House Tour: Annie | Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

I'm so pleased to share a House Tour - and Common Bond Design project - featured on Design*Sponge yesterday!

THE INHABITANT Annie, 31. Second year Obstetrics and Gynecology resident at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“I don’t like cute and I don’t like fun” were our client’s first words to us on the job. We quickly surmised that Annie, a young doctor and endurance athlete possessed of an uncommon discipline and decisiveness, would be deliberate about what objects crossed her threshold.

The Philadelphia native is very much a woman who knows what she likes.  Peek into her closet or medicine chest and you will discover a commitment to a "quality not quantity" philosophy that puts my own minimalist aspirations to shame. 


So when Annie, on the cusp of beginning residency and moving to Brooklyn, hired us three years ago, we understood that bringing in Common Bond Design was a collaboration born largely from necessity. 

Annie needed a fully functioning home in which to crash; cook healthy food as an antidote to hurried hospital take-out, eaten standing; research and prepare presentations for medical conferences; and, on all-too-rare occasions, host friends. She needed a home that would anticipate and accommodate her needs, and she needed it stat. 

But her demanding schedule at the hospital would preclude her from designing her own space, no matter how clearly defined her personal aesthetic. Her schedule was so extreme in fact, that it would even preclude the "user empathy" phase, in which we spend some time crawling into the minds of our clients to map out a design route. Out of the question too was the client-designer feedback loop that keeps us on course throughout the implementation.

Happily, Annie is one of my best friends. In place of the in-depth client consultation that typically serves to inform our design process, I was able to mine my pre-existing knowledge of Annie - a trove of intimate revelations under the influence of malbec and friendship, combined with an accidental manifest of her daily rituals, recorded in my text history (7:25 pm: "late for dinner - must fit in run first") to determine what she would require from her home.

In place of the feedback loop, we operated on trust, backstopped with a veto system - a slew of 4am texts reading, "yes!" or "nope, girl." 

THE LOCATION Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Close enough to the bridge that Annie can ride her bike to the hospital, close enough to a slate of subway lines that she doesn't have to do it in a blizzard.

THE SPACE A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom rental apartment on the top floor of a privately owned brownstone in Boerum Hill. 

The 117-year-old building boasts an exposed brick wall, cast iron radiators, original parquet floors and arched windows. Her landlords, the couple downstairs, recently modernized the kitchen with IKEA high-gloss white cabinetry. The bathroom is simple and clean, featuring an overhead skylight that beams in sunshine even in the depths of February.

Fifteen seconds after walking through the front door, Annie told the realtor, with trademark certainty, “Yes, this is the one. I’ll take this one.”   

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THE PROBLEMS and THE SOLUTIONS For all the apartment's natural charm, the project presented challenges.

Problem: The layout has quirks. The bedroom is cavernous, but the living and kitchen area is small. The food prep surface in the kitchen is smaller still.

Solution: We considered treating the large bedroom as a hybrid public and private space, with a sofa and chairs arranged opposite the bed for conversation with friends, TV watching, etc. and a desk by the window for independent study. The idea was to dedicate the other room, a significantly smaller space with a kitchen, to cooking and eating only. But Annie was adamant that we respect the public / private divide. The bedroom needed to remain a refuge from 80 work weeks. Likewise, she wanted to be able to offer friends and family their privacy when they crashed on her couch.

Her veto on the hybrid concept was also an important professional check for me. I saw the opportunity for a large dining table and imagined the elaborate dinner parties I would like to throw, if I lived there. Of course, I don't. When Annie entertains, it's not about the mealtime production - planning the menu, setting the table, timing the courses; it's about catching up with friends, with food playing a supporting role. 

To comply with her direction, the smaller room needed to multi-task: kitchen, salon, dining room and study. 

We found a vintage farmhouse table petite enough to sidle up against the radiator adjacent to the kitchen. It both supplements the countertop space and function as Annie’s desk.

When she hosts dinner parties, the table slides in front of the sofa. Her heirloom bench – typically a coffee table – is re-tasked as a dining bench. Occasional chairs are commandeered as supplementary seating around the dining table.

The sofa, a mid-century inspired design with a shape that appealed to Annie, was ordered in a one-arm version to create the illusion of more open space and more comfortably accommodate overnight guests. (Annie's family members are, like her, tall and slender folk.)

Problem: A spacious entry gobbles square footage, but offers no hidden storage. The apartment's only closet is in the bedroom.

Solution: To maximize storage space, we rimmed the walls of the entry with inexpensive hook racks from Home Depot. A handyman mitered the racks that met in the corner to imitate a custom look. Annie’s heirloom trunk become a utility closet, storing her vacuum cleaner and space-efficient cleaning supplies, like a collapsible Swiffer. 

In the kitchen, Annie soon discovered her cabinets could accommodate either dishware or pantry goods – not both. It was an easy choice to display her enviable pottery collection, much of it vintage, the rest from Chilmark Pottery on Martha's Vineyard, where Annie once worked as a farmhand.

To balance old and new, we sourced a bright white bookshelf from IKEA that also incorporated drawers for flatware and napkins. Attractive cardboard boxes on the lowest shelf store her spare collection of paper goods and mementos.

Problem: Although a few interior walls allowed for nail holes, many of the old building’s party walls were masonry. As a renter, Annie wasn’t allowed to drill holes into the masonry, limiting our options for artwork.

Solution: To skirt the restrictions on drilling into the masonry, we used washi tape to display photographs and papergoods, including two vintage anatomy charts.

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Problem: There were stylistic challenges too. Annie likes modern, she likes minimalist, she likes clean. She was committed to reflecting this aesthetic in her home, but equally committed to a sense of history and permanence.

Solution: I understood that Annie's move to Brooklyn wasn't just about convenient lodging. It was about putting down roots. 

Deeply clutter averse, Annie was clear that a feeling of home wouldn't come from knick-knacks. Only items with utility - books, ceramic storage and dishware - would be permitted as far as personal effects went. 

We imported an sense of history (an authentic one) by incorporating functional furniture pieces from Annie's childhood home. The move to Brooklyn was a homecoming 70 years in the making for Annie's wooden dresser, which belonged to her grandmother as a child.  We elected not to repair its slanted handle, declaring it a badge of honor for its three generations of service.

Blending this heirloom aesthetic with a modern, minimalist one was critical to success. We started with the family heirlooms - mainly dark wood pieces - and brought in sleeker pieces, like the mid-century modern sofa, contemporary lighting, a steel platform bed, and white bookshelves to balance the space.  

The key was to distribute the heirloom pieces evenly throughout the apartment and furnish sparsely. The color palette was kept neutral, with sporadic use of mild blues and reds.

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Problem: Then there was the budgetary challenge. Fresh out of medical school, Annie tasked us with fully outfitting a 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment for under $7,000. She brought only a mattress and her heirloom pieces: a dry chest, a trunk, a bench, a ladderback chair, dishware, a dresser, and a fussy armchair.

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The $7,000 (admittedly not an insignificant sum on its face) needed to cover big ticket items like a sofa and bed frame, as well as the accumulation of sundry, like trash bins and shoe racks, which quickly add up. It also needed to extend to labor expenses, like paying the the handyman and upholsterer. Skilled labor in New York City, alas, doesn't come cheap.

But the real challenge was this: Annie wanted to invest in high quality pieces. She was on the edge of 30 when we began the project, just beginning her career as a doctor, and - following the protracted student life that the medical profession requires - she was eager to graduate from the environmental trappings of her transient 20s.

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Solution: To help her build a collection of fine furniture pieces within her budgetary parameters, we cultivated a high-low mix, keeping in mind that her apartment was only a rental. Site-specific pieces, like bookshelves, and items that readily show wear, like bedsheets, did come from IKEA, but we steered clear of any of the super chain's instantly recognizable designs.

Other cost saving tricks include durable, well-priced cotton rugs from Dash & Albert; a collapsible canvas camp chair in the living room (a nod to Annie's love of camping and a practical option for springtime reading in the brownstone's curbside garden); a lamp from Sir Terence Conran's collection for JC Penney; a wool throw blanket and wool yardage purchased directly from the woolen mills, instead of via pricey local boutiques; using the leftover yardage from upholstering the wingback chair as a bedspread; and installing inexpensive faux wood blinds in the bedroom.

Even our "investments" were cost conscious. Annie's sofa was certainly a splurge in the context of her budget, though it's one of Design Within Reach's more affordable models. Upholstering it in Maharam's Milestone fabric also helped to keep the cost down. Before ordering an Eames Low Wire Base table, we waited for the annual Herman Miller sale. 

Each of the bigger ticket items (the sofa, platform bed and Eames side table) were selected for their flexible design - intended to accommodate Annie many years, and many homes, into the future.

For a complete budget breakdown, see the source list below.

THE SOURCE LIST

  1. Platform Bed, Room & Board - $1,099
  2. Bantam Studio Sofa, Design Within Reach - $2,200
  3. Nyponros Duvet and Shams, IKEA - $200
  4. Take! Bamboo Chair, Snow Peak - $159
  5. Metal Framed Oval Floor Mirror (Brushed Nickel)* and Ticking Stripe Shower Curtain*, West Elm - $278 
  6. Shoe Rack, Hamper, Hanging Sweater Shelf, 2" Faux Wood Blinds (x3), Bed, Bath & Beyond - $216
  7. Strapats Pedal Bin, IKEA - $9.99
  8. Farmhouse Table (vintage)*, Fork + Pencil - $295
  9. Handyman - $500
  10. Beep Table Lamp by Conran*, JC Penney - $260
  11. Peg Racks, Home Depot - $7 ea.
  12. Algot Wall-mounted Bookshelves, Cork Coasters, Storage Boxes and Wall Fasteners, IKEA - $159
  13. Eames Wire Base Low Table, DWR - $215
  14. 4x6 Woven Cotton Rug (Montana Stripe), Dash & Albert - $117
  15. 4x6 Woven Cotton Rug (Red and Taupe Stripe)*, Dash & Albert - $117
  16. 8x10 Woven Cotton Rug (Nimes Ticking), Dash & Albert - $399
  17. Taupe Tweed Throw Blanket, Maucausland Woolen Mills - $60
  18. Blue / Black Herringbone Wool, Dorr Mills Store
  19. Wingback chair re-upholstery - $1,000
  20. Iceland Photograph by Tommy Kwak
  21. Mixed Media Artwork by Tara Zabor
  22. Stag Head Fern and Macrame Plant Hanger, The Primary Essentials - $130
  23. Dishware, mix of vintage and Chilmark Pottery

* Items no longer available.