If the brownstone is the quintessential Brooklyn residential form, rethinking it is the ultimate Brooklyn design problem. “They are all laid out the same way, and there are just so many ways you can move the parts,” says Marc Appelbaum, the Pratt-trained principal of design-build firm Radius Construction. But when he bought a 25-by-90-foot Boerum Hill auto-repair shop five years ago, he got a rare opportunity to start almost from scratch. “It is the same footprint and the same parameters in terms of codes and zoning, but we were able to create something unique within the restrictions.” The result is really two houses: a steel-framed glassy triplex on top of a single-story three-bedroom that fills the lot from front to back, both designed by Appelbaum and architect Clay Miller of Bergen Street Studio. Appelbaum lives in the lower unit with his wife, Karen Auster, an event producer who organizes the annual Bklyn Designs home-furnishings exhibition (opening May 12 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo), and their two children, Aliya, 11, and Alex, 8.
After they bought the property, with college classmate Stuart Sokel, Appelbaum “sat in the empty garage with a drafting table and spent six months working out the design,” he says. “The biggest part of that was figuring out whether I wanted to stick out in the neighborhood or fit in. This is the year 2006, and I felt like the building should look like it belongs in the year 2006.” On the other hand, the opposite side of the street is landmarked, and Appelbaum wanted to respect the scale of the block. What he came up with was a compromise: He kept the original garage, cleaning up the brick, but added a distinctly modern structure on top.
Auster decided early on to let her husband design his dream house, but she had to be very patient while he put all the pieces together. Appelbaum estimates that construction took eighteen months—spread out over five years. “I had to care for my clients in a booming housing market,” he says. “It became a part-time project only.” And they knew they didn’t want to rush it. “One of my biggest pet peeves as a contractor is that all everyone wants to know is When is it going to be finished? and not Is it beautiful?” In January, they finally moved in. “I love that my children got to watch the process,” says Auster. “We used to have lunch in this raw, disgusting space, and now they have watched their father build this incredible house.”
Among other things, the kids got to see lots of experiments, some gone horribly wrong. Because Auster likes blue, Appelbaum originally planned for all of the horizontal surfaces in the house to be blue. He made ten disastrous attempts to create azure bamboo floors, but some unfortunate interaction of stain and sealer made the color unstable, dyeing feet instead of wood. Other experiments were more successful: All the white paneling is melamine—typically seen in Ikea furniture—precision-cut and mounted to create paneled walls and hidden storage. “It became a design lab that I can translate into other people’s homes,” says Appelbaum. “The key was to arrange inexpensive materials so that they look glamorous.”
Auster also got to experiment, teaming with interior designer Christopher Coleman (a Bklyn Designs exhibitor) to pick out furniture and accessories—much of it from artisans who participate in the show. “Bklyn Designs is a juried exhibition, so I have all these design editors and interior designers to do the screening for me,” she says. Nothing is too precious, though. With two kids, a dog, two at-home businesses, and a love for entertaining, everything has to be functional and comfortable. “We wanted a place that would just draw you in,” says Appelbaum, “make you sit and socialize.”