A Cobble Hill Apartment Where Provenance Presides
- The New York Times, 03/11/2010

IN the living room of the apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, that Robert Highsmith, 27, shares with his girlfriend, Stefanie Brechbuehler, 32, and their standard schnauzer, Kingsley, is a weathered Eames lounge chair that once belonged to Mr. Highsmith’s grandfather and still smells faintly of cigarette smoke.

A painting by his grandmother, an abstract composition in blue, yellow and gray, hangs on the bedroom wall. And down the hall in the dining room — which doubles as an office for Workstead, the architecture and furniture firm that the two run — is a chandelier Mr. Highsmith made out of old machinist lamps and metal joints.

Among friends, he and Ms. Brechbuehler are known as sophisticated pack rats who surround themselves with objects that have a story to tell.

“When I bring something home that’s new, or if I’m not sure where it came from, I find it loud, distracting,” Mr. Highsmith said.

Ms. Brechbuehler, who is Swiss, added: “In Switzerland, if you buy a pair of shoes, you’ll have them for 10 years. They have a different attitude toward consuming, and I think Robert and his family do, too.”

The couple, who met as architecture students at the Rhode Island School of Design, have been living here since October, about a month after they started Workstead. Mr. Highsmith was already doing freelance design work, but Ms. Brechbuehler had a job at Gensler, a large architecture firm, and when she quit to work with Mr. Highsmith, she said, friends were aghast.

“I was told: ‘You’re crazy! So many people are losing their jobs, how could you do this at this time?’ ” she said. “But I think the more the recession drags on, the more people are feeling free to try different things.”

Because they needed a space where they could live and work, they moved out of the 387-square-foot East Village studio where they had been living together for a year, and into this 850-square-foot floor-through one-bedroom apartment, which they rent for $2,000 a month, $150 more than they had been paying.

“The studio was an exercise in collecting only what really matters,” Mr. Highsmith said, but this apartment is also a carefully edited “collection of things inherited, gathered and assembled.”

The sofa and armchair in the living room, for example, belonged to his grandparents; the two pieces were recovered in a heather gray fabric for $700. The charcoal throw on the sofa was knitted by Ms. Brechbuehler’s mother.

The Jean Prouvé Potence Lamp, which stretches over the seating arrangement, was a damaged floor model bought from Design Within Reach for $750, marked down from $1,560.

Burlap from a hardware store ($10) was turned into curtains for the living room and office; Ms. Brechbuehler sewed a wooden dowel at the bottom of each panel to anchor it. “The sewing isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t matter,” she said.

To get to the office, the bathroom or the kitchen, clients and friends have to pass through the bedroom, and “it can feel awkward seeing someone else’s bedding,” she said. By draping a $350 cowhide from Ikea over the bed, they neutralized the space and made it look more like a sitting room with a daybed. The closet, a floor-to-ceiling structure of two-by-fours built by a previous tenant, is hidden by chocolate-colored burlap, which they bought at a local fabric store for about $70. The burlap has been suspended from cast-iron curtain rings and clips.

The bed was designed by Asher Israelow, a former classmate, using walnut with a particularly prominent grain. “When you work with wood, you’re building with something that already has a story — the shape and rings hold all this information,” Ms. Brechbuehler said.

Another much-loved wood piece is a table that Mr. Highsmith made for her from metal sailboat stands and a weathered maple door. The four Eames Aluminum Management Chairs surrounding it were a major investment, bought at a vintage design store for $2,700.

“Since we live and work in the same space, we didn’t want it to be too office-y,” Ms. Brechbuehler said. But she added, “At the same time, it has to function.”

Like most rental apartments, the space has its drawbacks, including a “puke-colored” marble-ized Formica counter in the kitchen, Mr. Highsmith said. But on the whole, he noted, it is exactly what they hoped it would be, a “neutral vessel to contain these things we love.”