Aleksander Novak-Zemplinski and Becky Nix met thanks to a student exchange program between the architecture schools at the University of Detroit Mercy and the Warsaw Polytechnic University of Technology. After stints working in architecture firms in Los Angeles, the couple now divides their time between Warsaw and Detroit. A little over two years ago, they moved into a roughly 1,000-square-foot apartment they bought in a spanking-new subdivision in Warsaw. "We decided to make it an experimental project," says Novak-Zemplinski. So they set up a wood shop in what would be the living room, and, to the extreme puzzlement of the neighbors, proceeded to build just about everything in the apartment themselves, by hand.
Novak-Zemplinski: We went for an industrial loft–type aesthetic and space. When we first saw the apartment, it was still under construction and the ceiling was raw. We really liked the exposed concrete, so we said, "Let’s keep it."
Nix: We’ve lived in a lot of small places. We’ve tried to incorporate the lessons we learned so we could really improve the space. When it’s this small, you have to be organized.
Novak-Zemplinski: Our home is like a machine. You can move things, reconfigure the space.
Nix: We wanted a big living room, but if guests come, we want them to have private space. So we invented what we call the Cube. You can open it up, pull down the Murphy bed, then slide out the pocket doors to form a wall. Once the Cube is closed back up, you don’t even realize the space segments.
Novak-Zemplinski: The Cube is like a little robot—it transforms into a room, then back into a big box. We have lots of robots here. Like the coffee table: Stand any of its parts upright, and they turn into barstools.
Nix: To socialize, everyone gathers in the kitchen. So we decided to make the kitchen part of the living room. It’s the hearth, where you gather around. But we also wanted a library in there.
Novak-Zemplinski: We drew a lot of sketches and didn’t like them. Then we put casters on the bookshelves and it was an epiphany. We designed raw black-steel shelves that are exactly the height and depth to fit under the kitchen island. So if people want to sit at the counter, you can roll the shelves out and stand up the barstools. The mobility adds life to the space. Visually, the apartment has a lot of potential combinations, a lot of looks. The bookshelves have room on both sides, so you can even hide the books you’re ashamed of—say, the romances.
Nix: For about two years, this was a lab. We didn’t have everything designed beforehand. It was always "What do you think of this?" A lot of adjustments we made onsite.
Novak-Zemplinski: We had pretty basic tools, minimal in form and purpose. So when designing the furniture, we chose simple shapes to make it as easy as possible.
Nix: The pattern on the kitchen ceiling and cabinets we had CNC-milled for us. The pattern is a graphic interpretation of a few different trees that were near the Communist-era apartment in Warsaw we were living in before. One day, we were walking around the park there; the leaves were coming off the trees, and when we looked up we saw these nice patterns. We stood against a trunk and took pictures.
Novak-Zemplinski: By American standards, the 135-square-foot bedroom is very small. For a Communist bedroom, it’s huge. This is a small apartment; we wanted to keep as much open space as possible.
Nix: We don’t believe you need a lot of room for a bedroom—it’s just used for sleeping and…other things, as they say. We made everything in the apartment but the BoConcept sofa. The pieces we created are not of the highest quality, nor are they high design. But it was more about the process of trying and learning. It’s nice to feel like you’ve created something. There’s a story everywhere.
Writer Sally McGrane flew to Copenhagen from her home in Berlin to visit the Mountain Dwellings. She was particularly impressed by the Victor Ash murals in the garage of wolves and moose atop wreaked cars. What she found hard to believe, however, was that David Zahle, a resident and one of the architects who helped design the building, has never had any dreams about the "car cathedral" under his home.