Stepping into the cool kitchen recess of an upper-floor apartment in a grand brick building along one of Brooklyn’s leafy avenues, one can be forgiven for not immediately identifying this home as a project driven by application of color. Walls are mostly painted gray, floors stained ebony. A slab of black walnut from North Carolina, beautifully grain-matched, folds over the top and side of the kitchen island. Ceilings are white, the linen curtains natural, and lighting fixtures, the designers’ own, are made from black steel-pipe rods. There is gray stone in the shower surrounds of both bathrooms. Outside, through tall windows, there may be a blue sky over Brooklyn or a shot of color off a Manhattan tower in the distance—the view from the top floor of this prewar on Eastern Parkway is ridiculous—but otherwise nothing jumps out, colorwise.
Still, color is the first topic to arise when Stefanie Brechbuehler discusses the design. It was on her mind from the start as she and Robert Highsmith, her husband and partner at Workstead, along with associate Ryan Mahoney, contemplated this renovation of a compact four-bedroom duplex—one of the firm’s first home commissions—across from the front gate of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “They said, ‘We’re from India; we’re used to a lot of color,’” Brechbuehler explains of the clients, fortysomething professionals Laxman Mandayam and Puja Vohra. “It was one of the first things they mentioned on the phone when they called.”
And that freaked Brechbuehler and Highsmith out a little, as one will look in vain for color (exuberant, functional, emotive, secret, or otherwise) in the work of this Red Hook, Brooklyn–based design office. It didn’t need to be stressed, as Brechbuehler related the story, that for herself and Highsmith—products of the intense graduate architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)—the use of bold color, any color, was a sort of terra incognita far from the center of their education, or, at least, a terra not yet encountered and assimilated into their work.
At RISD, where they studied four (Robert) and six (Stefanie) years ago, the two fell into the orbit of Kyna Leski: professor; head of the department of architecture; and a student of John Hejduk, the late, long-serving dean of the architecture program at the Cooper Union. Hedjuk was known as a guru of the visual and arcane, a great myth of a man well before his death in 2000. Leski’s own students, in the Hejdukian tradition, comprise something of a doubly cloistered elite within the monastic seclusion of the school. Her thing, and Workstead’s, is a rigorous, intuitive process and the poetic (but still very regimented) use of materials. Brechbuehler, for instance, “was writing haikus for a month during thesis, and these haikus generated an infrastructure.” Highsmith was boiling MDF (apparently it does a lot more than just melt into brown slush). “At RISD you can’t show a line that’s curved if you can’t back it up,” he adds.
So bright paint was out—too easy, no integrity. After the usual designerly deliberation (something Brechbuehler and Highsmith do well together without too much rancor—she with a touch more right brain, it seems; he angling in from the left), they found a way out: They decided to use brass as their “color.” It appears in drawer pulls and switch plates; the accent rings around the knobs of the gas range and the oversize hood above, shows up in the Bauhaus-influenced handles of the sliding doors that divide the living space from a study, and is a highlight in their custom-made articulated light fixtures. As it so happens, brass was not an easy choice, since so much of the material on the market errs to the intolerably antique, a word Brechbuehler uses with some derision. Though she once worked for Roman and Williams, the office that helped to pioneer the turn to nostalgia we saw everywhere in the last decade, Brechbuehler does not go in for the evocation of an imprecisely remembered, presumably more auratic past. “There was a faucet we liked for the kitchen but it only came in chrome,” Brechbuehler says. “We had it stripped and replated,” but finished clean, not distressed.
There are other applications of what one might call integral color: the slab of wood on the island, of course, and matching cabinets in the kitchen and master bath, both the handiwork of Markus Barten-schlager, a local craftsman the two refer to with great respect as their “go-to German cabinetmaker.” Every up-and-coming Brooklyn design team needs one; indeed, one wonders if Brechbuehler and Highsmith would have dared to conceive the tansu-inspired understair storage wall, with its precise reveals, without knowing they had a Bartenschlager on hand to realize it. Even where demonstrably superficial, and nominally depleted of chroma, a material sensibility rules. The water-based, kid-friendly paint on the cabinetry was hand-applied by a local Brooklyn artist with a subtle patina. The brush-marks are carefully preserved, animating the surfaces, and when you open the cabinet doors they go through a muted spectrum as they reflect the light from outdoors.
For their part, the clients—a software architect (him) and vice president of sales and marketing at Oxygen Media (her)—are thrilled with the place, since the kitchen has them cooking more, and the simplicity and ease of using the space lets them relax with the exception, perhaps, of a stretch when the family had 30 houseguests over a six- month period, during which the guest room on the second level and the beds of generous neighbors down the hall got quite the workouts during the Christmas holiday. “We are never going to move anywhere as long as we live,” Vohra states—a particularly strong assertion from a woman who not too long ago uprooted her husband from Brooklyn to Bangalore, only to miss the borough so intensely that after 18 months they packed back up and returned with a toddler daughter in tow.
A now-three-year-old Mira goes a long way to brighten up the place, but Mandayam and Vohra are happy to be living in comparative monochromy. Previous apartments, in and around New York City and in India, always had splashes of color, “an earth-toned wall” or the like, Mandayam says. They were bored with it. “For us this is a new experience, a home with a Western sensibility, all gray.” The exchange of sensibilities goes both ways. After speaking to us for this story, Brechbuehler and Highsmith were off to India, for the wedding of a friend and some travel, including stays with their clients’ families in Delhi and the Himalayas. “We’re going to come back and our next project will be turquoise,” Highsmith says. And we’ll believe it when we see it.
Philip Nobel is the author of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (Metropolitan, 2005). He regularly writes architectural criticism for The New York Times and Vogue and has appeared as a commentator on CBS and MSNBC.