Vertical Challenge

Vertical Challenge

By Jane Szita
In the lofty Amsterdam apartment of Texas-born Hunter Hindman and Shelby Carr, mid-century modern mixes freely with contemporary Dutch design in a setting transposed from the 17th century.

When Hunter Hindman and Shelby Carr first saw their future home on Amsterdam’s Brouwersgracht, it had been functioning as an artist’s studio since the 1970s and was chock-full of canvases, paint, and clutter. "It was shabby and stuffed with junk, and it was just sitting on the market as a result, but we could see straight away that it was a really amazing space," says Hindman, a creative director. "The height of the central area, which is two stories tall, gives it a unique feeling. It was totally different from any other apartment we looked at."

"That big hole in the middle of the ceiling totally did it for us," says Carr, a textiles designer, with a laugh. The middle story of the apartment is effectively a catwalk-like gallery, clinging to the walls and framing the massive wooden beams of the high ceiling to great effect. "Coming from America, the sense of history here wowed us," the Texan adds. "We’re just not used to anything this old." Built in 1630 as a warehouse, a function it kept right up until 1969, the building’s interior has changed little over the centuries. It retains its original handmade brick walls and broad oak beams. "The raw, simple quality of the interior really appealed to us," says Hindman. "And best of all, when we moved up to the top floor—which you could reach only by a ladder then—there was yet another great space, with an incredible beamed ceiling complete with an old pulley system."

But age and authenticity inevitably come with a price: The apartment had never been lived in as a home. It had no real kitchen or bathroom, and had hardly been touched since the 1970s. "We weren’t even looking for a place to renovate," says Carr. "We’d lived in a loft in San Francisco, and that was what we wanted to find here in Amsterdam. But we were viewing finished, loft-style apartments, and they were all the same sort of thing: low ceilings and blank white plaster walls. When we saw this place, it just clicked—but because it didn’t fit our idea of a finished apartment, we thought we should look around some more, just to make sure."

After several weeks, the couple returned. The apartment was still on the market. "This time, we jumped right in," says Hindman. "This is the first home we’ve ever bought—so, of course, we had no idea what we were getting into."

It turned out to be a complete renovation that would ultimately "cost twice as much and take three times as long" as the couple envisaged—primarily because, as Carr says, "we just kept realizing there were more and more things to do." Namely rewiring, re-laying the floors, and building a new kitchen and bathrooms, as well as replacing the ladder between the middle and top floors with a spiral staircase. "We didn’t want to do anything too structural," says Hindman. "We knew we had to keep the unique quality of the space." The couple hired a builder, and made the design decisions themselves. The only structural additions are two brick partitions in the top-floor bedroom to create storage and a dressing room. The walls extend across a third of the floor, and articulate the space rather than interrupt it. Downstairs, in the main living area, it was obvious where to begin. "The kitchen was the natural starting point," says Carr, who cooks every day and has discovered an enthusiasm for using seasonal produce. "There was only a basic one here—literally a hot plate." The couple found a small company, Op16, on the nearby Prinsenstraat, where Lucia King, a former Milan fashion student, designs kitchens and her husband custom builds them. Op16 created a teak-and-steel kitchen, complete with a compact white butler’s sink, to meet the couple’s criteria: "We wanted to echo the raw, industrial feel of the building, which the steel certainly does," says
Hindman. "On the other hand, kitchens can feel austere and cold, and we didn’t want that. The curved edge of the steel counter negates that tendency and softens the overall effect." Op16 also made the wooden washstand/dressing table on the top floor, which goes some way to compensating for the extremely small, but perfectly formed, bathroom: "I think we could have made the bathroom bigger," says Hindman. "But then again, living in Amsterdam has taught me a lot about the effective use of space, because it’s such a compact city."

The couple decided to paint the 400-year-old brickwork white themselves, to save money—leaving one wall in the cloakroom unpainted as a reminder of the building’s functional past. While the white paint smoothes out the bigger imperfections in the wall and maximizes light from the windows and the spotlights installed in the north-facing apartment, it still allows the character of the bricks to assert itself. "I think white plaster walls often look museum-like," says Hindman. "But the roughness of the brick gives a warmer effect." Similarly, they considered painting or polishing the 17th-century beams, but finally decided to leave them in their original state. "There are all kinds of markings on the beams," says Hindman. "I’ll notice a number carved there that I haven’t seen before, and I think, What was the story behind that?" The original iron railings surrounding the middle story were also left as found, complete with smudges of paint from the artist who worked there for three and a half decades. "All these human traces tell the story of the apartment," says Carr.

When the couple lived in San Francisco, they collected mid-century design. In Amsterdam, they became frequent visitors to the Frozen Fountain, the city’s leading design store, where they began acquiring modern Dutch furniture. Their apartment combines the two, bridging the half century that separates the pieces. "It is interesting how mid-century-modern American furniture somehow synchronizes with contemporary Dutch furniture," says Hindman. "They seem to share the same simplicity and
functionality." The apartment makes a perfect foil for a sequence of strong, sometimes quirky pieces. The George Nelson daybed, gracing the position of honor in front of the biggest arched window of the middle floor, forms a focal point for guests. "Somehow they always congregate here," says Hindman. It nods to an elegant chest of drawers by Peter Laszlo on the other side of the second story. On the floor below, a deceptively simple wooden dining table and chairs by Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek join two of his Scrap barstools, made from reclaimed wood, at the kitchen counter.

"I wanted to buy everything by Piet Hein Eek," says Carr. "Everything he makes is perfect for this apartment. I’m a fan of simple wood furniture, with a twist; the great thing about Dutch design is its playfulness and humor. " With the white walls, an "injection of color" was essential, adds Hindman. "That’s what appealed to us about the giant patchwork beanbag from the Frozen Fountain, which is made of old blankets that would be hideous individually, but together they work." Carr admits the beanbag has become "the most decadent dog bed in the world," for the couple’s English bull terrier, Rommel (named for the Dutch word for "mess," rather than the Desert Fox).

"Living here is a great experience," says Hindman, "and we’ve really discovered Dutch design, which is not widely found in the U.S., and we’ve come to appreciate the Dutch aesthetic, which is modest and restrained. What’s more, I’ve done the best work of my career so far here." Although they had intended to stay longer, an irresistible new job offer will soon be taking them back to the United States. "Advertising is a transient culture," Hindman adds. "It pays off to move around. We’re sad to have to leave this apartment—we have the emotional attachment to it that we might have to a childhood home—but now we’ve cut our teeth on renovation, we’ll certainly do it again. But we won’t jump right back in—at least, not just yet."

Join Dwell+ to Continue

Subscribe to Dwell+ to get everything you already love about Dwell, plus exclusive home tours, video features, how-to guides, access to the Dwell archive, and more.

Try Dwell+ for FREE

You can cancel at any time.