From the outside, this 1895 landmarked house in Brooklyn, New York, blends with the row of classic brownstones in which it resides. But the richly hued interior—the result of a renovation by architect Michael K. Chen and his firm, MKCA—distinguishes this residence from the others on the block. The four-story house had been abandoned for more than 20 years, and its existing dilapidated walls, plaster ornamentation, and woodwork bore peeling lead paint that hinted of bold shades from turquoise to raspberry. Intriguing both client and architect, this extant palette provided the inspiration for a richly varied scheme that uses color to delineate the kitchen and bath spaces, as well as all the communal zones.
An oxblood-hued shell near the entrance houses a sleek black bathroom. Photo © Alan Tansey, click to enlarge.
The resulting visual feast isn’t immediately apparent upon entering the ground floor, a step down from grade. Chen knocked down walls and realigned the kitchen, which originally flanked a corridor, to establish open sight lines from the front to the back and create a wider floor plan flowing from kitchen to dining and lounge areas and then out to a rear garden. Just beyond the front door, the design team created a millwork volume, painted an oxblood red, that houses a largely black bathroom in which even the toilet, electric outlet, and ceiling blend into the room’s obsidian-hued wall tiles. “We felt that black at the ground-floor entrance would create a welcome moment of transition before the color eruption to come,” says Chen.
More of an evolution, the polychromatic progression is subtle, unifying, and defining of the various spaces. Custom encaustic concrete floor tile features a geometric pattern that shifts from a black, taupe, and white motif in the bathroom to shades of blue in the hall just outside. It then transitions to groupings of blues and greens or blues and pinks throughout the kitchen and dining area. The pink becomes peach in the rear lounge and finally morphs into a red-and-ochre-clad patio composed of the same encaustic tile, for visual continuity and connection between indoor and out. The architect carried this patchwork of hues up to the finishes and surfaces throughout the open space. The kitchen itself, grounded by neutral concrete counters, backs onto the bathroom’s oxblood-tinted shell with cabinetry that blends into it (save for a stainless-steel backsplash); wall sections are painted in blue and pink tones to correspond with the floor-tile arrangement; and the deep green island serves as a central gathering place, with stools for casual dining and entertaining.
The clients, a couple with an eclectic collection of art and objects, inspired additional playful elements, such as an unconventional “pipeline” pendant to illuminate the island and a yellow pegboard wall, which the clients sometimes use to display their “curiosities.” This sense of whimsy continues on the upper floors, where classic brownstone details were recast and remade with respectful modern updates.
A double-height light well (1) produces a warm glow above the freestanding bathtub. Peach surfaces meet blue subway tile (2) at the primary suite’s vanity, opposite the tub. Photos © Alan Tansey
A variety of palettes define the brownstone’s remaining three baths and a powder room, the most notable being the primary suite, located near the center of the third floor. Here Chen balanced white fixtures with a pale wood vanity, along with blue-tiled vertical surfaces around wet areas, including a generous standing shower and freestanding tub. The space was completed with a soft-peach tile floor and peach-painted walls and ceiling. To bring daylight into the room—which only had one small existing window—the architect punched through the fourth floor to the roof and inserted a striking, double-height light well above the tub. The architect likens the glowing effect of its pastel walls to a James Turrell installation. “The middle of a townhouse is always dark,” says Chen. “And we loved the idea of having a soak in the tub while being bathed in warm natural light from above.”
Click plan to enlarge