After purchasing a majestic but dilapidated 19th-century brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, a husband-and-wife couple — she a public-school art teacher and artist, he a tech venture-capital investor — set about finding an architect to revive the four-story, four-bedroom house. Built in 1899, the 3,600-square-foot landmarked building had been abandoned for over 20 years, and while its oversize backyard and sweeping Douglas fir staircase remained grand and inviting, the paint was peeling, the plaster was crumbling and the red oak floors were coated in two decades’ worth of grime. Each half of the couple independently sourced suggestions for an architect, asking their respective friends and family members for recommendations. But when they reconvened, each prepared to argue for their own incontestable pick, they found themselves blurting out the same name: Michael Chen.
Chen, the founder of Michael K. Chen Architecture (MKCA), is known for his devotion to craft and sense of playfulness, and, like the owners, he was dazzled by the home’s existing palette: Flaking off the walls in various rooms were fragments of turquoise, celadon, raspberry, emerald green and dramatic stormy blue paint. He knew immediately that rich color would become an organizing principle of the renovation. “In a lot of brownstone projects, one tends to see restorations of original details and then everything is painted white,” he says. “We were collectively not interested in that approach.” For Chen, color is a “deeply immersive condition” — a defining aspect of a space that creates an architectural framework of its own. (“My least favorite design expression is ‘pop of color,’” he says.) And so, he decided to use color to tell a larger story within the home: While each room would be set apart from the others by its own unique shade, together these bold hues — more modern odes to the paints he’d discovered than exact recreations — would layer his architectural signature, along with the vibrant personalities of the home’s new owners, onto this pedigreed building without overwriting its history.
With this bold chromatic scheme as their starting point, Chen and his team worked closely with the artist owner to devise an aesthetic that felt personal to her and her husband. Chen wanted to incorporate the pair’s appreciation for midcentury modernism, and for the delightfully kitschy: She collects works of art modeled after food and provided Chen with design references that included stills from Wes Anderson movies, along with a request for at least one element borrowed from Blanche Devereaux’s flamboyant Florida home in the ’80s-era TV show “The Golden Girls.” A specialist in figurative line drawings, watercolors and giant, plush fabric sculptures, the artist asked, too, for places to display some of her own work, such as a group of eight-inch-tall ceramic renderings of human teeth and irreverent paintings of bodybuilders. In the finished home, the bright walls create a striking backdrop for these and other offbeat pieces, like a pair of works in felt by the British artist Lucy Sparrow, shaped like a can of Spam and a package of hot dogs, respectively, which hang against a butter yellow wall in the kitchen.
Perhaps nowhere in the home is the color more brilliant than in the living room, a 300-square-foot space at the back of the parlor floor with an elegant bay window overlooking the lush garden, planted by Brook Landscape with foxgloves, acanthus, birch trees and a towering magnolia tree. Once magenta, the room’s walls — as well as its ceiling, moldings and baseboards — are now a calming shade of desaturated terra cotta (Benjamin Moore’s Palazzo Pink). While Chen’s firm went to great lengths to preserve the home’s historical details, precisely recreating the original carved moldings that were too damaged to be saved, he didn’t want them to become the subject of this room; finishing each surface in a single color softened their presence and heightened the experiential effect of being enveloped in a field of pink. To further bridge past and present, Chen refashioned the fireplace — formerly an unornamented, blackened-brick hole-in-the-wall — into a defiantly modern, asymmetrical structure made from two giant black-and-white marble slabs. And to make the scale of the room, which has 11-foot-tall ceilings, feel more intimate, he installed an Astro Mobile chandelier by Andrew Neyer and purposefully chose only low-slung furniture, including a modular forest green velvet sofa by Tufty Time, which gives the space a more cozy, laid-back mood.
However adventurous in color, though, each room of the house retains its functionality. On the fourth floor, a bathroom conceived of with the owners’ future children in mind is covered from floor to ceiling with blazing red Heath Ceramics tiles so that the inevitable splashes won’t ruin the walls. And the butterscotch orange library, which sits just off the parlor floor’s front entryway, was designed as a work-from-home area, with a slim-legged black-oak-and-ash Ligne Roset desk and a sculptural wall-mounted plastic organizer by Dorothee Becker for stashing pens and stray paper clips. Only the 265-square-foot master bedroom, on the third floor, is finished in neutral shades. Chen intended the gray and white walls to lend a sense of calm to the space where the couple unwinds each night — even if a geometric-patterned bedspread by the Brooklyn textile brand Dusen Dusen Home and a handwoven cerulean Moroccan rug still provide hints of color.
The ground floor, meanwhile, holds the home’s kitchen and an adjacent lounge with three glass doors that lead to a 285-square-foot sunken patio. To divide this level into distinct spaces for different uses, Chen created a vivid gradient effect across the entire floor using custom encaustic concrete tiles from the Cement Tile Shop. Assembled in tumbling-block patterns from 2,800 tiles in 17 unique color schemes, the grid transitions from a combination of black, white and blue at the home’s front entrance, to green and pink hues in the kitchen and indoor lounge area, to red and ocher for the exterior terrace. Furnishings in bold shades help to further define the kitchen: Lacquered oxblood cabinetry designates the cooking and storage zone, while a 12-foot-long avocado green rectangular lacquered island with a concrete countertop and Nerd bar stools by Muuto serves as a central gathering point for a quick breakfast or impromptu drinks during dinner prep as the light that streams in through the seven-foot-tall glass doors begins to fade.
Elsewhere, Chen oversaw structural changes to make the most of the natural light. Brownstones are typically darkest at their centers, and so he added two inventive skylights to the roof. In the master bathroom, a rectangular double-height light well — which Chen describes as a “negative prism” and is painted in a soft peach — bathes the large, free-standing oval bathtub in a warm glow no matter the time of day. “We took a note from James Turrell,” Chen explains, referring to the American Light and Space movement artist known for manipulating beams of light to create three-dimensional projected sculptures. “The idea was to define a volume of light that feels as if it’s sort of punched down and into the floor.” In another nod to Turrell, on the fourth floor, he installed a 10-foot-wide skylight above the uppermost landing of the main staircase. The aperture, which was fashioned by recessing two overlapping conical depressions into the ceiling, allows natural light to descend through the stairwell via what appears to be a flying-saucer-shaped opening to the heavens.
In order to reflect the color of the sky downward and into the home, Chen painted the entire stairwell the same shade of atmospheric gray-blue. As such, the center of the house is unified by an unbroken expanse of color, illuminated from above. At the foot of the staircase, though, Chen still had to devise a way of transitioning from the traditionally preserved parlor level to the more contemporary kitchen floor below. To achieve this, he conceived of a visual caesura — a break in the architectural language of the staircase itself. He removed the lowermost section of the original wooden balustrade and replaced it with a custom railing of his own design, a thin steel handrail that features a looping, ribbonlike banister and leads down to the kitchen. And, as is true throughout the home, it is color that connects present and the past. To match the dark, metallic shade of his modern addition, Chen finished the balusters, handrail and newel of the restored original staircase in an inky black Farrow & Ball paint called, quite simply, Railings. “Sometimes,” Chen says, “you receive instructions from the universe, and you just follow them.”