City Modern Brooklyn Home Tour

October 9, 2012 | Alex

On Sunday, my mom and I met up at the opening gong (9:45 a.m. on the dot!) for the Brooklyn portion of the City Modern Home Tours, co-sponsored by New York Magazine and Dwell. Despite the steady rain, it was an amazing day. In fact, I can't imagine a better way to spend a Sunday than poking around my neighborhood's most spectacular homes. My favorite part of the day was comparing notes with my mom at the end of the tour.

There were five houses in total-- two in Brooklyn Heights, one in Cobble Hill and two in Boerum Hill. The architects, it seemed, were always present. In some cases, the homeowners elected to be around too. And in at least one case, possibly two, the architect was the homeowner. (Note: Dwell allowed personal photographs only. Out of respect for the homeowners, I am only including photographs sourced from Dwell or the respective architects' websites. Sorry!)

Before I get into the design details, hats off to the organizers. Picking up tickets at Module-R was seamless, all of the docents couldn't have been friendlier (except for one weirdo who glared at me accusatorily when I threw out a dead fly that was languishing on a window sill. And here I thought I was being helpful) and the houses were almost impossibly tidy with beautiful, seasonally-appropriate styling-- with the exception perhaps of that one dead fly. I especially loved all the autumn floral arrangements.

The surgical booties system was handled well too. You had to either replace your shoes with surgical booties or put the booties over your shoes, depending on the preference of the homeowner. I thought this would cause major traffic jams at the door, but it really didn't! And it kept the homes pristine and dry despite the miserable weather outside. As a homeowner, I would have freaked at the thought of all these wet, muddy people trudging through my perfect home. But you know? Everyone was super nice. It was an amazingly snob-free production, considering the caliber of homes on display.

Which brings me to my reaction to these homes: WOW. Maybe it's just being 25, but I was flabbergasted to experience homes that were so extremely...perfect. There's no other word for it. When I see a home in the pages of a shelter magazine, I assume that behind-the-scenes there's a) a masterful photographer who knows how to work the light; b) a genius stylist and c) some light digital retouching. To see these homes in person, unvarnished, and conclude that they are just as mind-blowing as they would be in the pages of a magazine was a real eye opener.

We started with the Brooklyn Heights homes. As you might imagine, those were the fancy schmancy houses. Cobble and Boerum Hill were funkier, with more of a high/low mix going on. Initially, through my shell shocked awe, I had a difficult time comprehending how I was going to come away with practically applicable inspiration. While the voyeuristic element is fun, it was important to me that I leave with take-aways I could apply to my own space in order to justify the hefty price tag of the tour ticket.

On the surface, all I could think was:

"Okay, so all I need to do to have a home like this is:

  1. Buy a 7,000 square foot townhouse with turn-of-the-century architectural details;
  2. Gut it. Rebuild. Restore historical details, but with every modern convenience imaginable including, but not limited to, state-of-the-art entertainment system, surround sound in every room, central heat and air, track or recessed lighting, 3-car garage, glass cube extension, indoor gymnastics studio, professional-grade viking appliances (6 burners please!) and impeccably landscaped backyard plus vegetable garden-- all controllable from my iphone and/or brain.
  3. Sneak into MoMA and grab as many priceless works of contemporary art as I can fit in my messenger bag. Then return home to plaster my walls with pieces by Richard Serra, Roy Lichtnestein and Ellsworth Kelly.
  4. Stage similar raid on mid-century modern antiques dealer for all furniture, including for my young child's bedroom who will rapidly outgrow said furniture.

...Easy peasy! Why didn't I think of that?"

But once I got over my sour grapes at the massive amounts of cash that went into these places, the truth is, they were ripe with inspiration that's actually within reach. For example:

1. This kitchen is Ikea...sort of.

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Yup. MADE Architects used Ikea cabinetry, affixed with custom fronts and paired with counter tops made from reclaimed wood (old joists, from the looks of it.) On the opposite side of the island, the cabinetry fronts are Ikea's Stainless Steel Rubrik. You could achieve a similar look without the assistance a design professional by sourcing reclaimed cabinetry fronts for your Ikea kitchen via Semihandmade. The wall-mounted cabinets in the above photos, however, are custom. And unfortunately the Red Hook Ikea is fresh out of 6-burner Viking ranges and Liebherr sub-zero fridges. (Maybe one or two sour grapes remain...)

2. Bring the outdoors in!

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Alright, so not everyone has a glass cube extending into their backyard (or even a backyard for that matter.) But a lot of ground-level Brooklyn brownstones do have extensions. I love the way 1100 Architects mimicked the look of the outdoor tiles using indoor floor tile. Even when the doors are shut on a miserable day like yesterday, the continuous floor treatment makes this room feels very peaceful and in touch with nature.

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect 

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect 

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

I'm not suggesting that everyone run out and recreate the High Line outside their bedroom (replete with skyline views), but it did occur to me that it was no coincidence the architects chose to build these verdant spots off the master bedroom. Plants are soothing and regenerative. What better place to soak in their physical and mental health benefits than your nightly resting place? I've never been a big house plant person, but I'm seriously considering bringing a small potted plant into my bedroom. I'm lucky enough to have a lush tree growing outside my third floor window from April to October. But as temperatures drop and its leaves start to fall, I may need to get in touch with my inner green thumb.

3. Astroturf

Speaking of green living year-round, my favorite home of the day featured a raised bed vegetable garden off the kitchen. I was marveling at the perfectly cut and brilliantly green grass when the docent leaned over and whispered, "Psst. It's Astroturf!" Astroturf, I have not been fair to you. My sincerest apologies. You can look downright pastoral in the right setting.

4. Plywood

The great thing about modern design is that architects often turn to budget-friendly materials, even when budget is not a concern. The example that stood out most was the heavy use of baltic plywood in almost every one of the five homes we visited. Baltic plywood is an design industry favorite because of it's thicker-than-average sturdy ply and it's attractive grain pattern. It's a strong, inexpensive and highly versatile material. The variety of functions to which it was applied in the homes we visited on Sunday were a real testament to its versatility: kitchen cabinetry, bathroom vanities, sliding doors, wall paneling and window paneling. Robert Kahn, the architect behind the Willow Residence, even mentioned that he's currently working on a project that uses it for exterior siding. 

4. Square Glass Tile

Another budget-friendly staple that popped up in almost every house was square glass tile in bright colors. These tiny tiles come in a variety of hues and rarely exceed $4/lb. See examples from Hakatai here or just open your latest issue of Dwell and you're bound to see this tile in featured bathrooms.

5. Projector Screeens

A few of the media rooms included projector screens, in addition to TVs. While I have no doubt that their projectors are state-of-the-art, your basic projection system doesn't need to break the bank. For $300 at Best Buy, you won't get the crystal clear definition of a High-Def TV, but it's still a blast to watch a movie with popcorn and friends! 

6. Staggering Mortoised Door Hardware

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Smart! My instinct is always to align the tab pulls, but not only does that cause the metal hardware to scratch , we humans have this bizarre instinct to grab both tabs at the same time and pull out. Which jams our poor fingers. It's inexplicable, but I do it every time. And I watch my guests do it too. (So I know it's not just me!)

7. High Gloss Moulding

Unfortunately, it looks like the paint job on the Warren Street Townhouse must have been recent, because neither the architect nor Dwell have photos showing the painted walls. For me, the paint choices were the most exciting part of this house. The architecture, landscaping and furniture was nothing to sneeze at either. The owner is a mid-century modern furniture dealer, but I love that they created a funky home by mixing iconic pieces from the 50s with Ikea furniture.

Back to the walls: the wall colors were bold and deep-hued. The grey, navy, and orange stood out most in my mind. The most brilliant element of the paint job (literally brilliant) was the way they lacquered the trim. The period-style mouldings were so high-gloss you could practically see your reflection in them. While they kept all ceiling mouldings white, they painted door frames, window casement and baseboard moulding to match the walls-- except the wall color was matte and the trim lacquered. It was gorgeous. Definitely an idea to stow away for future use.

9. Matte Floor Paint

While I'm on the topic of paint ideas, the Bond Street Townhouse has wide plank wood floors that were painted in a very pale gray in a matte finish. I'm used to seeing floor paint with a slight gloss to it. The matte was a nice change of pace and probably goes a long way towards hiding scratches. 

10. Half Wall with Sliding Door

The Bond Street Townhouse's master bedroom was divided from the walk-in-closet/master bath by a half wall and laser-cut metal barn door mounted on a sliding track. The pattern on the door is a smidge girly for me, but I like the way the door divides the space and provides privacy with still maintaining open flow.

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

11. Floating Console (Bklyn Heights)

The Brooklyn Heights townhouse featured a simple and elegant entry with a floating console table under a spectacular piece of pink geometric art. The floating console was this sort of boomerang-inspired shape that came out in the middle to increase surface area, but didn't prevent the front door from opening all the wall. It felt like some kind of laminate, although you could easily recreate it with lacquered plywood. Underneath, two wide steel brackets-- painted white to disappear-- held it in place. The finishing touch was a black and white vase with a geometric print to echo the wall art.

I wish I could share the photo I took of this entry console. If you're dying to see it, contact me and I'll send you the photo I took with my iphone.

12. David Weeks Boi Sconce

Although they're not clearly visible in any of the Dwell or Robert Kahn Architect photos, I was so happy to spot David Weeks' Boi Sconce all over the Willow Residence. Here is a photo of an installation of Boi Sconces via the David Weeks Studio website:

Inspiration: David Weeks Studio

Inspiration: David Weeks Studio

This pricey little number looks just like my new Urban Outfitters Eyeball Sconces-- a steal on sale for $28 each with free shipping! The sale has since ended, but they're still a bargain at $39. (En situ shot from my bedroom coming soon to a blog near you!)

My Take: Urban Outfitters
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13.  Marbled Paper Wall Paper with Vintage Hooks

The Bond Street Residence was particularly inspiring. The wallpaper reminded me of the marble paper that's used for book linings and decorative wrapping. I loved the pairing of the wallpaper with rusty vintage hooks. Easily imitable! The flooring was also imaginative. It looked like hard-wearing utilitarian tile, but in a spontaneous pattern.

Inspiration: Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

Inspiration: Bond Street Townhouse. via MADE

My Take: Marble Paper (Dick Blick) + Vintage Hooks (TsVintageWares@Etsy)

My Take: Marble Paper (Dick Blick) + Vintage Hooks (TsVintageWares@Etsy)

14. Modern Pet Bowls

I was ashamed of Hektor's kitschy paw print bowls after spotting some svelte modern bowls at the Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill residences. Puppies need good design too! I'm going to keep my eyes open for a Dwell-worthy and budget-friendly pet bowl set.

15. Chinese Lantern Plant

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect 

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect 

Chinese Lantern Plant-- I can afford that! Phew, finally. While the grand piano, wet bar and undulating staircase may never be mine, I could certainly recreate that eye-catching arrangement. You can throw a stone in my neighborhood and hit a convenience store selling those plants in the fall.

16. Open Plan Living & Light, Bright Kitchens 

As you might expect with a modern home tour, open plan living was a guiding principle in every residence. That's no easy feat in a turn-of-the-century brownstone. Traditionally, kitchens were located on the bottom level and shut off from the main living quarters. Perfect for ensuring the servant's chatter doesn't drift up into the drawing room, I'm sure, but not ideal for a modern family. (On a related note-- who's excited for Downtown Abbey Season 3? I am!) All of the architects featured on the tour gave prime light and bright real estate to the kitchen. While this relocating your kitchen is not exactly budget friendly, it is a good reminder to think about how the members of your household use the space and decorate accordingly. (Just because the floor plan says room A is the dining room and room B is the living room, doesn't mean you can't put your dining table in room B and your sofa in room A.) It's also a good reminder to maximize natural light in the rooms in which you spend the most time. 

Warren Street Townhouse. via Resolution: 4 Architecture

Warren Street Townhouse. via Resolution: 4 Architecture

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse. via 1100 Architect

Boerum Hill Rowhouse. via Dwell

Boerum Hill Rowhouse. via Dwell

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect 

Willow Residence. via Robert Kahn Architect