It was a catch-22: A couple with three children wanted to escape the vertical living of Manhattan but were nervous about moving to a narrow town house that would feel more confined than their Tribeca loft. As luck would have it, they spotted one of the finest Gilded Age mansions on the market in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. And at more than 30 feet wide, it was one of the broadest the couple had ever seen. "There's something about the sheer width of it and the size–and the staircase!" the wife says, noting the elliptical feature that coils through the home's four levels, illuminated by a large skylight. "We knew it was a gem."
The home had just undergone a two-year renovation that revived the original details of the 1898 architecture. But these new owners weren't looking for a century-old floor plan and the aesthetics of that time; rather, they wanted interiors that spoke to their modern instincts and, as interior designer Steffani Aarons puts it, their "rock 'n' roll style."
The first step was taking down walls–most notably on the main parlor level, which was divided into five rooms–including one that hid that magnificent staircase from view. Aarons' colleague (as well as husband) architect David Howell, working with project manager Larissa Jimenez, converted most of the area into one wide-open space. The team also smoothed out fussy details in the millwork and applied creamy-white Venetian plaster throughout–a stark juxtaposition with the newly visible stair, which is stained in ebony and padded with a black silk runner. "When a restoration is not based on original detail, it's open for reinterpretation," Howell says. "We felt able and empowered to reenergize the floor to make it more relevant to the way we live." The modifications brightened the house and transformed the original wood-heavy look.
Aarons, along with her design team consisting of Emilee Pearson and Samantha Burkett, stepped in to create contemporary interiors where no space is off limits to the owners' three young children. In particular, the couple wanted to be able to entertain adults and children alike on the newly refreshed parlor floor, rather than in the kitchen/family room area on the garden level. "That was the biggest challenge, because we had removed all the walls in the parlor," Aarons explains.
"As a solution, we delineated areas by the way we set the furniture and the tone." Now, one half of the open space is dressed in formal midcentury glam for special gatherings with a luxurious silver silk-and-wool rug complemented by shades of gold in the Damien Hirst painting, a dramatic brass chandelier and a pair of meteorite-onyx-and-bronze coffee tables. To ensure the formalness didn't cross the line into fussiness, Aarons incorporated a pair of vintage bright yellow chairs. The other more casual side–where the family spends most of their time–is darker and edgier. The only enclosed room Howell and Aarons left intact was the oval-shaped dining room, which has leaded-glass windows, a built-in serving niche and an original black-marble fireplace. Though the nearby rooms are light and bright, "we wanted to go dark and moody here, because you really only experience that room at night," Aarons says.
The owners came into the house with a well-developed sense of style. Aarons furnished the master suite with their existing Promemoria bed, Kelly Wearstler floor lamp and vintage bedside tables, while their Ralph Pucci sofa anchors the large landing outside. "They have great taste," Aarons says. "They had nice pieces." What they didn't have, however, was a fully developed art collection, which is where the designer played a big role. She accompanied the wife to galleries around town to choose memorable pieces for each room, including two butterfly paintings by Damien Hirst that flank the entrance-hall fireplace.
From the inside out, the new design electrifies one of Park Slope's grand dames, reviving it with youthful energy. "The family really lives in every room–the kids are having dinner in that dining room with those velvet chairs," Aarons says. "It's exciting to have a project where contemporary clients pick a traditional stately, elegant home."