A Brooklyn brownstone is distinct from other such homes, as architects Christopher Lee and Minyoung Song of New York–based Model Practice will avouch. When Lee, Song, and designers Amanda Jesse and Whitney Parris-Lamb of interior design studio Jesse Parris-Lamb were tasked with reviving a circa 1890 townhouse in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, their maiden discovery was an incomplete Victorian-age ceramic speaking tube that served as confirmation of this theory. The tube itself wasn’t significant, but it did hold a mirror to the home’s past, and unbeknownst to them at the time, served as a foreshadowing of its future.
A series of back-to-back events—including the birth of their first child, the onset of the pandemic, and subsequently, a lack of space in their 1.5-bedroom apartment—led the homeowners, a couple in their 40s, to move into the property earlier than anticipated. “It was actually great because it taught us a lot of things we needed to know, and we got to experience the character and spirit of the house as it was, and that informed the design process,” says one half of the couple, a graphic designer. Given that the previous homeowner hadn’t updated the space in decades, there was a lot of work to be done, including replacing the roof and fixing a plethora of leaks of unknown origin. At some point, an offending addition was introduced in the back, which now desperately needed an update.
The couple saw the misfortunes as an opportunity to start afresh, and organize the townhouse in a way that would suit their modern lifestyle. For example, they were keen that the home feature a senior-friendly guest suite for their parents, who would previously stay in hotels when visiting. And so, Lee and Song arranged the spaces across the section of the building, designating one floor for each generation. The parents’ floor, created at the garden level, was particularly significant because it afforded ease of access and age-in-place interventions. The second floor was conceived as a sanctuary for the couple, while the third was outfitted with bedrooms, a playroom, and a reading nook for their kids (they welcomed another child while the project was in progress). Meanwhile, the kitchen, living, and dining areas were carved out on the parlor floor.
It was one thing to introduce modern overlays, but quite another to try and simultaneously preserve the bones of the Brooklyn brownstone. “We sought to play with the tension between old and new, rough and refined, minimal and extravagant,” says Lee of the eclectic aesthetic. An example Parris-Lamb cites is of the 48-inch 1940s crystal chandelier left behind by the previous owners: “The couple surprised us by asking us to consider keeping and restoring this piece.” One unexpected decision led to another, and then another, until, as Song puts it: “The interior architecture, though restrained and simple, was brimming with weird moments.” Chief among them were skylights in the bathrooms and a drooping ceiling in the powder room.
The homeowners’ appreciation for handicraft served as the lodestar for the design. “They came to us with Japanese sashiko and Sardinian weaving as inspiration. It was a dream design brief for our team,” recalls Jesse. Still, because she and Parris-Lamb were hired during lockdown, and the first few conversations happened via Zoom, designers and clients erred on the side of creative caution—at least at first. But as time passed, and the design of the home evolved, the clients began moving toward bolder, more daring decisions. “We started our work on the parlor level and worked our way up,” Parris-Lamb explains. “I think you can actually see this evolution in the color palette and furniture shapes on each floor. Things get wilder as you ascend!” True to her words, the home dials up the color with each successive floor, starting as an earthy, muted space on the parlor level and culminating upstairs in a smorgasbord of exuberant hues and patterns.