written by:
photos by:
January 18, 2009
Originally published in Urban Renaissance

This place was a filthy dump when we bought it,” says Cathryn Barmon, sipping tea in a knockoff Le Corbusier chair. “I didn’t want to go barefoot until we’d redone the floors. Mark knew it was a good thing, but I thought it was horrible, sad, and depressing. I couldn’t believe we’d put all our hard-earned savings into this.”

The Big Apple fixer-upper became a great investment for Deutsch and Barmon, but they don't plan on selling anytime soon.
Photo by 
1 / 4
Deutsch and Barmon enjoy the space in their apartment.
Photo by 
2 / 4
Inspired by the patches of green she saw throughout Japan, Barmon created this "slice of green" that works as both nature and sculpture.
Photo by 
3 / 4
The floors were sanded and painted a deep matte black. The black makes the apartment look much bigger than it is," explains Barmon.
Photo by 
4 / 4
barmon deutsch house exterior building
The Big Apple fixer-upper became a great investment for Deutsch and Barmon, but they don't plan on selling anytime soon.
Project 
Barmon/Deutsch House

This place was a filthy dump when we bought it,” says Cathryn Barmon, sipping tea in a knockoff Le Corbusier chair. “I didn’t want to go barefoot until we’d redone the floors. Mark knew it was a good thing, but I thought it was horrible, sad, and depressing. I couldn’t believe we’d put all our hard-earned savings into this.”

Barmon and her husband, Mark Deutsch, are in their mid-30s, and run a graphic and web design business. This apartment in New York City’s West Village was their first real estate investment. Deutsch corroborates: “We felt like we’d been suckered. Cathryn agreed to buy it, but the deal was we had to gut it right away.”

As luck would have it, they hadn’t been suckered. Deutsch and Barmon bought their apartment five years ago for $240,000. The seller, whom Barmon remembers as “a super-fastidious-looking guy dressed all in Gucci,” hadn’t been as fastidious as he looked. “The ‘before’ pictures we have don’t show the dirt as much as I wish,” she adds, going on to describe how the apartment was crumbling and caked in dust, mold, and those creatures that outnumber, outrun, and sometimes outperform Manhattan’s human population. If Deutsch and Barmon had left their space as is, it would nonetheless have  doubled in value by now. But they didn’t, and they don’t plan to sell it anytime soon.

Common sense underlay all their decisions in the renovation. “We just put the place together in a cost-effective way,” says Deutsch, who borrowed power tools from the superintendent to install retrofitted IKEA cabinets in the kitchen and living room. All told, their renovation cost about $50,000. “Living in New York, you want your home to feel relaxed and comfortable,” says Barmon, “not dirty and agitated. There’s plenty of opportunity for that outside.”

Before they moved in, they hired a contractor to gut the apartment in one day, scraping up old linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom and tearing down some drywall that had concealed structural columns and beams. “Before it went co-op, this building was a General Electric warehouse,” Deutsch explains. “These columns were covered in dark green paint, so we wrapped them in stripping material and tore it off, but it didn’t strip evenly, so this textured layer was left. We decided to keep it.” The molded-steel columns and beams, circa 1900, are smooth and speckled with layers of old rust and paint.

The effect sets off the spare evenness of most surfaces in the apartment. The 600-square-foot space—which encompasses a galley kitchen, a nook for the bed, a living room, and a bathroom—boasts only one other dappled surface: a fake “terrarium” in a 3-D rectangle of Plexiglas suspended from the ceiling in front of a white wall. The diorama (as Barmon calls it, more accurately) measures six feet long, six inches tall, and six inches deep. Barmon sculpted the verdant hills inside, and designed a suspension system. “I wanted a slice of green,” she relates.

The terrarium, like the renovation itself, also owes its existence to constraints. “The big blank wall was depressing,” Barmon says. “At first we were going to put our desk there, but then the apartment next door came up for sale, and we were lucky enough to get a loan and buy it for an office. Then our dog, Pooh Bear, was getting old and sick, so she had her bed set up by the wall. When she died, there was just a big void.”

After Pooh Bear died, Deutsch and Barmon went on a trip to Japan, where they saw many of what Deutsch calls “controlled slivers of nature.” Like New York, a metropolis they both adore, Japanese cities can be stifling in their density. “But then you’re looking into a busy, merchandise-packed storefront, and all of a sudden you notice there’s a little planted area behind, a breath of oxygen,” Barmon says. She remembers seeing a tidy countryside of pruned trees, rocks, and moss outside train windows. “I like the combination of nature and sculpture.”

The diorama suspends in a delicate balance between functional object and art form. Barmon stayed away from the kitschy “plasticky-looking shrubs and trees” that sometimes fill mini-landscapes, and opted to include only rocks and moss; the result looks almost real. Providing a “slice of green” without requiring any maintenance, the diorama is highly functional, but its nature-inspired enigma also hearkens to mushroom dioramas by artist Roxy Paine.

With its artful practicality, the diorama seems to epitomize Deutsch and Barmon’s design approach. At the same time, it makes the place unique. “I made it for our pleasure,” Barmon says, “but then we found out everybody who visits loves it, and Mark was like, ‘You have to keep doing this.’ Dioramas aren’t too sophisticated or particular, and you don’t have to be artsy. Kids, elderly people, everyone can appreciate them.” Barmon might be on the brink of a career change; she already has a commission for another diorama, which will soon adorn the office of luxury travel agency Artisans of Leisure, who likely plan escapes for stifled New Yorkers craving more slices of green.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016
Two studios flanks a central volume at this home in Mexico
Art and life meet in the middle at a family retreat in Central Mexico.
April 24, 2016
natural instinct swedish family home kitchen table unfold pendants muuto lilla aland chairs stolab
With Alvar Aalto in mind, a renowned Swedish architect crafts a serene home on a long-held family plot.
April 24, 2016
clearing the table coffee tables boxinbox philippe starck glas italia storage
A half-century later, furniture designers are catching up to painter Yves Klein’s visionary Table Bleue.
April 23, 2016