MKCA Designs Clinton Hill Brownstone with Spatial Approach to Color
- Michael K. Chen Architecture (MKCA) has completed the gut renovation and interior design of a 3600-square-foot landmarked brownstone in Clinton Hill for a young couple: a tech VC investor and a public-school art teacher and artist, who brought a bold sense of color and quirky collection of art and design to the project. Originally built in 1895, the house had been abandoned for over 20 years, requiring MKCA to strike a balance between stabilizing the building and recapturing its faded but undeniably spectacular grandeur, all while designing a new home in an adventurous, innovative manner.
“There is an appealing aesthetic tension in the house between the historic elements and the sleeker additions that reflects what it is to occupy and care for these historic houses in a modern way,” says Michael K. Chen, the NYC-based firm’s founder and principal.
The existing building was saturated with grime and water, crumbling plaster, and peeling lead paint. Hazardous amounts of lead, which can linger in woodwork even if the paint is entirely stripped away, posed a particular challenge. “To call it faded would be a gross understatement,” says Chen. Elements like original doors, baseboards, wainscoting, and much of the plaster ornament required removal and were entirely recreated. “We took castings of the original carved plaster brackets and moldings, and replaced them in kind,” he continues. Other elements, like the grand built-in mirror in the entryway, were protected throughout the construction process and restored, while the staircase, which winds through the home’s core, was largely reworked.
Architect and clients alike were blown away by the original home’s peeling color palette: deep raspberry, turquoise, celadon, primary green, and moody blues encrusting the plaster ornament and woodwork. MKCA sought to restore this rich color scheme as an organizing principle to enhance light and movement throughout the house. Across the redesign, a rigorously uniform yet distinct palette washes over each room, retaining the boldness and vibrancy of the original hues, while rendering the spaces more modern, cohesive, and calm.
Throughout MKCA’s practice, and in this project specifically, the firm approaches color in a spatial manner rather than as an accent. For instance, a strong terra cotta pink uniformly coats the townhouse’s living room, serving to soften the environment and create a deeply immersive and experiential quality. “You don’t look at the color, you inhabit it,” says Chen. “It surrounds you, and you perceive the shifts and play of natural light in the space in a way that is both subtle and rich.”
Elsewhere, as on the garden level, MKCA employed blocks of monochromatic color to introduce a different sense of scale and delineate individual volumes: an avocado green kitchen island, an oxblood pantry, a pale blue stair, a soft yellow pegboard wall. Here, polychromatic and contemporary sensibility reigns, most significantly in the graduated custom encaustic concrete tile floor that spans the entire floor plate, leading out to a newly created exterior terrace. Assembled from 2,800 tiles in 17 unique color schemes, it transitions smoothly from black, white, and blue at the ground floor entry, to green and pink hues in the kitchen and lounge area, to fiery red and ochre at the sunken exterior terrace. The arrangement is at once playful and organizational: “The color of the floor tiles shifts gently across the floor plate, unifying and tying those spaces together,” says Chen.
The approach to color was deeply personal for both the architects and clients. “Our strategy was really an attempt to tease out the qualities of light, and to maximize delight in the individual rooms,” explains Chen. “We had epic color palette meetings, looking at deck after deck for paint colors that spoke to us or provoked a particular sensation.”
To introduce light in the center of the house, where townhouses and brownstones are notoriously dark, MKCA added two large, sculptural skylights. In the master bath, a double height light well, painted light peach, bathes the space in a permanent glow. “We borrowed an idea from James Turrell,” notes Chen, referencing the famed Light and Space artist, “The light from above reads like a solid in the room.” Likewise a swirling, vortical skylight at the uppermost landing brings an abundance of sun into the stairwell. Playing off this luminosity, the home’s stairwell and circulation spaces are painted in a moody pale blue, while more saturated and vibrant colors are used to drench the rooms that extend from them, including the orange-yellow library and the saturated living room.
This vibrant scheme offers a fitting backdrop for the client’s offbeat collection of art and design. “Greg and Rebecca are the kind of people whose house is full of objects that are precious mostly because of travel and personal connections,” says Chen. Quirky, personally significant items—like a collection of ceramic teeth by Rebecca, lined up along the library’s restored mantel and a gigantic rubber sculpture of a sixfoot-long submarine sandwich by Borna Sammak in the kitchen—fill each room. “There is not a person on this earth who loves fake food more than Rebecca,” says Chen. The couple’s collection also incorporates the work of established and emerging artists, from Rebecca’s own drawings and sculptures to discoveries like a Napoleonic bull portrait, purchased in Central Park.
Space is expanded and contracted throughout to further facilitate modern living, and enlivened by furniture and finishes. For example, where the spectacular stair hall’s geometry had been marred by a bathroom added during an era when the house was divided into multiple apartments, MKCA compressed it into a playful tropical powder room, borrowing space from the generous living room. Existing arched openings were recreated and thickened to allow for new mechanical systems in the library, and others newly created, like the barrel vaulted portal connecting the stair hall and formal living room. Modern insertions like the steel railing, fabricated by Kin & Company, with its playful bent steel geometry are forward-looking while respecting the historic integrity of the house.
Across the home, the clients’ active lifestyle and eccentric collection informed both architectural details and furnishings, largely selected by MKCA. In the living room, which was conceptualized as a den for lounging rather than a formal room, the soaring proportions and spectacular bay window overlooking the garden are offset and accentuated by purposefully low-slung furnishings, a new custom fireplace mantel in duotone marble, and a massive pendant/mobile that helps to push the center of the room lower. “We purposefully selected simple, hefty forms and pieces that were a single color that would hold their own against some of the strong colors of the architecture,” says Chen. Performance velvet, mohair, wool, and metal comprise most of the furniture palette. “Greg and Rebecca throw parties, they have a dog, and they meant to really use all of the spaces, so they have to hold up without too much extra care,” he continues.
The large rear garden was also reworked, in collaboration with Brook Landscape. The multicolored floor of the garden level slips outside to brighten a sunken patio with a dining area, lounge, and gas grill. A colored concrete stair leads to an upper level planted with shaggy, soft shrubbery, maples, and a massive historic magnolia tree, extending MKCA’s immersive approach to color outdoors as a vibrant coda to the project.
Material Used :
Furniture and Fixtures
Exterior highlights/credits (materials, technical features of note, if applicable): Restored brownstone front façade. Hand carved and formed ornament in custom tinted restoration mortar. Wood windows
Wall composition, insulation: Wood and metal framing, closed cell foam insulation
Heath Ceramics, bathroom tiles
Mutina, bathroom tiles
Ann Sacks, bathroom tiles
White oak flooring
Encaustic concrete tiles in custom colorways from The Cement Tile Shop
MHB steel doors (ground floor)
Furnishings and Design Highlights:
• Entry Bench by Dowel Jones, “Half Hurdle Bench”
• Sofa by Muuto, “Connect”
• Coffee Tables by Muuto, “Around Coffee Table”
• Lounge Chair by TRNK, “Arc” Armchair
• Side Tables by Amigo Modern through TRNK, “Rod and Perf”
• Console by Ligne Roset
• Wall Lamp by Flos, “265 Lamp”
• Stool by Visibility “Champ Stool”
• Sandwich Sculpture by Borna Sammak
• Dining Table by Jasper Morrison for Cappellini, “Simplon Table”
• Dining Chairs by Ib Kofod-Larsen “Penguin Chair”
• Barstools by Muuto, “Nerd”
• Pendant by ANDlight “Pipeline CM3”
• Sofa by Tufty Time covered in Holland and Sherry performance velvet
• Sofa by Ligne Roset, “Togo”
• Table by Nendo for Moroso, “Cloud”
• Lounge Chair by Luca Nichetto, “Elysia”
• Moroccan Berber Rug
• Chandelier by Andrew Neyer, through TRNK, “Astro Mobile”
• TV Console by Claesson Kovisto Rune, “Palladio Racetrack Shelving”
• Vintage Floor Lamp by Robert Sonneman
• Floor Lamp by Gubi/Greta Grossman, “Gräshoppa”
• Stool by Doug Johnston
• Side Table by New Tendency, “Meta Side Table”
• MKCA Custom Library Shelving
• Desk by Ligne Roset, “Inside World”
• Desk Chair by Charles and Ray Eames, “Management Chair”
• Library Chandelier by Lambert et Fils, “Atomium”
• Floor Lamp by Flos, “Tab”
• Teeth Sculpture by Rebecca Bersohn
• Powder Room Mirror by Bower
• Bench by Vonnegut/Kraft
• Pendant by Mattermade, “Discus”
• Entry Pendant by Michael Anastassiades for Flos, “IC Pendant”
• Bed by BluDot “Ditto Bed”
• Dressers by Normann Cophenhagen
• Nightstands by Cappellini
• Bedside Lamps by Gantri, “Scoop