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A living area. There is a blue couch, a coffee table, a pink arm chair with a pink footrest, and white end tables. Two windows are on the far wall. There are multiple large works of art hanging on the walls. A large cactus is in a planter. Photography by Christopher Sturman, courtesy Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

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In Park Slope, reviving a 1901 townhouse—with a contemporary twist

Elaborate ornamental plasterwork + modern art = gold

Renovating and decorating an old house for modern life is always a balancing act. Become too obsessed with tradition, and you’re living in period rooms; go for the High Modernist look, and you might as well have bought a condo in a glass tower.

But the interiors of this 1901 limestone house in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood—designed by the Portland, Oregon, studio Jessica Helgerson Interior Design—get it right.

A living area. There are two green couches and a fireplace. Above the fireplace is a round mirror. The walls are painted white. There is a floor lamp. A cactus plant sits behind one of the couches.
In the parlor, a pair of custom sofas sits in front of the fireplace, under a mirror by Sabine Marcelis. To the left is Douglas and Bec’s Line Floor Lamp.

The house’s owners, a couple with three children, “appreciate contemporary art and design,” says Chelsie Lee, the senior designer on the project, “and wanted the spaces to feel modern, while respecting the historic architecture.” So, the designers filled the house with furniture that is contemporary without being hard-edged, and added artwork that complements what the clients already owned.

The exterior of a Brooklyn apartment building. The facade is made of limestone. There are multiple windows and stairs leading up to a glass door. A tree is in front of the building.
The house, which dates from 1901, has a limestone façade, and windows with stained-glass transoms.
An entryway. The floor is hardwood and the doorway structure is wood. There are black and white tiles in the front area. The door is glass.
The entry’s new marble floor in the entry was inspired by the front door’s iron grillwork.

Most of the house’s original elements remained, and were in good condition, including butternut wood paneling, wood floors, ornamental plasterwork, doors, and windows.

The kitchen and bathrooms were original, but were extensively renovated by the designers. (Brooklyn-based CWB Architects, the project’s architects, designed a terrace at the back of the house, as well as one off the second-floor master bedroom.)

A library. There is a wooden table flanked by multiple blue chairs. The floor is hardwood and there is a patterned area rug under the table. There is a large work of art hanging on the far wall. There is a window letting in natural light.
In the library, the custom table is surrounded by Saari chairs by Arper. A photograph by Markus Brunetti hangs above the credenza from Another Country.

Here and there, the original architecture was modified to adapt spaces to modern family life. The clients, Lee notes, “wanted the house to be approachable and kid-friendly.” The first floor of the house includes the living room, parlor, dining room and kitchen; the library, office and master bedroom occupy the second floor, while the children’s rooms are on the third floor.

Throughout the house, old and new engage in a stylish dialogue: The geometric wrought-iron grille on the wood-and-glass front door is reflected in the design of the new marble floor in the entry. The shell-patterned stained glass in the house’s front windows—along with a wallpaper by the artist Lindsay Cowles—inspired the kitchen’s ceramic wall tiles, made by Tempest Tileworks in Portland, that are a contemporary twist on the classic Delft design.

A dining area. There is a large wooden table with multiple chairs. A wooden cabinet with glass doors faces the table. On the far wall is a window with a seating nook that has multiple colored pillows and a blanket. On the table are candlesticks.
Lindsey Adelman’s Agnes chandelier hangs above a custom dining table and Spindle chairs by BassamFellows. The custom wood cabinet has leaded-glass doors.
A kitchen. The walls are black and white patterned tiles. The cabinetry is wooden. There is a doorway looking into another room. A window above the sink lets in natural light.
Ladies & Gentlemen Studio’s Maru light hangs above the kitchen sink. Just beyond, the butler’s pantry has custom cabinets with leaded milk-glass doors.

In the dining room, the design team added its own historically respectful version of the large, built-in wood cabinets common to houses of the early 20th century, re-creating the missing leaded-glass panes for the room’s bay window by looking at similar windows in the neighborhood. They departed from tradition by painting paneling in that room white, making the space brighter.

In the kitchen, an original swinging door leading to the dining room was replaced by a wider open doorway that both brings light in from the back of the house and creates a more accessible, family-friendly connection between the kitchen and the rest of the first floor.

The kitchen itself received a complete renovation: a stair to the basement, which is now accessed via the dining room, was relocated; the design team added three large windows along the outside wall and created a dining nook. The team also installed new cabinets and appliances, along with encaustic concrete floor tiles in a soft black.

A kitchen. The walls are covered in patterned black and white tiles. The countertops are white and the kitchen cabinetry is wooden. There are windows wrapping around the room. The oven is dark grey and the stove has a copper tea pot on top of it.
The kitchen’s custom dining nook has Eero Saarinen’s Tulip table for Knoll and GamFratesi’s Beetle chairs for Gubi. Custom wall tiles, made by Tempest Tileworks, are based on a design by Lindsay Cowles.

The house’s furnishings and its sculptural lighting fixtures come from a who’s who of contemporary designers, among them Lindsey Adelman, BassamFellows, Another Country, Egg Collective, Jason Miller, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, and Jaime Hayon.

The rich tones of the upholstery fabrics throughout harmonize with the brightly colored Moroccan rugs used in many of the rooms, along with custom pieces by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design, like the living room’s tufted sofa, the parlor’s curved sectional sofa and coffee table, and the tables in the dining room and library.

A bedroom. There is a large bed with a wooden bed frame. The bed has white bed linens and multiple pillows. The floor is hardwood and has a patterned area rug. A large purple painting hangs next to the bed. The walls are painted white and there are two wi
Lights by Michael Anastassiades for Flos flank the antique bed in the master bedroom; Jason Miller’s Modo light hangs from the ceiling. The Ro chair is by Jaime Hayon for Fritz Hansen.
A bathroom. The walls are white. The sink vanity is white and the sink fixtures are copper. There are two mirrors over the sink. There is a shower with a glass door. A window lets in natural light.
The master bath has custom floor tiles made by Pratt & Larson; the medicine cabinets are custom, and the marble vanity is from Drummonds.
A hallway with a hardwood floor. There is skylight on the ceiling that is letting in natural light.  The doorways are all wooden and there is a staircase with a wooden bannister.
A pair of brass sconces by Apparatus flank a custom built-in cabinet with leaded glass doors in the third-floor hallway, looking toward the children’s bathroom.

And contemporary art—like Vik Muniz’s large digital print Hummingbird (Scrap Metal) in the living room, or the monumental photograph in the library of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena, Italy, by Markus Brunetti—further sharpens the conversation between contemporary and historic elements in the house.

For the master and kids’ bathrooms, the designers riffed on traditional hexagonal-tile floor patterns, updating them with bold colors. The bathrooms themselves have custom built-in medicine cabinets with arched, mirrored doors, and the existing windows in the new shower enclosures have frosted panes for privacy.

A children’s bedroom. There are two beds with white bed linens and patterned pillows. Stuffed dolls sit against the bed pillows. There is a dresser and two large windows. A mirror hangs above the dresser. There is a patterned area rug under the beds.
For one of the two children’s rooms, headboards purchased on Etsy were painted green; one of many Greek rugs used throughout the house adds bright color.

In the third-floor children’s playroom, the team opened up a large existing closet and created a skylit reading nook lined with bright blue cushions.

Not all the furnishings are brand-new; the clients already owned the master bedroom’s antique bed, and the twin headboards in the larger of the children’s rooms were an Etsy find that the designers painted green (and for which they designed new footboards).

A children’s playroom. There are bookshelves full of books and objects with a ladder. There is a reading nook with blue pillows and a skylight. There are multiple colorful works of art hanging on the white walls. There is a patterned area rug on the floor
A light from Ladies & Gentelmen Studio’s Shape Up series hangs in the playroom; a large closet was turned into a skylit reading nook.

As with any old house, renovation posed challenges: matching new wood to old, as when new floors were added to the office off the library or the children’s new reading nook; or when the contractors had to take special care not to let the renovation damage the existing plasterwork.

The tile patterns and their colors required lots of color matching and samples, but Lee calls it “a fun challenge.” In the end, as with all good design, the house’s thoughtfully-realized rooms look effortless.

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