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Then: Cobble Hill in 1968

Forty-six years later, architect Dennis Holloway’s modular Superstairs system still looks ahead of its time.


Photographs by Norman McGrath

In 1968, architect Dennis Holloway and his wife, Bess, found themselves in Brooklyn after a stint in the UK, where Holloway, supported by a Fulbright, had been researching housing systems. Holloway landed a gig as an intern at the Manhattan firm Conklin & Rossant, and the couple moved into a parlor-floor one-bedroom on Amity Street, in Cobble Hill.

“Before thinking about how to furnish the apartment,” says Holloway, “I painted the place white, sanded the floor, and, in the center of the cornice ceiling, painted a faux sky in a kind of Pop-Renaissance technique.” These decorative gestures tempered the living room’s grandeur, providing a modern counterpoint to the ornate moldings, high ceilings, and carved marble fireplace.

Filling the apartment was another matter. “Purchasing the standard Breuer, Mies, or Le Corbusier furniture was not in our budget,” says Holloway. “One day, I realized I had to design and build my own. After all, most modern architects were also known for their furniture designs.” Drawing on his academic work on systems, Holloway created what he called Superstairs, a multipurpose modular solution. He was especially influenced by Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form. “The small apartment needed a room that could function for sitting, for music-listening, as a guest bedroom for visiting family and friends and a place to make love and get high,” says Holloway. “As well as a precomputer work space, an art gallery, and some hidden storage.”

Superstairs is, essentially, three plywood boxes: Each has three steps, two of which open to reveal storage. Holloway spent around $200 completing the project. “I discovered about 36 different arrangements for the stepped boxes,” he says, “so they were always changing as we lived with them. The room became a kinetic sculptural happening that was never boring.”


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