Photos Rory Gunderson
You’d think that appearing in the runaway indie hit film Tiny Furniture, directed by and starring NYC wunderkind Lena Dunham, and then being cast in Dunham’s new HBO series, directed by Judd Apatow, would be all that a young actress would want to talk about. But ‘I’m a painter’ says Jemima Kirke, ‘not an actress… I’m only doing this [article] because it’s about my house.
It may seem like a strange attitude given her accomplishments, but once you see Kirke’s Brooklyn Heights apartment (which she shares with her attorney husband, their eight-month-old daughter, and a spunky Havanese), it becomes a little less surprising. She may have fallen into her role in Tiny Furniture (it was written for her) and the upcoming TV series (she and Dunham grew up together, and Kirke’s characters are loosely autobiographical), but the apartment is clearly a labor of love, reflecting the native New Yorker’s interests and aesthetic in equal measure.
“My ideal is living in a castle that’s built out of a cliff, with a bunch of dobermans and a huge fireplace—it’s really cold, with velvet drapes, and a huge table with someone sitting at one end and me at the other. I want bold, cold, and intense and dark,” claims Jemima, but for her first real foray into decorating she’s turned to warmer climes for inspiration. While some pieces might not look out of place in that castle, reclaimed floor-to-ceiling louvered doors lend the bedroom a decidedly New Orleans flair, and it turns out that the Big Easy is, in fact, the source of many of the furnishings. Her mother, a clothing and interior designer in Manhattan, introduced her to the happy hunting grounds of Nola’s antique stores, and filled in a lot of the blanks from her own collection: “My mother, her style mantra for decorating is buy it and find a place for it. If you like it just find a place for it. She has SO much stuff: very little did I have to go out and search for… I just needed to look and see what my mother had in her basement.”
The meat of Kirke’s renovation is the careful use of reclaimed materials: all of the kitchen cabinets and a massive shelf/desk unit in the living room are made from reclaimed wood from Greenpoint, carefully wrought by Kirke’s friend Nick Cohen. “He’s AMAZING,” she gushes. “He’s working for Mariska Hargitay now.”
A pair of reclaimed gym doors, originally hung side by side, has been split up and used singly, and in a stroke of reclamation genius, their long push handles hang in the bathroom as towel bars. The bathroom itself is concrete from floor to ceiling, with a huge open shower: Jemima claims that the design is one made to economize (“I did cement because it’s cheap and looks classy…”) but the result is a far-from low-budget design statement.
A doorway from the bedroom to the bath was closed and replaced by a vintage casement window with patterned amethyst glass, seldom closed, at least by Jemima: “I love to talk, and I do like being able to talk while I’m on the toilet or in the bath, so I keep that window open.”
In a suspiciously actressy moment, there’s a giant [built-in, glass-doored] cabinet filled with classic films on DVD, but Kirke’s favorite room is her daughter’s pretty nest, filled with toys, a bright-green crib, a built-in loft, and an old-fashioned wardrobe. All the rooms of the apartment are lined with serious art and photography, from the John Currin and Lucian Freud prints in the living room to the small collection of Alfred Wertheimer photos of a very young Elvis Presley, whose birth date Jemima has tattooed on her arm. She knows the stories behind each of the pictures, the whens and wheres, just as she revels in the history behind all the disparate elements, from furniture to fittings, that have come together to create her house. It’s no cliff-top castle (and that Havanese is no doberman) but it’s home.