“Work with what you’ve got” is an oft-used adage. But in the case of the Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment of Adam Squires and Sofia Alvarez, the philosophy is front and center.
After a few years renting in a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Squires, a partner at design and development firm Chips, and Alvarez, a playwright, were on the hunt for a larger place to buy. While they didn’t have a specific space in mind, they were drawn to one on a particularly bustling corner of Bed-Stuy, housed in an old chocolate factory that had been converted into apartments.
A duplex with expansive common space, soaring ceilings, and several nooks in which to nestle private rooms, the apartment offered enough raw edges to take on a project here and there, but not so many that the couple would need to embark on a full-tilt renovation. So, they made an offer—only to be outbid by another. Then it happened again—the first fell through, they moved to buy it, and were again outbid.
New York’s notoriously competitive market had thoroughly discouraged them; they were ready to consider moving to Los Angeles, where Alvarez’s work often takes her. But about a week later, as the couple passed the apartment with a friend Squires’s phone rang.
“It was our realtor, wondering if we were still interested in the place. The second buyer had just fallen through and we were third on the list,” she says. The third time’s the charm, it seems: They got the apartment.
The space was liveable enough that when they moved in, they were able to take some time to decide what they really wanted to do with its layout, and to find the right contractors and designers for any updates. “It was a project, but not an immediate project,” says Squires.
The apartment has an industrial vibe, with its exposed utility lines, muscular structural supports (like the large cylindrical column in the kitchen), and cement floors. Changes to those architectural features were impractical and would be costly.
The couple had originally planned a much larger overhaul, but with those existing conditions, they started to ask themselves how they could better use what was already in place. Rather than “imposing their will” on the home, as Squires put it, they hired Material Design Build, a Brooklyn-based studio founded in 2009 by George Akers and Armin Zomorodi, to work with them on the renovation.
“It was improvisational in some ways,” Squires said, noting that the partnership really worked because of the collaborative and relaxed approach Akers and Zomorodi bring to their work. “They were OK with not working with a full set of drawings. We would sketch things out, meet a couple times a week and talk about certain conditions of the existing space.” Alvarez notes that she and Squires felt Akers and Zomorodi’s style was similar to the couple’s, so their suggestions were usually on the money.
At first, for example, the couple wanted to remove all the interventions that had been made in the space, like the lofted bedroom. But they “realized we were going to tear something down to build something similar,” says Alvarez, and the couple started to warm up to the loft’s steel frame, seeing an opportunity there to use its structure to create more storage space.
The steel is echoed in the new balustrade for the staircase, as well as by the Rich Brilliant Willing Palindrome pendant light that holds court over the living and dining space. To counterbalance the many sharp angles in the apartment, Squires explains, “we ended up with a lot of rounded details.” With the lofted staircase, the curved wall leading into the den, and other touches, the couple embraced organic, free-form lines to offer points of contrast to the space’s more rigid geometries.
Just as the architectural elements the couple incorporated keep things interesting, their furniture and art settle nicely against an industrial backdrop. “Everything has a little story to it,” Squires says of the objects in their home. Both Squires and Alvarez are attracted to antiques, artwork, books, and midcentury modern pieces that have seen a little love.
The first piece of furniture they bought for the new apartment was a large antique dining table—an anchor for the space that’s reminiscent of what you might find in a schoolhouse art room, perfect for hosting extended dinner parties. “We can squeeze 20 people around it, even though it’s probably only comfortable for eight,” Alvarez jokes. The Thonet Era chairs join other midcentury seats in the living room, like a Bertoia Diamond Chair and a Barcelona chair Squires picked up from artist Rob Pruitt’s eBay Flea Market project.
“Adam says I feel more nostalgic about furniture than he does,” explains Alvarez. “I really like things that are no-name, but that I have really specific memories of.” She mentions a lamp from college made by a friend, an antique table from her parent’s home in Baltimore, a green couch that’s traveled with them through various apartments. In Baltimore, where she grew up, she’d roam antique stores in the city as a pastime.
A Noguchi pendant illuminates their breakfast nook, which was designed by Sam Rosen, the architect the couple had originally planned to hire before scaling back their plans, and with whom Squires worked on the Chips offices. The two artworks that hang in this nook are Alvarez’s favorites in the apartment right now: An Alexander Calder print gifted to them by Squires’s uncle, and a depiction of egg beaters titled “Helen” by Billy Ray Gombus, a Baltimore artist known to paint household objects and give them names.
Squires is the green thumb in the household, and tends to the various plants around the apartment that are crammed onto tables, draping from the ceiling, tucked into corners, and hanging among pots and pans on an apparatus the couple commissioned for the large support in the kitchen. “That was Adam’s brainchild,” Alvarez says. They wanted to highlight the column’s presence instead of try to hide it, which would have been practically impossible anyway. So Squires worked with a childhood friend, Adam Bierton, who owns design-build practice Creative Workshop in New York, to find a way to make it useful.
“He ended up bending solid aluminum poles around a jake he made and mounted them to a chess table in a public park so that he could get enough room [to fit around the pole],” Squires explains. Painted wooden ribs were mounted to the pole and the aluminum poles were threaded through them. The same designer built their stools that they use as coffee tables, and the curved bookshelf on the wall in the living space.
At the outset, Alvarez did have reservations that Squires’s design sensibility would overshadow her own aesthetic—but, thankfully, they found middle ground. “I actually think the house ends up being a really nice blend of both of us,” she says. Squires adds: “I’m a team player.”