Text and Images Amanda Park Taylor
There’s something sacrosanct about Brooklyn townhouses—they can be hard to mess with. Maybe it’s their value, or the high incidence of period detail, but renovating one is more likely to involve restoration than demolition. Designer Sarah Bleibtreu’s Williamsburg house makes a compelling argument for starting with a blank slate. Dating to before the turn of the last century, the three-story brick home looks old-school on the outside, if you look past the 21st-century railings and planters. But inside, it’s nearly all new, except for the floors and stairs, which have been (along with almost everything else) covered in a refreshing coat of white paint.
You’ll notice that I call her a designer, without qualification: trained as a fine artist, Bleibtreu designs, and to a degree, makes many of the things she uses every day. Her quest for the perfect bag led her to make one, and another, and then to start her own handbag business when her designs sparked the interest of her fellow New Yorkers. The clean-lined but brilliantly colored bags led to stores in the East Village and then the Lower East Side, before the demands of running the business eclipsed the pleasures of designing them and Bleibtreu closed up shop.
These days she’s working on a universal dress design, one that can be made in different fabrics to wear for any and all occasions (she’s wearing one today, natch), some gorgeously oversized necklaces she hand-beads herself, massive baskets made of nylon rope that hold the fabrics for her clothing designs, and a kind of meta-design project of inspirational images collected in thematic groups, laminated, and bound together on metal rings. Think Pinterest boards turned into beautiful objets and you’re on the right track.
All that inspiration stands a greater-than-normal chance of bearing fruit: “Really, I’d like to make everything I use, everything I touch,” she explains, and the interior of her house is part of that plan. Sure, she hasn’t made it all—there were contractors, and her design partner Carlos Tejada played a major collaborative role too.
But the design is all hers, and all for her. The art on the walls is almost all by Bleibtreu, apart from an amazing portrait of her grandmother next to the front door. The kitchen’s planned for free circulation and entertaining, a radical departure from convention, with everything pulled away from the walls and housed in a giant island. A long pantry hides the clutter of food and dishes, and plumbed-in water bowls guarantee that nobody will ever trip over a dog dish (there are two canines in residence). The living room is part of the kitchen, and on a nice day the kitchen becomes part of the garden, with French doors opening onto a brick patio. An enormous amount of thought has been put into the placement of things—the basement is a giant utility room and stuff warehouse, and built-ins upstairs contain the everyday clutter of clothes, bags and more. Simplicity isn’t so simple to plan for, it turns out. •