A Clean Slate

Originally published in 

A few big ideas—and some careful workmanship—transform the very small kitchen of a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment into an expansive space suited to a young professional with a taste for design.

Sliding Kitchen

Three years ago, when she bought the place, Melissa Jun knew she’d have to do something about the galley kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York. “I like to cook, and it was just such a pain,” she says. A look at some old pictures explains why: A small child could reach from end to end without moving a step, the cabinets were a dreary off-white, the appliances didn’t fit properly, and there was practically no counter space. Cheap peach-colored tiles were tarred down onto the floor. “It was pretty shocking.”

Jun, a graphic designer, was stuck preparing om rice—a Korean egg dish that’s one of her favorite things to cook—in that cramped, unpleasant space until a friend introduced her to Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Andrew Highsmith, partners in the fledgling Brooklyn design firm Workstead. It was Brechbuehler and Highsmith’s first job together, and with a construction budget of just $17,000, it was not easy. “This project required a lot of love. There was a lot of research involved,” says the Swiss-born Brechbuehler. “The way to keep a project’s cost down is to have really good communication.”

A good building superintendent who could handle demolition and plumbing was also a plus, and it certainly didn’t hurt to have a German-born woodworking genius, Markus Bartenschlager, doing the fabrication. Brechbuehler discovered him on the Internet. “We knew from the moment we met him it was going to be a great fit,” she says. “He really made sure the craft was there and helped us economize.”

The first order of business was to figure out some way to give Jun more counter space. Workstead’s ingenious solution: Wrap the kitchen cabinetry into the living area, thereby creating one larger, fully integrated, and flexible space. The partners designed an offset grid of cabinets as a unifying element in slate gray—a departure from the blond birch typical of so many modern kitchens—that moves across the room and gives it a cool quietude. “When I saw the gray, I was a little startled,” admits Jun, but she was won over. “If it was blond, it just wouldn’t have been the same thing.” They also ripped out the peach tile to reveal the original wood flooring, which was stained and trimmed with a metal border.

The elegance of Workstead’s solution was augmented by Bartenschlager’s careful attention to detail. The white, solid-surface counter moves seamlessly from kitchen to living area—an immaculate work of fabrication. The edge of the wall unit is crafted to mirror the apartment’s decorative wainscoting. Cabinets gently pull themselves shut with a simple interior system. “We wanted sliding doors that were devoid of hardware,” Jun says. “For me, as a graphic designer, having just enough for function and no more, there’s beauty in that economy.”

Jun achieved additional savings through studied acquisition. From eBay, she purchased an Arne Jacobsen faucet that rotates upward to become a drinking fountain. Vintage French school chairs picked up at an antique market surround a Massimo and Lella Vignelli PaperClip dining table. She purchased a floor model 24-inch Fisher & Paykel stove on a tip from a local appliance dealer.

Having a designer for a client can be hazardous business, but Jun’s openness and Workstead’s willingness to listen made for an easy collaboration. “It was exciting to work with a designer, because there was a real appreciation of our process, and she also allowed us to experiment,” says Brechbuehler. “I tried very hard to be a good client,” Jun adds. “When I finally saw everything in place, I was like, Whoa! That’s my apartment?” Now that she’s settled in, the memory of her former confines is happily relegated to a fading photo, while the grace and ease of her new space grow more vivid each time she sets out to make her favorite dish.

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