Creative Renovation in Brooklyn

Originally published in 
Creative Types

When graphic designers Jeanette and Mike Abbink left behind their loft in San Francisco—with collected ephemera, a voluminous library, and a parcel of paintings in tow—they didn’t know where they would land in the Big Apple. One renovation and one Welsh terrier later, they’re back on track in Brooklyn.

Abbink Residence

A decade ago, Jeanette Abbink (then Hodge) lived in a teeny-tiny San Francisco apartment crammed with her collection of eggbeaters, over a hundred of them—“an extension,” she says, “of my fascination with eggs.” Most people don’t regard eggbeaters as aesthetic objects, but Jeanette could see that they are actually elegant little machines, like something out of a Leonardo da Vinci sketchbook. One day Jeanette, who was Dwell’s founding creative director, judged a design competition where she met fellow juror Mike Abbink, who was, at the time, deeply immersed in designing a beautifully clear yet eccentric font called FF Kievit. They soon ran off to City Hall to get married, and eventually they packed up their eggbeaters and typography books and moved to a characteristically open and sunny, 1,500-square-foot loft apartment by leading Bay Area designer Stanley Saitowitz.

In 2005, Mike took a job in the New York office of an international branding firm (today he works for a similar firm called Saffron), and Jeanette signed up to design a sports-magazine prototype for the New York Times. (She has since started her own company, Rational Beauty.) Professionally, they were set. All they had to do was find a place to live. The Abbinks had a pretty good idea that in New York, they wouldn’t be able to afford the same quantity of square footage or quality of sunlight. And buying something modern on their budget didn’t even seem plausible. “We thought we would get into a brownstone, maybe take a whole floor,” Mike recalls. But they weren’t psychologically prepared for the way that old New York apartments look. They didn’t quite get that when you go to look at
a place in a 1925 relic like The President—the stately Brooklyn apartment house in which they now live—you have to see through geologic layers of past lives. “When we first came in it just looked so tired,” says Jeanette.

Architect Stephen Cassell, of Architecture Research Office, a friend of theirs, set the couple straight. He looked at photos and floor plans of 9C and he knew to ignore its sad, gray patina. “These old buildings always have interesting layouts that work well,” Cassell notes, “and have a certain elegance to them—underneath the 43 layers of paint.” He also fixed them up with an architect, a former ARO employee named Joshua Pulver who had started his own company, sensibly named Architecture + Construction. Cassell says that Pulver “really resolves details well” and that “you can’t have a more exacting client than a type designer” like Mike.

The advantage for the Abbinks was that Pulver, who lived right in the neighborhood, would double as architect and contractor, allowing him to closely supervise construction and control costs. And for Pulver, whose young firm hadn’t established itself yet, the appeal of working with the Abbinks was obvious: Their passion for minimalist design matched his. “I jumped at the opportunity,” recalls the architect.

What transpired over a six-month period was a complex surgical procedure intended to transform a dreary prewar apartment into a modern loft. “We built models and did perspective drawings,” says Pulver, “and lots of elevations.” Ultimately, the Abbinks and their architect settled on four major design moves.

First, they decided to eliminate the wall that divided the second bedroom from the living room to create an open living/dining/work space. “We had a version that we wanted,” Jeanette explains, “like a glass cube inside the apartment. But we couldn’t afford it.” Instead, they united the two rooms with an opening so traditional looking it could easily have been there since 1925. Still, even the double-size room proved too snug for their extralong 1971 Charles Pfister–designed Knoll sofa. They sold it on Craigslist and replaced it with a matching two-seater and chaise from Design Within Reach designed by Danish-born Canadian designer Niels Bendtsen. Perhaps the most eye-catching item in the room is the light fixture that hangs over their Swedish dining table. Patrick Townsend, the Queens-based designer of the Orbit chandelier, likens his wiry creation to a suspension bridge, but it looks suspiciously like a giant eggbeater.

The second big move was to transform the typically skinny New York apartment kitchen with the kind of high-end Italian system you’d normally find sitting in the middle of 5,000 square feet of open plan. “In California we lived near the Arclinea showroom,” explains Jeanette. “When I was walking to work I would think, Oh, it’s so beautiful. I really like the finish, and I like Antonio Citterio, the designer.” Fortunately, she had made friends with the San Francisco Arclinea representative, and he worked with Pulver to shoehorn Citterio’s Convivium system into a very tight space. The result is impressive. There’s a built-in double-decker Miele oven (and a three-tier Miele steamer, good for vegetables and indoor clambakes) and a Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer under the counter, distributed into four unobtrusive drawers.

Mike points out that when you get rid of the bulky traditional refrigerator, even a narrow apartment kitchen opens up and yields unexpected amounts of storage space. He happily demonstrates that underneath the five-burner Gaggenau cooktop are drawers holding lots of pots and pans. (For a few moments, all four of us—clients, architect, reporter—stand in the kitchen, pulling white lacquer-coated drawers out and gliding them back in, transfixed by a motion so silky that you’d imagine the Italians have been fine-tuning it since Nervi. Then we hear a crunching noise from the living room and discover that Stig, the Abbinks’ hyperkinetic Welsh terrier, is devouring the bowl of smoked almonds that was sitting so prettily on the extralow marble-topped Zanotta coffee table.)

Design move number three was to maximize the square footage of a typically compressed New York City bathroom, without benefit of any additional space. “We gave Josh a simple brief,” says Mike. “Minimal. The least amount of detail and materials possible.” “We didn’t even want to have a shower door,” Jeanette adds. And since one of the kitchen counters was going to be smoke-colored Carrara marble, the Abbinks decided to continue the theme in the bathroom.

“The initial idea was that everything was carved Carrara,” Pulver explains. Sort of like a Roman bath. “Everything would be big, chunky, simple volumes.” Ultimately they had to buy, not carve, a sink, a tub, and a toilet. “There’s a little bit of diversion from the pure, original idea,” Pulver acknowledges. While a total marble environment sounds extravagant, Pulver argues that it saved labor costs. “It’s a really economical way to do it because there’s no preparation. We gutted the bathroom and just laid the slabs. So, in the course of two days it went from a disaster area to a finished bathroom.”

The fourth move, one you might not notice unless someone points it out, reveals the influence of the typeface designer who, after all, is the kind of guy who can spend months on the negative space inside a lowercase “g.” Pulver and Mike worked together to devise a combination radiator cover and storage system that runs below the windows, from room to room, throughout the apartment. It’s like a basso continuo running through a baroque concerto or, more to the point, a line underscoring the Abbinks’ open view of south Brooklyn and the Manhattan skyline beyond. The screen has a slotted pattern, which Mike and Pulver painstakingly drafted—“We looked at 30 different variations,” Pulver recalls—and Pulver CNC milled into wood panels. The storage system is topped with a wide Carrara ledge, perfect for displaying Jeanette’s beguiling collection of eBay finds—not eggbeaters (they’re mostly in storage) but ceramics by Bjorn Wiinblad and Stig Lindberg, the whimsical Swedish modernist for whom the family dog is named.

All told, the Abbink apartment is a study in the power and limitations of renovation. It is, of course, impossible to squeeze the openness of a Saitowitz loft out of a traditional prewar layout, but you can make enough strategic changes that you wind up with an airy, uncluttered aesthetic. However, the dominant flavor of the place comes not from its architecture, old or new, or even from its carefully chosen furnishings, but from the Abbinks’ artwork and collectibles—from abstract paintings to iconic graphic designs. The apartment is the carefully curated product of two remarkable pairs of eyes. Really, what the Abbinks have done is added their own unique geology to the densely layered history of a New York apartment.

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