~ Love what she did, a little too much white for me, but otherwise completely gorgeous! ~
Found objects and inherited items get their due in a gleaming Harlem apartment
The full renovation of her 960-square-foot apartment in New York City took almost a year — and “probably one off of my life too,” says Laura Handler. It transformed the Harlem home into an empty loft-like space “so bright that I needed to wear snow goggles in it,” the product designer says. The newly updated space blanketed in white provides a blank backdrop for Handler’s thoughtful collected style.
Houzz at a Glance
Who lives here: Laura Handler
Harlem neighborhood of New York City
960 square feet (89 square meters); two bedrooms, one bathroom
Before: Handler called the kitchen “disgusting and unacceptable.” “Because of the configuration of the apartment, I didn’t like how the kitchen was boxed in,” she says.
With fewer walls, Handler now enjoys an open, loft-like space showcasing windows that let in more natural light. The living room is furnished with several pieces given to Handler by Joan and Bern Roscho, a couple she has known all her life and considers surrogate parents. They recently moved into a retirement home and passed along the 1972 Camaleonda sectional, designed by Mario Bellini and made by B&B Italia. Handler had it professionally reupholstered in an aubergine mohair velvet from Wolf Gordon
. “The better to hide any wine spills,” she says. The long mirror-and-chrome coffee table was also designed by Bellini and can accommodate dinner for up to eight people.
“Joan was a glamorous architect in New York in the ’60s and ’70s, and Bern was a sociologist. I just remember visiting them as a kid in New York City from Connecticut, and I would look at her fabric samples. She helped form my aesthetic and inspired me to become a designer,” Handler says.
“The theme of the apartment is my life,” says Handler, pictured here in the living room. “All items are personal and sentimental. I have either collected them, or people have given them to me.” Handler lived in Montana and Milan before moving back to Manhattan.
“I sold my apartment and moved from New York City to my vacation home in Montana — a log cabin and 20 acres in Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. Although my life was perfect before with an apartment in New York and a place in Pray, Montana, living in just Montana was not enough for a New Yorker like me,” she says. “I was going nuts and also realized as a designer I needed to be here.”
One thing she loves about her 14-story 1956 building is the friendliness of her neighbors. “Everyone says hello in the elevators and hallways, and it feels like a small Southern town,” Handler says.
Handler bought the home in July 2013, construction started in January 2014, and she moved in when things were complete in October 2014. “When you live in an apartment building, it also takes a lot of time for renovation approvals.” Handler lived in a nearby sublet apartment and kept her things in two rented storage units.
Transforming the original parquet into a glossy white floor took multiple tries for Handler. Lenmar’s Endure-2K, a water-based acrylic epoxy, protects the white-painted flooring.
After: Seen here are more pieces from the Roschos, including a Moroccan rug, cork ottoman, 1950s starburst mirror from Mexico and Mexican bronze lamp.
The new white cabinets are custom. The homeowner worked with architect Stephen Chin of Chin De Watteville Design Studio
to provide a permit-approved drawing for the city for her renovations, and he also helped with the layout of the appliances. Both the dishwasher and the refrigerator are concealed behind the cabinetry. The existing kitchen didn’t come with a dishwasher, so Handler was especially happy with that addition.
Range: Verona Ranges; dishwasher: Miele
Before: The kitchen felt closed off. Handler knew right away that she wanted to paint the anodized dark brown trim on the windows white and remove the wall pictured on the left.
After: With the wall gone and the newly finished white floors and cabinets, the space feels much airier. The bright white countertop and backsplash are Corian.
The wood table came from Handler’s mother. “This is one of the few pieces of early Americana reproduction Shaker-style tables with the drop-down leaves,” she says. “I used it for years as a workspace. It’s got scratches and dents and dings, and that’s just fine.”
Artfully displayed on top are collected items including a pair of 1950s Swedish brass candlesticks Handler found in a vintage store in Montana. Next to them are wrought-iron pitchforks — one with three tines, the other with four — also from Montana. “I just think they are beautiful objects. I like that I’m bringing objects from Montana to New York City that are great mementos,” Handler says. The African amber beads were a gift from the Roschos to Handler for her 21st birthday.
The gallery wall was put together with the help of Handler’s interior designer friend Paul Siskin of Siskin Valls
. “I call it my ‘Paul Wall,’” she says. “An important note to anyone who ever wants to create a wall of pictures: Do not attempt this yourself. You will go mad with no results except for millions of holes in your wall and a hangover,” she adds. “Together we created a look of studied nonchalance.”
Some of the paintings, such as the one of the goose, are illustrations from Handler’s father. A street artist did the painted book cover of the snail. “I especially love my father’s Bronx elementary school graduation photo from 1919. It is a true melting pot of immigrant faces,” she says.
The dog painted on the green book cover is also by a street artist.
“I think that putting together an apartment is like putting together a party,” Handler says. “You need things serious and smart, fun and witty, beautiful and frivolous, that all somehow combine to create a personal chemistry all their own and are more than just a sum of their parts.” Seen here are colorful woolen dolls from Mexico, a limited-edition Thanks sculpture made in 1997 and a cardboard moose from a kit that Handler bought at a souvenir shop in Yellowstone National Park.
Dining table: Saarinen; dining chairs: George Nelson with reupholstered cushions
Handler uses patterned duct tape to cover what are otherwise unsightly things in her apartment, such as the beige plastic doorbell.
Handler covered the television edges with duct tape in a burlap print
. The TV stands on two books of old issues of The New York Times
that she bought on a cross-country road trip. “I found those old bound copies of the Times
in an old vintage store. They came from a closed library, and the dates are from both the pre- and post-stock market crash — 1928 and 1929.
Handler believes that design should be personal. “The longer you have things, the more you discover about them,” she says. Artfully displayed on top of a Besta storage unit from Ikea is a curated collection of treasures.
They’re a mix of design objects, interesting things that have individual stories and experiences, and really personal items that Handler loves. “For instance, there’s a little rectangular can. Sometimes I rotate the objects out. The piece in the front is a beaver stick; the beavers chew on the branch and leave patterns from their teeth marks.” The collection also includes a 19th-century ceramic pretzel stick flask, matchbooks, dairy farmer implements, a bottle that says “holy water,” and “some guts from my old Mac computer — there’s no rules,” she says.
Handler features many of her beloved displayed pieces on her Interesting Found Objects blog, which she started as a way to catalog items found when she used to live in Montana.
“I am a modernist, but I believe in collecting things that feel human,” Handler says. Seen here is a lightbulb painted to look like a lady’s head, and a random horseshoe found on Handler’s Montana driveway. Also pictured is dollhouse food from a dollhouse store in Milan.
In the bedroom, Handler wanted a headboard but couldn’t find anything she liked. “I flirted with a huge gold-leafed Italian antique one for a while but decided against it,” she says. She printed 30 black-and-white images that she took of her front yard in Montana. “It is a mountain called Emigrant Peak. I had photographed it in snow, lilac season, hail, bright summer sun and a double rainbow. It keeps me from getting too homesick,” Handler says. The pictures are printed on computer paper and, in her words, “are just nailed up there. I like how it looks casual.”
Handler added an Ikea basket as a shade for the Murano glass table lamp in the corner.
The second bedroom serves as an office, as Handler works from home as a product designer for everything from perfume bottles to outdoor furniture. This room also includes a twin-size daybed. “I never feel claustrophobic. Every room is a different point of view and a different feeling. They all feel good,” Handler says. “Since I work from here, I wanted the room to serve as many purposes as possible. The daybed works for guests and as a place to sit.”
The Italian-made Tato ottoman from Baleri Italia is one of Handler’s favorite pieces. “It’s like a big egg. I found a doily in a secondhand store somewhere, and it’s funny because it’s not just a crew cotton but it has gold thread, and I put it on top of the ottoman,” she says.
The chrome table base is from ICFF, and the oval marble top is from a Saarinen table.
The wall-mounted shelves are birch veneer. Handler covered the shelving supports with white duct tape, and the edge of her work surface with black-and-white checkerboard duct tape.
Stored inside the white boxes from Ikea are staples, adhesive, portfolio examples of objects she’s designed, stationery labels and more.
Displayed on the left side of the desk are things Handler designed: the Manor earthenware coffee cup and saucer designed for Crate & Barrel, a pill holder designed for Cielo, and a small marble-and-sterling silver clock.
On the right side of the desk are handmade wood prototypes of pitchers, decanters, and salt and pepper shakers from when Handler used to work in Milan for Pomellato. Handler would approve each product’s wood form before it was made in silver.
The scanner in the studio is covered in black-and-white checkerboard duct tape.
“I love books, and the minute I put the shelves up, they were full,” Handler says. Her home library includes a collection of design and interior design books and magazines including every issue of Abitare
magazine since 1979 (she has them shipped from Milan), Italian design magazine Interni, The World of Interiors
, design books on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, The House Book
by Terence Conran, scientific lab equipment catalogs and more. Her reading interests also include books on Pierre Chareau, Charles and Ray Eames, art, commercial perfume bottles, Mexican interiors and New Yorker
Handler stuck to white furniture in the second bedroom. The daybed is from Ikea and reminds her of furniture designed by Donald Judd
This piece leaning in the hallway next to the custom cabinets was found in Montana for $8. “They were used in World War II. The spiral at the bottom is for turning into the ground,” Handler says. “You put a stick through one of those loops and crank it through the ground and run barbed wire through. They were used for creating demarcation areas.”
The new custom cabinets in the apartment feature doors with a semigloss finish. Handler uses this cabinet to store a collection of things found in secondhand stores, including old lab equipment and servingware for entertaining. “It’s fun to have a range of servingware for a dinner party to pick and choose from; I have four sets of dinnerware,” the homeowner says. Also stored in this cabinet are martini glasses and special-edition vodka bottles Handler designed for a Christmas product line.
“I don’t have a problem with things that are original, but there was nothing in the bathroom that was redeemable,” Handler says. “The vanity and toilet were nasty.”
She had her contractor replace the frosted glass and knew that she wanted to remove the existing green tile to create a clean, all-white bathroom.
The renovated bathroom features a clean and sleek look.
“I wanted everything to be as rectangular and cubelike as possible,” Handler says. The walls are tiled with subway tiles that alternate between a matte and a gloss finish to make subtle stripes. The wall-mounted sink features an Ikea faucet.
Handler added the three potted plants to the windowsill for a little privacy. Behind the bathroom door (not pictured) are two mounted Ikea medicine cabinets for lots of storage.
A 4-foot fiberglass cast of a halibut, a gift from Alaska, hangs above the toilet next to a 1955 Danish metal mirror designed by Poul Henningsen.
Square ceramic sink: Scarabeo via Nameek’s; sink faucet: Ikea; shower diverter: Grohe; showerhead: Stillness collection, Kohler; bathtub: Kohler
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