Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today, we look at the Brooklyn home of designer Sarah Zames and her husband, Jonathan. When Sarah remodeled their apartment, she broke some of her own rules. “I basically did a couple of things I tell my clients not to do,” she says.
Like many of the best architects and designers, Sarah always comes to the table ready. “For my clients, I am completely prepared, and I figure out as many of the details as I can beforehand,” she says. But when the table was her own, it was a different story.
“I did this project after hours, when I was done working for my clients,” Sarah says. “A lot of the design was executed on the fly, without drawings. That’s the opposite of how I usually work.” (Hear that cracking noise? It’s the sound of rule no. 1 breaking.)
The fact that she and Jonathan purchased an 800-square-foot apartment in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn was different story in and of itself.
“In another life, I worked in urban planning. I can remember walking around the Gowanus neighborhood long before the EPA had any plans to clean up the canal,” she says. “I thought that it must be really hard to live near such a polluted site. Who would have thought that 15 years later it would become such an up-and-coming and desirable area and I’d live there myself?”
The neighborhood is hot, but the home they purchased was...not so much. “The original place was in terrible shape—the windows had been covered up with cheap Japanese screens, the kitchen was tiny and dank, and pretty much everything was falling apart,” says Jonathan. “The former owners kept ferrets, and we ended up finding a dead one under the fridge. Pretty much everyone passed on the place because it was in such a state of disrepair, but Sarah saw a lot of potential right away, and I was excited to see what she could pull off.”
The fourth-floor unit is in a building that was a jute factory in 1938, but it had been converted to apartments in the 1989. Until the Zames bought the home, it had been in the same hands and had not been altered for about 20 years. “The space wasn’t being used in the best way,” says Sarah.
In addition to a dated style and worn finishes, the home’s floor plan had the private spaces hugging the light well, giving the bedrooms ample natural light from the large windows, but leaving the living room and kitchen in the dark.
Sarah turned the tables by relocating the private spaces to the back half of the apartment and bringing the living room and kitchen to the light well.
Two features that didn’t change much are the rustic wood ceiling and chunky beams that date back to the days when the building was a center of industry. General Assembly, Sarah’s firm, is known for a modern outlook, but she was attracted to the rustic look of the wood.
“It’s true that there are a lot of brownstones and townhouses in this neighborhood, but in our price range, we were looking at places with very typical layouts,” says Sarah. “Anything that had a little character stood out, and I loved the wood from the beginning.”
That character-rich wood also gave Sarah a way to bring warmth to the space. “A lot of my work balances modern details with softer elements,” she says. “I didn’t want to live in a cold, white box, so the look was perfect.” She removed dropped ceilings that were hiding stretches of the original wood, and sanded it to bring back a lighter hue.
Seeking to tap into the home’s industrial roots, Sarah removed the gypsum board, laminate tile, and carpet that covered the floor and replaced it with concrete. That’s when things started to go wrong—and right.
“I hired a subcontractor to put in the concrete floor, and it was a beautiful gray. But then it started peeling,” she says. What followed is what Sarah calls a “micro-nightmare.” The subcontractor refused to return and right the problem, and the couple was crashing with friends while their cats lived in her office. She felt pressure to act quickly.
“I hired another contractor to redo the floors, and he really did it as a favor. We were in such a hurry, we put in the floor without doing a sample first,” she says. “I would never have done this for a client’s project.” (Rule No. 2, broken.) When it dried, the floor turned out to be a maroon color.
But this is a problem with a rosy outlook. “It turned out to be a happy accident—one of those things that goes wrong, but then becomes a key feature of the project,” says Sarah. “I grew to like it a lot, and it made sense of the green windows.”
About those windows: When the developers converted the building, they installed metal windows with distinctive, emerald-green frames. “I hated them,” Sarah says. “It was always my intention to paint them.”
But it turns out some intentions are more easily set than done. “It became problematic, and very expensive. It would have meant a lot more than just putting on a coat of paint, they would have needed to be sanded and prepped—and it was just a lot more work, time, and money than I anticipated. I decided to live with it.”
A funny thing sprang from that resignation. “The longer I lived with them, the more they grew on me,” she says. “And when the floors went in, they looked fantastic.”
When it came to other elements in the house, Sarah left nothing to chance. The new floorplan has the kitchen and the living room side by side and open to each other. In order to keep the space visually serene, she designed white-oak cabinets with no visible hardware. “I am a child of the 1980s, so I do have a thing for white oak,” she says. “I wanted to make the area appear as a smooth box.”
As anyone who has ever used a kitchen can tell you, keeping things smooth and uncluttered can be a challenge. To do it, Sarah created a cubby system that lives behind the dining counter.
“The kitchen island seems visually part of the living room, so I made sure that there are a number of cubbies to keep things out of sight,” she says. “There’s one that’s just the right width for a roll of paper towels, spices we use often, dish soap, and sponges.”
The bathroom has a similar set-up. “When I was a girl, my best friend was the daughter of an industrial designer,” she says. “He designed their family home, and I loved the bathroom, where he had created a ledge under the mirror.”
She replicated the design move here, with a slender white-oak ledge that runs under the large mirror. “For the photos, we have it completely clean, but day-to-day we keep things we use often there, such as soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. I don’t sleep with my wedding ring on, so I take it off at night and leave it here,” she says. “It’s a small thing that makes a nice difference.” A small cubby under the medicine cabinet keeps other items close at hand, such as a candle and Q-tips.
“It’s a great opportunity to design something just for yourself, and I love how this house works for us,” says Sarah. “It fits us and how we live.”
When asked about her favorite elements in the house, the designer responds with a final happy accident. “We didn’t move in until after the remodel, so it was almost two years after we purchased it before we finally slept there,” she says. “When we did move in, we discovered that when it rains, you can hear every drop as it hits the roof. It has the cozy feeling of sleeping in a cabin—and it was a very happy surprise.”