A designer’s home is both her calling card and her workshop, but the most important thing, at least to Delia Kenza Brennen, is that it feel like home — a place where she, her husband, and their two daughters can be comfortable. This was especially important at their Clinton Hill townhouse, a property that has been in her family going back several generations.
But if you’re conjuring images of reclaimed wood, farmhouse chic or bric-a-brac-laden bookshelves, stop now. Brennen’s home is very much a minimalist showpiece, with an elegant black-and-white aesthetic and striking sculptures created by her husband, Júlio Leitão, an artist and choreographer who founded the Batoto Yetu dance company.
“I can’t take too much stuff,” Brennen says on a recent afternoon. She is sitting at her long black dining table on which there is nary an object, stray or otherwise. “If there was stuff on the table now, that would bother me.”
Behind her is the home’s immaculate kitchen, which has a sleek black island, white matte cabinets and, in lieu of the two smaller, original windows, a large glass door leading to a deck and backyard. Even the kitchen’s working fireplace — one of several in the house — is spotless, owing to a tiny stove that the couple installed in the hearth to keep ash and debris from polluting the house.
While minimalist, the house’s design is far from stark or stoic. Instead an atmosphere of inventive fun pervades. Take, for example, the murals in the entry and upstairs hall by the Ugandan artist Moosh. Brennen saw his work when visiting the office of a friend and decided it would be the perfect solution to their blank walls. Other playful touches include Bertjan Pot’s Random Light pendant fixture for Moooi in the living room, a merino wool Rasta pouf by Arcade Avec, and LEGO art by South African artist Faatimah Mohamed-Luke.
Even as a child growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Brennen’s preference for a clutter-free space was clear. While her mother was fond of tchotchkes and prints, her bedroom “was always very neat, very minimal.” “My siblings would keep their rooms messy and they would want to come and watch TV in mine,” she says.
While this may have been an early indication that there were rewards to be reaped in the design sphere, Brennen ended up going to law school and becoming an attorney.
Even so, her true passion managed to permeate. “I remember when I started law school, I went to buy a couch — it was seafoam green velvet. I was so proud. No more futons,” she says, adding that she’s never regretted leaving behind the law to pursue a full-time design career. Now an interior designer with Homepolish, she does wish she still had that couch, though.
Brennan is a deliberate buyer of things. Unlike many who recoil at clutter, she does not subscribe to the Marie Kondo mentality, constantly sifting out possessions that no longer suit her. If she picks something, it’s because she really likes it. And she’s going to keep it for a while.
“I get kind of attached. When it comes to changing things up, I might take two pillows off the couch, but that’s about the extent of it,” she says. When she and her family moved out of their house in Harlem, she reupholstered their orange and brown couch in gray velvet. It fits perfectly in the front window of their current townhouse, which they moved into two years ago after an extensive renovation.
Their timing was lucky. After a decade in their Harlem house — located on the very quaint and historic Sylvan Terrace — they were ready for a change when Brennen’s aunt, who had lived in the Clinton Hill townhouse for decades, decided she no longer wanted to be in New York City year round. They remodeled the garden level into a one-bedroom apartment where she stays when she comes to the city.
During the years the couple lived on Sylvan Terrace, they’d done a number of design-build projects, so they came to their new home with a strong skill set. Still, the house needed substantial work: new plumbing, electrical and air conditioning. The staircase also had to be rebuilt — a project that Leitão took on, topping the banister post with a bust from Angola, where he grew up.
He also redid the entire house’s floors, after they realized the parquet had been stripped so thin over the years it couldn’t hold up to another refinishing. Leitão took out every individual bit of parquet in the house, nail by nail, and shopped around to get a really nice price on the white oak. Then he laid the floors and finished them using a process that replicates the appearance of shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique that preserves wood by charring it. Reluctant to take a torch to the floors, he found a less high-risk method of scorching the wood chemically by soaking it with vinegar infused with steel wool.
This saved what Brennen estimates to be tens of thousands of dollars. It also embodies their personal design philosophy: finding creative, savvy solutions to what can be expensive challenges. Another was using wooden hooks from CB2 for door handles, an idea Brennen came up with after not finding any traditional handles she liked.
She does not, however, endorse bargain hunting if it means buying a lesser substitute you’ll be unhappy with. “When you’re in design, wait for whatever you really, really want,” she warns. “Except if you have kids. Because they destroy everything.”
The couple preserved as many of the house’s original details as they could, including the ornate plaster ceilings in the living and dining rooms. They even went so far as to remove the molding that framed the kitchen windows and reattach it as a trim around the glass door.
But some changes felt necessary. Among them, adding a half bathroom on the parlor floor and more than doubling the width of the narrow skylight at the top of the stairs to bring more light into the house. They also raised the ceilings on the top floor and added another bathroom to the level they share with the girls, Luena, 12, and Zeza, 9.
For now, at least, the girls prefer to share a room, Brennen says (Luena has dibs on the guest room upstairs should she ever want to claim it). But they don’t have to share a sink, since their bathroom is outfitted with two, as is the master bath.
The master bathroom’s walls are covered in square white dimensional tile with a subtle raised diagonal motif — a pleasing contrast to the bedroom’s matte black walls. While the choice is a bold one, Brennen decided it was worth trying. She’d had success previously painting a wall in their Harlem house with chalkboard paint.
“My husband thought it would look awful, but it came out great,” says Brennen, adding that he eventually admitted the choice was inspired, though he was similarly dubious of her decision to paint their bedroom black. (Apparently, he’s come around to that, too.)
By now, they’ve learned to trust one another’s aesthetic impulses. And, as both their livelihoods are creative, they respect each other’s need to live in a space that delights and inspires them. For Leitão, that means being surrounded by photographs of his dance company and the enormous masks, costumes and sculptures he makes. His top-floor office is as exuberant as the rest of the house is restrained.
“One of the reasons we picked up here for his office was that I won’t harass him about all the stuff,” Brennen says, opening a closet to reveal papers and art materials. “Downstairs is my favorite space and this is his favorite space.”
Their daughters, whom she hopes will someday inherit the house, are comfortable everywhere.
“The house belonged to my aunt and my cousin before her and my cousin before her,” Brennen says. “It will be my children’s house and hopefully their children’s.”
[Photos by David A. Land | Styling by Liz Maclennan]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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