A Fashionable Couple Remake Their Brooklyn Brownstone with a Sartorial Twist
Call it good luck or a fluke—fate has a funny way of working. For Jeff Madalena and Jason Gnewikow, serendipity struck at Nowhere Bar, Manhattan’s East Village hang where they met in the early aughts. At the time, both were New York transplants starting small businesses. Jeff, cofounder of rocker-chic clothing brand Oak, had just opened shop in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Jason, a former musician and graphic designer, was launching a creative agency called Athletics just a few blocks away. The two started dating and soon realized they shared a penchant for ambitious undertakings. "We’re serial project people," Jason confesses. Since then, the couple have grown their individual ventures while starting others together—including a gut renovation of their weekend retreat in the Catskills. It was only a matter of time before they tackled their home base in Brooklyn.
"We lead very cluttered lives, and we wanted a place where we could cook dinner, chill out, and carry out the day," Jason says. Jeff agrees: "We need a space to clear our heads," he says. "That’s important to us."
Their decision to buy in the borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was an act of coming full circle. The two began renting there in 2007, after answering a Craigslist ad in which a photo of a window detail made them swoon. Jeff, who was among the first residents of Bushwick’s now-legendary (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) McKibbin Street Lofts, has longhad his finger on the pulse of Brooklyn’s emerging creative communities. They moved north to Greenpoint a few years later, after opening a bar there. When it closed, they "decided to hunker down and buy something," Jeff says, so they rang up the broker they’d worked with in Bed-Stuy. "She told us the neighbors two doors down were selling their house. Everything fell into place from there."
"The idea of having a very modern space in an old building spoke to us."
—Jeff Madalena, resident
Built around 1910, the brownstone provided the space they longed for and then some: separate apartments on the garden and parlor floors, two studios on the next level, and a floor-through one-bedroom at the top. The interiors, however, needed some work. Rooms were filled with abandoned possessions, and dated carpet and peel-and-stick vinyl tiles were everywhere. "When we ripped it all out, there were gorgeous floors underneath," Jeff says. "It was a super score."
The pair knew what they wanted: room for entertaining, storage space,and a big kitchen and bathroom. After four years of renovating their upstate home, they were keen to make faster, more focused decisions. "Once you do a renovation, it removes a lot of fear," Jason says. They designed everything themselves and hired architect Michael Almon to sign off on the drawings.
"We wanted something uncluttered and clean to unwind in."
—Jason Gnewikow, resident
The floor plan on each level is relatively untouched: a large rectangle with the original rooms, details, and pocket doors intact. They combined the garden and parlor floors by removing a wall near the front door, transforming them into the one-bedroom apartment that Jeff and Jason occupy; they rent out the renovated studios and apartment on the upper floors. "You’re limited to what you can do in the front and back of a brownstone," Jason says. "The renovation was less architecturally intensive and more about our interior choices."
Inside, their personalities shine. Jeff, who grew up fixated on the cool, sculptural stylings of Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein, has an affinity for black that complements Jason’s graphic sensibility: a clean, pared-down style gleaned from the Swiss-designed record sleeves of British bands he idolized in his 20s. Both have traveled the globe and have a fondness for Parisian interiors.
"As creatives, we are always looking at the old to create the new," Jeff explains. "The idea of having a very modern space in an old building spoke to us. And because this is New York, we wanted something sexy."
The home’s sleek, downtown appeal is apparent in the matte-quartzite island of its black-and-white kitchen and a light fixture made from brass and glazed porcelain by their pals atMateria Designs. A custom dining table sits beneath it, providing a place for dinner parties and hanging out. In the adjacent living room, a pair of vintage Milo Baughman lounge chairs—a fortuitous $150 Craigslist find—are covered in Mongolian lamb fur and flank acoffee table crafted by their friend Eric Slayton. A 1970s Cy Twombly exhibition print, found at a bookstore in Paris, leads downstairs. Perfectly preserved parquet flooring complements the family room, where Jeff and Jason spend most of their time. A bright hallway leads to the bedroom, a laundry area (formerly a kitchen), and a previously cramped bathroom. The bedroom is now expanded and features a door to the backyard, where a garden of peonies blossoms below a string of Edison bulbs.
"We’re kind of obsessed with interiors, but we don’t have a lot of things here," says Jason. "This is our quiet sanctuary."
Tiffany Jow is a New York-based writer and editor focusing on art, architecture, and design. While earning her MA in London, Tiffany spent a year in the Research Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and contributed to its 2011 exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Currently, she is Communications Director at Dror.