Before & After: A Park Avenue Prewar Apartment Gets a Multihued Makeover
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Before & After: A Park Avenue Prewar Apartment Gets a Multihued Makeover

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By Jen Woo
An old flat in a Carnegie Hill co-op building gets a vibrant update that maintains its prewar bones.

Take one look at the home of Laura and Jason Schwalbe, and you’d never guess that it was once a drab apartment with limited natural light. The space did have herringbone wood floors, a fireplace, and French doors—the bones for the flat of their dreams—it just needed a designer’s touch.

Before: The Living Room

Despite the windows, the living room felt dark and uninviting.

Despite the windows, the living room felt dark and uninviting.

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After: The Living Room

The renovation lightened the herringbone floors and brought in bold furniture to brighten up the space. The centerpiece of the room is a circular custom sofa designed by MKCA and upholstered in a bright blue synthetic textile from Maharam. A vintage brass table is surrounded by a sculptural chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and poufs upholstered in shaggy mohair. MKCA made the carpet by joining two shapes of broadloom synthetic silk together.

The renovation lightened the herringbone floors and brought in bold furniture to brighten up the space. The centerpiece of the room is a circular custom sofa designed by MKCA and upholstered in a bright blue synthetic textile from Maharam. A vintage brass table is surrounded by a sculptural chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and poufs upholstered in shaggy mohair. MKCA made the carpet by joining two shapes of broadloom synthetic silk together.

The Schwalbes work in magazine marketing and real estate, so they have an eye for design; it was just a matter of cohesively updating the space to serve as a new home for the couple and their two small children. They turned to Michael K. Chen Architecture (MKCA) to give the outdated apartment a full overhaul that would include creating more space and bringing in light.

Before: The Game Room

The living room was once a large, open space with no separation.

The living room was once a large, open space with no separation.

After: The Game Room

Across from the sofa area is a linen-wrapped game table for casual gatherings.

Across from the sofa area is a linen-wrapped game table for casual gatherings.

"We accomplished that through a multitude of means, including adding partitions in etched glass that pick up ambient sunlight and artificial lighting, as well as incorporating materials that were selected on the basis of their reflectivity, texture, and other attributes relative to light," explains Michael K. Chen.

Before: The Fireplace

The antiquated fireplace didn't make for much of a focal point.

The antiquated fireplace didn't make for much of a focal point.

After: The Fireplace

A gray onyx and bronze fireplace mantel is flanked by turquoise glass sconces and a vintage Fontana Arte mirror. Alongside sits a bone console and a sculptural stainless steel shelving unit by François Monnet. The room features a painting by artist Ilona Savdie, and drawings by Karin Haas.

A gray onyx and bronze fireplace mantel is flanked by turquoise glass sconces and a vintage Fontana Arte mirror. Alongside sits a bone console and a sculptural stainless steel shelving unit by François Monnet. The room features a painting by artist Ilona Savdie, and drawings by Karin Haas.

Next came color selections—the Schwalbes favored immersive paint schemes using de-saturated tones that fluctuate and change based on the quality of natural light. Chen centered his approach around enlarging openings, and connecting spaces with multiple paths of circulation. The idea was to create opportunities for light to play against textured and translucent surfaces to activate areas that didn’t receive much sun.

Before: The Dining Room

The dining room was drab with plain walls, dark flooring, and a single bulb jutting out of the ceiling.

The dining room was drab with plain walls, dark flooring, and a single bulb jutting out of the ceiling.

After: The Dining Room

Chen painted the walls a desaturated pink and brought in an 11-foot-long custom table in high-gloss lacquer, steel, and gold leaf by L.A.–based designers Alex Drew and No One. Around it are vintage Joe Colombo dining chairs in their original fabric, and a pair of leather and steel lounge chairs. Above the vintage Henry Glass sideboard from Converso is a vintage chinoiserie panel. 

Chen painted the walls a desaturated pink and brought in an 11-foot-long custom table in high-gloss lacquer, steel, and gold leaf by L.A.–based designers Alex Drew and No One. Around it are vintage Joe Colombo dining chairs in their original fabric, and a pair of leather and steel lounge chairs. Above the vintage Henry Glass sideboard from Converso is a vintage chinoiserie panel. 

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The Schwalbes wanted their home to be functional, sophisticated, and whimsical. Chen sought to balance their desire for a modern update with maintaining the charm of the original layout. "We wanted the existing spaces to retain their gracious formality—it is Park Avenue, after all—but tempered that with bright colors, playful and graphic forms, and varied textures," he explains.

Before: The Kitchen

The kitchen was outdated with yellowed stone counters, bulky cabinets and appliances, and dark flooring. 

The kitchen was outdated with yellowed stone counters, bulky cabinets and appliances, and dark flooring. 

After: The Kitchen

Chen used high-contrast materials to lighten the space, which has only one window. He lined the kitchen in glossy 3-D tile from Ann Sacks, and wall covering from Flat Vernacular. He removed the rear wall of the kitchen and replaced it with a sliding acid-etched glass partition, which picks up ambient light from windows in the service entrance. Chen installed drawers below the white marble countertops and swapped out overhead cabinets for full-height cabinets in the pantry. Under the glass partition, a thick counter of striped Kenya Black marble adds doubles as a bar top and work surface.

Chen used high-contrast materials to lighten the space, which has only one window. He lined the kitchen in glossy 3-D tile from Ann Sacks, and wall covering from Flat Vernacular. He removed the rear wall of the kitchen and replaced it with a sliding acid-etched glass partition, which picks up ambient light from windows in the service entrance. Chen installed drawers below the white marble countertops and swapped out overhead cabinets for full-height cabinets in the pantry. Under the glass partition, a thick counter of striped Kenya Black marble adds doubles as a bar top and work surface.

The gut renovation of the 2,800-square-foot apartment opened a series of small openings between rooms, cleared away a warren of service spaces to create a generous eat-in kitchen, and installed a new powder room and cloak room, accessed from the entrance gallery.

Before: The Breakfast Nook

The original kitchen provided no space for a breakfast table. 

The original kitchen provided no space for a breakfast table. 

After: The Breakfast Nook

An Enzo Mari gorilla print hangs over the breakfast table, flanked by Erich Ginder fabric sconces. Overhead, a handful of Michael Anastassiades fixtures from The Future Perfect offers ample task lighting.

An Enzo Mari gorilla print hangs over the breakfast table, flanked by Erich Ginder fabric sconces. Overhead, a handful of Michael Anastassiades fixtures from The Future Perfect offers ample task lighting.

The design team maximized already well-proportioned, formal zones—like the generous entrance gallery, and the living and dining rooms—while converting the dark and crowded storage and service areas into functional spaces.

Before: The Powder Room

MKCA turned a closet into a new powder room.

MKCA turned a closet into a new powder room.

After: The Powder Room

The sleek and moody new powder room is lined from floor to ceiling with handmade, metallic black tiles from Heath Ceramics and features a floating custom console of slightly pink Rosa Aurora stone and a smoke mirror. In juxtaposition, the new cloak room across from the bathroom has powdery pink lacquer built-ins, integrated LED lighting, and flamingo wallpaper.

The sleek and moody new powder room is lined from floor to ceiling with handmade, metallic black tiles from Heath Ceramics and features a floating custom console of slightly pink Rosa Aurora stone and a smoke mirror. In juxtaposition, the new cloak room across from the bathroom has powdery pink lacquer built-ins, integrated LED lighting, and flamingo wallpaper.

Before: The Master Bedroom

The dreary olive-toned bedroom needed a refresh and a bathroom redo.

The dreary olive-toned bedroom needed a refresh and a bathroom redo.

After: The Master Bedroom

MKCA painted the bedroom a muted pink and added custom-milled his and hers closets and new finishes and fixtures in the master bath. A vintage shelving unit by Frederick Weinberg sourced from eBay holds ceramics and books that the couple collect, and the bed is flanked by vintage nightstands by Luigi Caccia Dominioni for Azucena, sourced from Compasso Gallery. The custom sconces are by Allied Maker.

MKCA painted the bedroom a muted pink and added custom-milled his and hers closets and new finishes and fixtures in the master bath. A vintage shelving unit by Frederick Weinberg sourced from eBay holds ceramics and books that the couple collect, and the bed is flanked by vintage nightstands by Luigi Caccia Dominioni for Azucena, sourced from Compasso Gallery. The custom sconces are by Allied Maker.

The result is a four bedroom, three and a half bath home that’s refined and oh, so elegant melding modern and vintage pieces from Heath Ceramics, Fontana Arte, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, François Monnet, Luigi Caccia Dominioni for Azucena, Los Angeles designers Alex Drew and No One, and more. It’s also totally functional, entirely unpretentious, and doesn’t take itself too seriously with a striking color palette that shifts from room to room with fluid shapes. 

Before: The Daughter's Room

This bedroom was dark with checkered carpet and dominated by floor-to-ceiling built-in shelving. 

This bedroom was dark with checkered carpet and dominated by floor-to-ceiling built-in shelving. 

After: The Daughter's Room

MKCA removed the carpet and cabinetry and repainted the walls to polish the room. Tropical motifs from the front of the apartment mingle with Scandinavian sensibilities. Sheepskin pillows add softness to a CB2 daybed with a custom cushion, upholstered in a Josef Frank botanical print. A vintage teak rocker by Finn Juhl, tall shelving from Hem, and a<br>coterie of animal-cum-footstool pieces from Kinder Modern surround the daughter’s play table.

MKCA removed the carpet and cabinetry and repainted the walls to polish the room. Tropical motifs from the front of the apartment mingle with Scandinavian sensibilities. Sheepskin pillows add softness to a CB2 daybed with a custom cushion, upholstered in a Josef Frank botanical print. A vintage teak rocker by Finn Juhl, tall shelving from Hem, and a
coterie of animal-cum-footstool pieces from Kinder Modern surround the daughter’s play table.

Each area maintains its own character—from the roseate dining room with plush cranberry and canary-toned vintage Joe Colombo chairs and spidery onyx pendants, to the airy living room with bone-white walls, a massive circular sofa in bright azure, and a geode-framed fireplace. It’s all about balance—where there’s dark, there’s also light; patterns meet solids; and straight lines are paired with curves to create spaces that seamlessly slip into each other.

Before: The Vestibule

The hallway felt like an outdated hotel room with muted colors, textures, and decor.

The hallway felt like an outdated hotel room with muted colors, textures, and decor.

After: The Vestibule

Simple walls, geometric flooring, and a handful of modern pieces make all the difference.

Simple walls, geometric flooring, and a handful of modern pieces make all the difference.

Related Reading: A Pristine Prospect Heights Townhouse Deftly Harmonizes Old With New 

Project Credits: 

Interior Design: MKCA (Natasha Harper, Michael Chen, Braden Caldwell, Justin Snider, Robinson Strong, and Julian Anderson)

General Contractor: Think Construction 

Styling: Cristina Sonneman