A Long-Neglected Railroad Apartment Gets Some Love From a Brooklyn Painter

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The decorative painter and product designer Matt Austin is a force-of-nature renovator. As a child of 8 or so, he built elaborate underground labyrinths for his pet rabbits, adding proper Roman arches once he learned about them. At 11, he drew a set of floor plans for his bedroom. In his first apartment — it was in New Haven, when he was working at the Yale Center for British Art — he tore out eight walls to open up the space, never mind that he was a tenant and didn’t tell his landlord. “But it was such a better apartment afterward,” he says, laughing.  

Five years ago, Austin’s friend John Gilliland — who knew what he was in for — offered to rent a wreck in Bushwick to him, saying he could do whatever he wanted with it as long as he didn’t damage the structure. “It had been unloved for 80 years,” says Austin. “I mean, I’ve had some pretty gross apartments on the Lower East Side, but this took the cake.” When he first moved in, he gave it a good cleaning and redid the kitchen with the help of his brother, Clayton, who is a top ornamental plasterer, and his friend Marcus Santora, a furniture builder. But he’s far from done, and the project may never end, Austin admits, because “I can’t sit still with it. I just have to constantly redo it.” Lately, clients like Marc Jacobs president Robert Duffy have increasingly taken up his time. But there are still plenty of opportunities he sees at home. “I keep thinking, What’s next? I need more space to do …” A pause, while he mulls. “I would like to do the whole building.” Note to Austin’s landlord: Stand back.

*This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of New York Design Hunting.

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