A Boarding School (for Two) in Amsterdam

Photographs by Brigitte Kroone

Building’s former life: A seventies school.
Designers: Emilie Kröner and Bart van Heesch, both 45 (but they live in a school).

Amsterdam’s Slotervaart district is about a 25-minute bike ride from the city center, but it seems a world away from all those Instagrammable canals and coffee bars. “This is a rough neighborhood,” says designer Emilie Kröner. “When we tell people we live here, we see them getting a bit scared.”

Illustration by Jason Lee

Along with husband and fellow designer Bart van Heesch, Kröner moved to this 1,200-square-foot apartment in the area last year, after two decades in more conventional—if less roomy—digs downtown. It was an abrupt change: Their new apartment was carved out of a recently decommissioned school located in a colorless concrete box of a building from the seventies; the government had hired a private company to look for renters, in part to keep out squatters. “The whole thing was very functional,” notes Kröner. “But we’ve made it into a home.”

It’s a metamorphosis that’s still under way, with the couple using subtle personal touches to convert institutional dreariness into comfort. As Kröner puts it, the décor “isn’t lean.” Minimalism might not work as well in this atmosphere. It could be mistaken for the original thing. Instead, the couple has created a cabinet-of-curiosities atmosphere that doles out surprises at regular intervals, from the stuffed rooster perched atop the dresser to the zebra hide adorning the bedroom floor. The couples’ shared love of North Africa is evident in the colorful Moroccan pillows in the living room, whose walls are crowded with paintings—mostly thrift-shop buys or the work of relatives.

Also adding character are items from their own respective design practices. Van Heesch has been busy developing unique metal refinishings and applying them to unlikely objects, and in the apartment a line of bicycles (the very kind chained up in every lane in Amsterdam) has been replated in copper, brass, and zinc finishes: The bikes are still usable, claims the designer, but “become more like design objects” through this unlikely alchemy. Likewise, Kröner’s work revels in subverting expectations—her oversize, animal-shaped table accessories make the simple act of grinding pepper seem a little less everyday.

But what’s most intriguing about the space is what the couple didn’t bring into it. The pair spent a scant €500 on the initial build-out, leaving in place many of the original fixtures of the schoolhouse. “We didn’t change anything in a construction way,” notes Van Heesch, and the walls, drop ceilings, and fluorescent lights are right where they always were. The bathroom still boasts the row of sinks common to little boys’ and girls’ rooms the world over, and even the kitchen is a hand-me-down, its surfaces the remnants of what once was the chemistry classroom. The couple uses it to conduct culinary experiments on willing dinner-guest subjects. (Says Van Heesch, “It’s a sort of laboratory.”)

“We always see potential in crazy things,” Kröner says, and the couple’s passion for transformation isn’t confined within their four walls. There’s still room after empty room in the old building, and they are hoping to persuade the local government to let them remake them as work and activity spaces for the community. “It’s nice to make change,” says Van Heesch, “and the fun is to do it with no money.” His own apartment shows how much change you can make by leaving some things just as they are.

One of the challenges of living in the former school is how to make large spaces feel cozy. One of the advantages: There’s certainly no fighting over who gets to use the bathroom sink first in the morning. Photo: Brigitte Kroone

The ceramic animals on top of the bookshelves are part of Kröner’s oversize-table-accessories collection. Photo: Brigitte Kroone

Photo: Brigitte Kroone

Kröner’s desk, with a poster from her company Piselli Projects. Photo: Brigitte Kroone

The gym has become a work space for Van Heesch, who replates bicycles in materials like copper. Photo: Brigitte Kroone

A Boarding School (for Two) in Amsterdam