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

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016