When our upstairs neighbors moved into the top floor of our brownstone in the 1960s—long before we got here—they filled the space with mid-century gems, like Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs, Knoll tables, and a Nakashima piece or two. Then, for 50 years, they didn’t change a thing. They lived there into their 90s, then died there, within six weeks of each other.
We all know homes like this: snapshots in time, museum dioramas. Perhaps the most famous one of all was the American painter and heiress Huguette Clark’s Fifth Avenue apartment, which was decorated with her collection of dolls and formal furnishings in 1915, and left untouched until 2012. Shortly after she died, the apartment was purchased by a financier who, naturally, gut-renovated it.
In homes like this, we’re supposed to admire the vintage style and cherish the nostalgic charm. I do feel some of that, but I can’t help being preoccupied with the residents’ resolve to sink into the comforts of the familiar rather than pursue new experiences and change—to avoid evolving. Is their inertia unspoken acceptance that they’re on a slow glide path to the end?
Pretty dark for a story about renovating my apartment, isn’t it? I’m just warming up!
From Our Shop
On the other hand, gut renovations also make me suspicious. Even though I will happily scroll through almost any internet slideshow of a home transformation and watch Fixer Upper on repeat with my kids, I do often shudder about the waste involved in wiping out the old for the new. And then I wonder: “Is that it? Now that everything is just so, are they doomed to inertia, too?!”
Renovating is complicated, fraught, and reflects our deepest emotional entanglements—which is why I love it.
My husband, Tad, and I have spent the past 20-plus years renovating and re-renovating our Brooklyn apartment, a journey that’s been challenging, at times infuriating, always expensive, and each time absolutely life-affirming. Let me show you what I mean.
2002-2003: Marriage & a New Apartment Renovation
We moved into our apartment in 2002, three months before we got married. The previous owners had gut-renovated the space, doing critical structural work to the floors, walls, and appliances. They also added a lot of cherry wood. A lot.
We are taught by design mags and social media that it’s best to renovate all at once. So you can “get it right.” But anyone who renovates, partially or fully, knows that you never get it right. There are always lessons you learn, mistakes you have to live with, and ways you promise yourself to do it better next time.
For Tad and me, every renovation has forced us to get to know each other better. Tad likes pleasing spaces, but doesn’t yearn to create them. During our first few years together, he found my continual yearning for improvement borderline alarming: What now? But as our list of projects grew, and as he began to weigh in on the process and to feel invested in the results, the renovations came to seem less like a sneak attack on his peace and quiet and more like a joint strategy to upgrade our home life. I may take the lead, but now he’s right there with me.
Over the years, we’ve formulated an approach to renovation that I believe creates a space that’s both comforting in its familiarity yet ever-changing. Tad and I improve things as we can afford to, and our style and the details evolve as we go. I like to believe it’s the right way to live. Real-life budget limitations have, of course, had some impact on this view.
I believe in renovation: in preserving the good; in weeding out the old, the rotted, the shamefully dated; and in personalizing your space and pushing yourself to make it change along with you. I don’t want to come home to just a past us—but a past, present, and future us. As I learned the hard way, this takes time and persistence to pull off. A knack for home design is thought of as something that you’re born with. But everything good and everything intensely “you” takes time and iterative work.
For our V1 effort, we added some walls, loads of bookshelves, and we stripped out or painted over as much cherry wood as we could. I embraced my Sister Parish moment with florals, and in a move that continues to mystify me, we had a giant Knole-style sofa made and covered in expensive pink and green Brunschwig & Fils fabric. I love strong Pucci- and Marimekko-like prints but would never wear them—not sure why I thought our furnishings should. I remember the day the sofa arrived in our empty living room. It was a true elephant in the room, only I couldn’t make this one invisible. We’d live with this for nearly a decade before I sold it on eBay to an odd, but friendly man who collected Knole sofas in his father’s mansion on Long Island.
After these initial design choices went awry, I started to see that making fewer rushed decisions and maintaining a flow of smaller, well-considered changes would be better. We were still buying furniture willy-nilly and some of it was great, but there were a few regrettable purchases that linger to this day. It has taken Tad a bit longer to warm up to this approach. In his family, you buy furniture and it’s kept for 187 years until it falls apart—at which point it’s moved to the attic.
2006: The Nesting Renovation
When it comes to renovating, you’ll never hear me say, “I just want to get it over with.” Yes, renovations take a while, are often delayed, and are always more expensive than you’d planned for. But you’re getting to fix up your house! And the more you do them, the more you understand just why they take so long. Plus, if renovations went quickly and smoothly, you might not appreciate the results as much.
Just before our kids were born, we launched into a small renovation that involved adding a pantry to our kitchen, a nursing chair that I copied from a friend’s house, and expensive-yet-drab curtains for the living room. We also painted Tad’s study an aggressive red, and somehow we ended up with another pink sofa that lived in our den, which would soon become our kids’ rooms.
The pantry addition has proven a godsend, even though I foolishly opted for custom-made drawer pulls that I’ve had to re-epoxy to the drawers countless times; the nursing chair has become a favorite reading spot for our kids and has since been given new life via reupholstery. But the rest was mostly a wash. In another period of my life, I might have indulged in self-flagellation over this, but with two babies in the house, there was no time.
Besides, age and big life events like having children have a way of sharpening your sense of self. I started to listen more to who I am and less to what I thought I should be. There were objects now that we’d lived with for years, that I cared about, that brought me joy. I understood that I wanted a home that toned down the noise and chaos of our busy careers and city lives. So I began to let these priorities guide our design, rather than what was “in” at the moment.
2013: The Excavation Renovation
When we could no longer stand the curtains (turns out we’re not curtain people!) and had scraped enough money together to make a few changes, I asked a friend with a house superbly designed by Rita Konig for suggestions on who could help me pull our domestic life together.
She introduced us to Lithe Sebesta, who architected our next upgrade. Lithe, who was just getting into design professionally at the time, was a master distiller. She wasn’t interested in mowing down what we’d created. She treated our apartment more as an excavation—a furnishings Kondo, pre-Kondo. She uncovered the rugs worth keeping and we dug out art from storage, preserving the good and wishing the bad well as we set it on the curb.
She saw beauty in Tad’s grandfather’s early-20th-century mahogany dining set, which was dark and shiny and not particularly stylish. Lithe had the chairs sanded down so they became much lighter, the color of a hazelnut, and suddenly they looked Danish. We upholstered the chairs in suiting fabric, which we sourced in the Garment District. It was cheap, plentiful, and sturdy. She re-hung our art, freshened up our antiques with modern lighting, and when we eventually got to the kitchen, she convinced us to keep the cherry wood cabinetry and dark, shiny marble countertops—though she did have us paint the cabinets and sand the marble to an appealingly matte finish. We had a tight budget, but the resurfacings and color changes, which allowed these warring styles to finally work together, felt like such meaningful upgrades.
Each renovation has left me feeling more gratified and appreciative. Yes, having our home torn up and living with the dust and inconvenience is annoying, but this is part of the work. Why should home improvement be handed to you on a platter? The discomfort of the process adds to the satisfaction of the finished project. And it reminds me that I’m alive and still evolving.
For our mini kitchen reno, we removed some of the detailing wood from the cabinet doors, which simplified them, and then painted them an off white. The cabinet interiors were painted a dusty plum, to act as a backdrop to our many dishes, bakeware, and glassware. The countertop was sanded down, which chilled out its heavy veining, and rather than re-tile the backsplash, which we couldn’t afford to do, Lithe came up with a clever way to cover the existing tile with a more muted, modern surface. The last touch was to switch out the brushed steel hardware with polished nickel. I wrote about this reno in more detail here.
After this project, I started to see our belongings differently. There were good possessions—ones that brought to mind happy memories, not just regrets. Weeding out and toning down returned me to a sense of calm that I found in the home design favored by my parents, who liked wood, textured fabrics, and neutral tones.
In the dining set that once made me cringe, I finally saw something that felt more like us, more personal—and I could value its significance in our family. My father-in-law, then well into his 80s, used to play under that table as a child in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Seventy years later, our twins had played underneath it, too.
A French iron campaign (or military) bed, reupholstered in a pale, pale lilac, gave me newly warm memories of our early married years, when we’d visit a favorite antiques store that had relative bargains. After getting rid of the horrid pink and green sofa, Lithe helped me reconceive and design a new low-profile, solid grey sofa.
We got a lot of great work done, but stopped midway. Lithe got busy with other projects, and I got busy with work. Plus, we had maxed out our budget.
2015-2018: The Tying-It-All-Together Renovation
A few years later, our bathrooms were in desperate need of renovation.
After we worked with Float Studio to design the Food52 office, I asked Nina Etnier, one of Float’s founders, if she could help us with the bathrooms and “finishing off a few rooms.”
With every previous project, we never felt we’d fully completed it. We needed to learn how to close on a project: how to tie together the loose ends, to make the final calls, to stop averting our eyes from the areas that felt disconnected and forlorn. Nina taught us this and much more.
Even though we worked through three discrete projects over the three years—two bathroom renovations, plus the final stylistic threading together of all of the rooms—we were able to maintain a cohesive style book of colors and textures. While we bought lots of tile, paint, hardware, and fabrics, we ordered very little furniture because we had pretty much everything we needed (it was simply in the wrong places and in need of rearranging to create nooks and vignettes).
Here’s what we did and how it all turned out:
For the kids’ bathroom, we salvaged an old sink from Tad’s family house in Wainscott, New York. It’s more than 100 years old. The Kohler fixtures are new but have a vintage look. Even though it’s a small space, we decided to mix the tiles to layer in pattern and shape, and we kept it mostly neutral except for a pop of color that we added to a cheap wood-framed medicine cabinet that we found online. The photos are of Tad’s family through the ages. The wall tile is from Mission Stone & Tile Co. I’m pretty sure I got the floor tile off of Amazon. The sconces are Cedar & Moss.
Meanwhile, out of the blue, a relative sent us this painting (in a box, very little cushioning; see above) and we decided to design this space around it. The Nakashima chair was a gift from our upstairs neighbors’ children after our neighbors passed away. The prayer box was a find from early in our marriage. The lucite table is CB2. The wallpaper is Grey’s Anatomy in “Miso” by Abnormals Anonymous.
After years of dealing with a moldy, falling-apart bathroom, this room makes me so happy—it’s now bright and minimal and mold-free! We salvaged the sinks from our old bathroom, and re-faced the built-in cabinet that was here when we moved in 17 years earlier, then had it shop-painted so it would be sturdy. The pulls come from Schoolhouse (a company we’d eventually acquire!). The mirrored medicine cabinets are Pottery Barn, the large slate floor tiles (which you can’t see) are from a Float client who no longer wanted them, and the rest of the tile comes from Mission Stone & Tile Co.
This room above has had so many lives. It started as my study—I wrote The Essential New York Times Cookbook in here—and later it became our baby room, stuffed with two cribs and a dresser. Now it was our kids’ art room and “my stuff” room. The walls were covered in woven grass wallpaper. We painted right over the wallpaper with Farrow & Ball Castle Grey. The Herman Miller chest of drawers was my first real vintage purchase when I lived alone. The landscape print is from Minted; we created a framed section of magnetized wallpaper for our kids to hang their artwork.
We finally invested in sanding the dining room table top, now calmed down to a soothing matte finish, to match the chairs, which we recovered after the suiting fabric wore out. The nursing chair was also recovered with a kelp-colored velvet fabric and paired with an appropriately sized side table.
At last, we got a grown-up bed! (It was on sale at Restoration Hardware.) We hate arranging pillows so Nina encouraged us to get this simple bolster (see below). We recovered Tad’s family’s bench in an amber rust. The Aerin reading lamps make it cozy at night; the ceiling fixture is a brilliant bargain from IKEA, designed by Ilse Crawford. It’s illuminated with a gold-dipped bulb, which casts the light upward into a Spirograph-like design on the ceiling in the evenings.
In the living room, we recovered the window seats, bought a rug from Armadillo, added new pillows throughout (many from Rebecca Atwood), and painted the room in Farrow & Ball Dimity. The sofa side table is a find from my favorite antiques store, Sage Street Antiques, in Sag Harbor. The brass table and white lamp are from Schoolhouse Electric. The rest are pieces we’ve had.
Shortly after our kids were born, we moved them into this room below, where at first there were cribs, and then IKEA toddler beds with an Eiffel Tower wall decal, and lastly, IKEA bunk beds. We found a vintage dresser, made them a gallery wall, and recovered an old family chair with a modern Rebecca Atwood fabric, none of which interested them much. Kids like to decorate on their own, as I later learned.
One of the most important decisions we made and a material investment that’s much more subtle than, say, a lamp or a newly painted room, was replacing all of our door hardware. Previously, it had all been brushed stainless (it came with the apartment). We opted for an oil-rubbed bronze that had heft and classic lines (see below). People may not notice the design or the color, but when you turn a doorknob in our apartment, there’s a feeling of stability and heritage, like you get when you open a door in an old library or university building. They make me happy every day.
The culminating (and most maritally challenging) move was talking Tad into changing the stressful (my word, not his) color of his study from red to blue.
Before, Tad’s study was red on red on red. Farrow & Ball’s absorbing Hague Blue grounded the room and allowed us to be more playful with the remaining reds. We added rust-colored bolsters to the sofa to pick up on shades in the rug, had a small pillow made for the side chair, and focused the rest of our energies on lighting, arranging books and objects, framing the art we already had, and hanging it in a way that brought the room to life.
Three years later, the bathrooms were done, and every room in our apartment had been touched in some way—through painting, reupholstering, art hanging, and new pillows.
2019: Pondering the Next Renovation
I no longer felt like our apartment had a mix of appealing vignettes and sad corners. It felt like a pulled-together adult home. (Finally adulting in my 40s—hooray!) We enjoyed it immensely for a few years, but eventually, new projects presented themselves. Once the pandemic hit, our twins (now teens) needed separate rooms. I needed my study back. It was time for a new fixture in the hall and a replacement fixture in our bathroom (it broke).
As soon as I have a moment, I’m going to make a photo wall dedicated to my family—it will lack Egyptian pyramids and dogs and summer houses, but will capture the groovy, middle-class, ’70s vibe I grew up with. In this mode of continuous renovation, I’ve come to realize—happily—that you’re not always responding to the latest development or need but sometimes you’re reaching back into your past to bring it forward, to broaden the story of who you are.
With the reality of our kids heading off to college a year from now, Tad and I decided to further assert that we’re still living, still growing, still expressing ourselves on this earth. We recently bought a house across the country, in southern California, where we can work from during the cold winter months in Brooklyn. It needs a top-to-bottom renovation, but if I know anything about myself at this point, I doubt that will happen in one go.