lot of great artists through Instagram,” Avent-deLeon notes, “because you know, it’s so accessible, everyone can have a platform on there.”

Indeed, much of the decoration seems designed to leaven the effect of all that ornamental molding, from the simple sculptural forms of the objects—most collected on the owner’s travels—to the paintings on the wall, which have an understated simplicity. That there’s so little of this decoration underscores the overall impression of minimalism. It’s both an aesthetic and lifestyle. “My mom kind of just raised me that way,” says Avent-deLeon. “She never believed in having a lot of stuff—we were always doing spring cleaning, or fall cleaning… I just kind of took that with me into adulthood.” It helps, here, that her business is a store. If Avent-deLeon is ready to part with a treasured piece, it might find its way to the floor of Sincerely, Tommy.

It’s hard to articulate one’s personal style—because it is personal, and because it’s often a matter of instinct rather than hard and fast rules. “I think my taste has evolved a lot over the last five years,” Avent-deLeon says. She takes inspiration from her mother, Lisa deLeon and grandmother, Doreen DeLeon, also local entrepreneurs known for their personal style and community involvement.

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Bed Stuy entrepreneurs Kai Avent-deLeon, Lisa deLeon and Doreen deLeon

She draws a distinction between the shop—which has a very of the moment, muted sensibility—and the house. “I try to have some color and a little more fun in my apartment, but I know to a lot of people it may seem very minimal,” she adds.

That’s another thing about personal style, though; you need only suit yourself. Avent-deLeon is thinking about how to live lightly, to make a physical space for her family without being tied down and unable to travel, one of her true passions. At the same time, she’s thinking about how to live in a way that reflects the whole family, including its youngest occupant, so she’s incorporating softer textures and more color. But style is always in service of something else, or it’s meaningless. “I try to be really conscious because I look at my home as my sanctuary,” Avent-deLeon says. And that’s just what she’s made here.

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The art in the baby’s room is a barbershop sign from Africa

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A pier mirror reflects ornate doors; the neutral fabrics help balance out the effect of all the wood. The loveseat is from Maiden Home

[Photos by Michel Arnaud | Styling by Jane Creech]

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2019/20 issue of Brownstoner magazine.

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