The concept was clear from the start: Transform a four-story brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into a comfortable and sophisticated family home. As designer Sara Story mulled over her clients’ hopes and dreams for the place, she took note of the soaring, north-facing windows, the period details on the turn-of-the-century façade, and its singular elements, including an unusual double-height great room—and decided to create a bridge between old and new.
“I was captivated by how much beautiful sunlight came into the townhouse, and I wanted to capture it,” Story says. Formulating a plan to inject contemporary flavor as you move through the residence and maximize natural light wherever possible, she set about designing a vertical living program that would reflect the family of five’s desire for togetherness, flexibility and style.
Public spaces are laid out on the ground level, where the great room with views to a large rear garden zips a kitchen, dining area and living room into one expansive prism. Keeping the family’s wish for versatile gathering areas top of mind, the designer deployed ample seating appropriate for everyday use and special occasions alike. “The leather dining banquette is cozy enough for breakfast but big and nice enough to host an awesome dinner party,” she notes. “And everyone can hang out together at the kitchen island while cooking and doing homework, since there are six bar stools.”
With each ascending level, spaces grow more private in nature. The second floor holds a family room and the wife’s office. Story gave the kids their own retreat on the third floor, courtesy of a cheery lounge-meets-playroom serving as a meeting point for their three bedrooms. And the top story holds a peaceful primary bedroom suite as well as a jewel-box office for the husband.
Keeping things light and bright called for fresh finish choices, such as pale oak floors and creamy plaster walls, which balance out historical notes elsewhere, like the bedrooms’ classical crown molding and original carved marble mantles. There was no question in Story’s mind about salvaging another existing feature: the enormous mahogany panels in the great room, a holdover from a prior renovation. To modernize the moment, she replaced the existing fireplace surround with a clean-lined, angled marble frame whose veining picks up the warm tones of the wood. “We took a long time making that selection because we didn’t want it to be too busy against the mahogany or the marble backsplash in the kitchen,” Story explains. “The scale of the new mantle is so grand, and the stone so refined, but it doesn’t feel fancy,” she adds. “It just feels thoughtful.”
The designer brought a similarly measured approach to furnishing the rooms, which feature her signature mix of artworks, vintage pieces and sculptural custom seating, such as an invitingly poufy sofa in the kids’ lounge and a set of geometric slipper chairs before the living room fireplace. Warm, textural, organic-leaning fabrics complement the clean lines of the interior architecture, punctuated by unexpected material elements, like the woven leather headboard in the couple’s bedroom and a liquid metal-topped dining table. And shades of blue, the wife’s favorite color, find their way throughout the residence’s predominantly neutral palette, from the peacock paint on the kitchen cabinetry to the softly striped primary bedroom wallpaper. In the family room, a watery artwork by Janaina Tschäpe “sums up the palette of this house,” says Story.
Closing in on the finish line, the designer got a call from her client, who was worried her daughter might not like her new bedroom, which Story had arrayed in “a happy, peaceful and feminine” mélange of lilac and lavender replete with a romantic canopy over the bed. She listened to the homeowner’s concerns, but didn’t skip a beat in relaying, “Hon, we’re installing it tomorrow. Let’s just see how it goes.”
The wife needn’t have worried. The daughter’s now-beloved purple bedroom perfectly synthesizes the spirit of this family’s home—both modern and classic, vibrant and serene. And most importantly, designed to age with grace.