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Compact Williamsburg rental loses '70s shag for Victorian charm

A couple makes a one-of-a-kind Brooklyn home together

Jamie Isaia and Anthony Malat are an aesthetic match made in heaven. “We have busy tastes,” Malat admits. “We are both maximalists.”

Make that maximalists with a penchant for the Victorian, the handmade, and the just plain quirky. That taste is in full display in the Brooklyn apartment they refurbished, mainly with their own two hands (although they had volunteer help from friends).

To be honest, Isaia never wanted to live here. “Anthony and I were living in my dumpy apartment in Bushwick,” she says. “We heard about this apartment from a friend. We were excited because the rent price was right and the location was good. But when we went to look at it, it was straight out of 1971. There was purple and green shag carpeting and a dropped ceiling. I turned to Anthony and said, ‘I can’t do this, I’m not living here.’”

Anthony Malat and Jamie Isaia stand in front of their lush houseplant collection. Their three-year-old son, Atticus, sits on Malat’s shoulders.
Anthony Malat, Jamie Isaia, and their son Atticus stand against a plant backdrop. Isaia credits growing up in California for her green-loving nature.

Malat had other ideas. Today, he is an interior designer and furniture designer-builder. But nine years ago, when the couple first viewed the apartment, he was at the beginning of that career.

“I had worked as menswear tailor, making custom men’s suits. But in 2008, those jobs went away,” Malat says. “My friend hired me to remodel his mother’s home in Brooklyn. I would take the subway out there, reading how-to remodel books along the way. When I got the house, I would put into practice what I’d just read. I was making it up on the fly, but my friend was very supportive, and I learned a lot. I thought I could also redo this apartment.”

Malat went to the landlord and struck a deal: He would improve the apartment, and the owner would cover the costs. The rent would stay low. Now, all he had to do was convince Isaia. It took him a month.

A white with many compartments organizes collections of bottles, bones, shells, and plants.
Malat and Isaia have what they describe as a “busy” aesthetic. Malat brings order to their numerous collections by creating storage systems for them.

“At first, she said ‘hell no,’” Malat explains. “But I drew out a floor plan and made little sketches on it to show her how it could be. I was hopeful that under the paneling, there would be cool Victorian details—which is something we both love.”

The promise of a Victorian flat won out. Isaia agreed, a lease was signed, and work commenced.

It turned out Malat’s hunch was right: Behind the paneling, above the dropped ceiling, and underneath the garish carpeting there was plaster, wood, and pressed tin. But it’s never that easy.

A doorway and wall displays Victorian-era molding. Plants cover many shelves and surfaces, making an interior jungle.
Clockwise from top left: When Malat removed the drywall and dropped ceilings in this apartment, he found Victorian molding; the couple redid the kitchen of their rental; Isaia says the plant collection started small, then grew “out of control.”

“When we pulled off the paneling, about half of the plaster came with it,” Malat says. “I taught Jamie how to drywall, and we patched it. Sure, it’s a bit lumpy and bumpy in places, but that’s our style and we like it.”

They had the project done in 27 days. “In addition to taking off the paneling, we removed all the dropped ceilings, sanded and painted the floors, and remodeled the kitchen,” says Malat. “Basically, we redid all the surfaces.”

Since he was making the push to move, did he feel pressure to get it done and make it right? In short, yes. “I cried once and apologized for getting us into this mess,” says Malat. “She cried once too. But in some situations, you just have to fake it until you make it.”

A floor-to-ceiling shelf unit spans one wall of the dining room. It holds many books and records.
Malat built the room-spanning shelves to house the couple’s large book and record collections.

And make it they did, in their own style. To get it, you have to know this: Malat grew up going to flea markets and learning to haggle prices. He’s the kind of person that rarely comes home without something he scavenged from the sidewalk. He loves both ornate Victorian style and the simple, handmade quality of Tramp and folk art. And Isaiah, a professional photographer, is right in there with him. The house is filled with vintage finds, collections of oddities, and plants.

Collections include an assortment of dead bugs displayed in baby food jars filled with alcohol, shells, bones, clocks, books, and shadowboxes containing ephemera picked up on family vacations.

The small bedroom is painted a pale blue-green. The bed takes up a large amount of space.
Isaia’s favorite room in the apartment is the bedroom. “Ironically, it’s the most simple space in the house,” she says. “I find it tranquil.” The wall color is Van Alen Green, the trim is Kittery Point Green, and the wall inside the molding is Hancock Green. All paint is by Benjamin Moore.

The strategy for storing and displaying it is an “everything in its place” philosophy. Here’s an example: When Isaia started asking questions about the books piled around their home, Malat built a wide, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. “With the collections, I’ve found that if you just make a container for them, they look nice,” Malat says.

You could say they applied that thinking to the room of their three-year-old son, Atticus. With a baby on the way, Malat says they were in a near panic about where he would sleep and play. While Jamie visited her home state of California for a week, Malat created a second bedroom for their son, taking over part of a room they had used as a library.

A detail of thick, salvaged wood.
Malat salvaged the wood he used for the shelves from a former WW II ammunition factory.

“It was a bigger undertaking than re-doing the house,” he says. “But now, it’s my favorite room,” Malat says. “Before he was born, we tried to predict what we could put in there to make fun experiences for him. The whole purpose of that room is his comfort and enjoyment.”

You could say that the need for comfort and enjoyment drove the whole project. “I’ve had many people question why we put so much into a home we don’t own,” Malat says. “The way we feel about it, it’s not about what you take with you, it’s about how you enjoy the present. This is our home, and I want to be happy in it and proud of it. No matter what comes next for us, we are enjoying it now.”

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