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A Colourful Townhouse With Nods to James Turrell

By Daniel Cappello

In the lounge on the ground floor, a Flos 265 swing-arm lamp hangs above a blue wool sofa and nesting tables by Muuto.
 
Alan Tansey
In the lounge on the ground floor, a Flos 265 swing-arm lamp hangs above a blue wool sofa and nesting tables by Muuto.

After purchasing a majestic but dilapidated 19th-century brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighbourhood, a husband-and-wife couple — she a public-school art teacher and artist, he a tech venture-capital investor — set about finding an architect to revive the four-story, four-bedroom house. Built in 1899, the 3,600-square-foot landmarked building had been abandoned for over 20 years, and while its oversize backyard and sweeping Douglas fir staircase remained grand and inviting, the paint was peeling, the plaster was crumbling and the red oak floors were coated in two decades’ worth of grime. Each half of the couple independently sourced suggestions for an architect, asking their respective friends and family members for recommendations. But when they reconvened, each prepared to argue for their own incontestable pick, they found themselves blurting out the same name: Michael Chen.

Alan TanseyTo restore the home’s facade, the architect Michael K. Chen and his firm, MKCA, took castings from an identical neighboring brownstone to recreate the building’s original canopies, brackets and botanical motifs.
To restore the home’s facade, the architect Michael K. Chen and his firm, MKCA, took castings from an identical neighboring brownstone to recreate the building’s original canopies, brackets and botanical motifs.

Chen, the founder of Michael K. Chen Architecture (MKCA), is known for his devotion to craft and sense of playfulness, and, like the owners, he was dazzled by the home’s existing palette: Flaking off the walls in various rooms were fragments of turquoise, celadon, raspberry, emerald green and dramatic stormy blue paint. He knew immediately that rich colour would become an organizing principle of the renovation. “In a lot of brownstone projects, one tends to see restorations of original details and then everything is painted white,” he says. “We were collectively not interested in that approach.” For Chen, colour is a “deeply immersive condition” — a defining aspect of a space that creates an architectural framework of its own. (“My least favourite design expression is ‘pop of colour,’” he says.) And so, he decided to use colour to tell a larger story within the home: While each room would be set apart from the others by its own unique shade, together these bold hues — more modern odes to the paints he’d discovered than exact recreations — would layer his architectural signature, along with the vibrant personalities of the home’s new owners, onto this pedigreed building without overwriting its history.

Alan TanseyLeft: In the parlour-level living room, a mustard yellow Ligne Roset Togo sofa and Doug Johnston rope stool offset a low, stacked Cloud table by Nendo for Moroso. Right: Chen crafted the living-room fireplace from blocks of Calacatta Nero and Arabescato Ovulato marble in a modern, asymmetric arrangement.
Left: In the parlour-level living room, a mustard yellow Ligne Roset Togo sofa and Doug Johnston rope stool offset a low, stacked Cloud table by Nendo for Moroso. Right: Chen crafted the living-room fireplace from blocks of Calacatta Nero and Arabescato Ovulato marble in a modern, asymmetric arrangement.

With this bold chromatic scheme as their starting point, Chen and his team worked closely with the artist owner to devise an aesthetic that felt personal to her and her husband. Chen wanted to incorporate the pair’s appreciation for midcentury modernism, and for the delightfully kitschy: She collects works of art modelled after food and provided Chen with design references that included stills from Wes Anderson movies, along with a request for at least one element borrowed from Blanche Devereaux’s flamboyant Florida home in the ’80s-era TV show “The Golden Girls.” A specialist in figurative line drawings, watercolours and giant, plush fabric sculptures, the artist asked, too, for places to display some of her own work, such as a group of eight-inch-tall ceramic renderings of human teeth and irreverent paintings of bodybuilders. In the finished home, the bright walls create a striking backdrop for these and other offbeat pieces, like a pair of works in felt by the British artist Lucy Sparrow, shaped like a can of Spam and a package of hot dogs, respectively, which hang against a butter yellow wall in the kitchen.

Alan TanseyA Discus pendant by Jamie Gray hangs in the parlour-floor hallway.
A Discus pendant by Jamie Gray hangs in the parlour-floor hallway.

Perhaps nowhere in the home is the colour more brilliant than in the living room, a 300-square-foot space at the back of the parlor floor with an elegant bay window overlooking the lush garden, planted by Brook Landscape with foxgloves, acanthus, birch trees and a towering magnolia tree. Once magenta, the room’s walls — as well as its ceiling, moldings and baseboards — are now a calming shade of desaturated terra cotta (Benjamin Moore’s Palazzo Pink). While Chen’s firm went to great lengths to preserve the home’s historical details, precisely recreating the original carved moldings that were too damaged to be saved, he didn’t want them to become the subject of this room; finishing each surface in a single color softened their presence and heightened the experiential effect of being enveloped in a field of pink. To further bridge past and present, Chen refashioned the fireplace — formerly an unornamented, blackened-brick hole-in-the-wall — into a defiantly modern, asymmetrical structure made from two giant black-and-white marble slabs. And to make the scale of the room, which has 11-foot-tall ceilings, feel more intimate, he installed an Astro Mobile chandelier by Andrew Neyer and purposefully chose only low-slung furniture, including a modular forest green velvet sofa by Tufty Time, which gives the space a more cozy, laid-back mood.

Alan TanseyLeft: The parlour-floor powder room has a Martinique banana-leaf-print wall covering and a custom walnut-frame mirror from the Brooklyn furniture maker Bower. Right: In the library, the Ib Kofod-Larsen Penguin chair and Dorothee Becker wall organizer exemplify the couple’s love of midcentury design. The white oak console and shelving are by MKCA.
Left: The parlour-floor powder room has a Martinique banana-leaf-print wall covering and a custom walnut-frame mirror from the Brooklyn furniture maker Bower. Right: In the library, the Ib Kofod-Larsen Penguin chair and Dorothee Becker wall organizer exemplify the couple’s love of midcentury design. The white oak console and shelving are by MKCA.

However adventurous in colour, though, each room of the house retains its functionality. On the fourth floor, a bathroom conceived of with the owners’ future children in mind is covered from floor to ceiling with blazing red Heath Ceramics tiles so that the inevitable splashes won’t ruin the walls. And the butterscotch orange library, which sits just off the parlour floor’s front entryway, was designed as a work-from-home area, with a slim-legged black-oak-and-ash Ligne Roset desk and a sculptural wall-mounted plastic organizer by Dorothee Becker for stashing pens and stray paper clips. Only the 265-square-foot master bedroom, on the third floor, is finished in neutral shades. Chen intended the grey and white walls to lend a sense of calm to the space where the couple unwinds each night — even if a geometric-patterned bedspread by the Brooklyn textile brand Dusen Dusen Home and a handwoven cerulean Moroccan rug still provide hints of colour.

Alan TanseyLeft: A 12-foot-long avocado green kitchen island is topped with a tinted concrete counter in the vibrant, colour-blocked kitchen. Right: On the home’s lowest level, concrete floor tiles accentuate the connection between the interior and exterior living spaces.
Left: A 12-foot-long avocado green kitchen island is topped with a tinted concrete counter in the vibrant, colour-blocked kitchen. Right: On the home’s lowest level, concrete floor tiles accentuate the connection between the interior and exterior living spaces.

The ground floor, meanwhile, holds the home’s kitchen and an adjacent lounge with three glass doors that lead to a 285-square-foot sunken patio. To divide this level into distinct spaces for different uses, Chen created a vivid gradient effect across the entire floor using custom encaustic concrete tiles from the Cement Tile Shop. Assembled in tumbling-block patterns from 2,800 tiles in 17 unique colour schemes, the grid transitions from a combination of black, white and blue at the home’s front entrance, to green and pink hues in the kitchen and indoor lounge area, to red and ocher for the exterior terrace. Furnishings in bold shades help to further define the kitchen: Lacquered oxblood cabinetry designates the cooking and storage zone, while a 12-foot-long avocado green rectangular lacquered island with a concrete countertop and Nerd bar stools by Muuto serves as a central gathering point for a quick breakfast or impromptu drinks during dinner prep as the light that streams in through the seven-foot-tall glass doors begins to fade.

Alan TanseyLeft: In the master bathroom, a double-height light well and skylight bathe the tub in a peach-tinted glow. Right: Chen framed a new skylight above the top-floor landing with a dramatic, sculptural ceiling recess. A pendant lamp by Lukas Peet hangs over the stairwell.
Left: In the master bathroom, a double-height light well and skylight bathe the tub in a peach-tinted glow. Right: Chen framed a new skylight above the top-floor landing with a dramatic, sculptural ceiling recess. A pendant lamp by Lukas Peet hangs over the stairwell.

Elsewhere, Chen oversaw structural changes to make the most of the natural light. Brownstones are typically darkest at their centres, and so he added two inventive skylights to the roof. In the master bathroom, a rectangular double-height light well — which Chen describes as a “negative prism” and is painted in a soft peach — bathes the large, free-standing oval bathtub in a warm glow no matter the time of day. “We took a note from James Turrell,” Chen explains, referring to the American Light and Space movement artist known for manipulating beams of light to create three-dimensional projected sculptures. “The idea was to define a volume of light that feels as if it’s sort of punched down and into the floor.” In another nod to Turrell, on the fourth floor, he installed a 10-foot-wide skylight above the uppermost landing of the main staircase. The aperture, which was fashioned by recessing two overlapping conical depressions into the ceiling, allows natural light to descend through the stairwell via what appears to be a flying-saucer-shaped opening to the heavens.

Alan TanseyIn the couple’s bedroom, a cane sculpture of a bull’s head, which they bought on a trip to Spain, complements a bed dressed with colourful linens from Dusen Dusen Home and a Moroccan rug.
In the couple’s bedroom, a cane sculpture of a bull’s head, which they bought on a trip to Spain, complements a bed dressed with colourful linens from Dusen Dusen Home and a Moroccan rug.
Alan TanseyLeft: Chen designed a new, ribbonlike steel handrail for the staircase that connects the ground and parlour floors. Right: A top-floor bathroom is clad from floor to ceiling in fiery red handmade tiles from Heath Ceramics.
Left: Chen designed a new, ribbonlike steel handrail for the staircase that connects the ground and parlour floors. Right: A top-floor bathroom is clad from floor to ceiling in fiery red handmade tiles from Heath Ceramics.

In order to reflect the colour of the sky downward and into the home, Chen painted the entire stairwell the same shade of atmospheric grey-blue. As such, the centre of the house is unified by an unbroken expanse of colour, illuminated from above. At the foot of the staircase, though, Chen still had to devise a way of transitioning from the traditionally preserved parlour level to the more contemporary kitchen floor below. To achieve this, he conceived of a visual caesura — a break in the architectural language of the staircase itself. He removed the lowermost section of the original wooden balustrade and replaced it with a custom railing of his own design, a thin steel handrail that features a looping, ribbonlike bannister and leads down to the kitchen. And, as is true throughout the home, it is colour that connects present and the past. To match the dark, metallic shade of his modern addition, Chen finished the balusters, handrail and newel of the restored original staircase in an inky black Farrow & Ball paint called, quite simply, Railings. “Sometimes,” Chen says, “you receive instructions from the universe, and you just follow them.”