Inside the Bed-Stuy Home of Designer Rachel Doriss

In the fantasy New York apartment checklist that we all have in our heads, there are a few universal, non-negotiable requirements. There has to be a view. There has to be good light. Obviously, an outdoor space is a must. And, as long as we acknowledge that we’re just talking fantasy here, wouldn’t an elevator that opens right into the apartment be a pretty great thing to have? So, when I arrived at the Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment which designer Rachel Doriss and music producer Joel Hamilton call home, I found myself happily ticking off all the boxes on my fantasy apartment checklist, and marveling at the beautiful space that the couple live in with their young daughter, Coco.

But as much as this apartment seems like a dream in its lofty perch in the sky, it is also very much a comfortable and livable space—the perfect home for a young family. Originally a one-bedroom, Rachel and Joel divided the sleeping quarters into two different rooms with one of the best IKEA hacks that I’ve ever seen. Using a large, white Expedit bookcase as a focal dividing line between the two rooms, they built a wall which, thanks to the bookcase, also functions as a storage unit. There is a definite DIY-aspect to some of the features in the apartment, including a chalkboard wall that boasted a colorful drawing by Coco, it feels uncluttered, airy and bright.

It’s usually at about the 10-year mark that residents start to feel like their neighborhood really belongs to them, and such is the case for Rachel, who describes seeing her corner of Bed-Stuy flourish in the last almost-decade that she has lived here, with amenities arriving that make everything more convenient without sacrificing any of the existing charm. I asked Rachel what brought her to Bed-Stuy to begin with and she told me, “We bought an apartment on the 9th floor of this building in 2004, but the bedroom was half the size of our bedroom here. And when I was pregnant I just couldn’t figure where on earth we’d stick a baby and all the baby’s stuff, so we moved down here on the 7th floor and are renting here and have tenants upstairs. We moved here in 2009. It’s really nice because this building is so beautiful and we didn’t want to leave.”

As wonderful as their apartment is, Rachel told me that she and Joel had been thinking of moving in order to get a place with a real second bedroom, but she said, “Once you’re in a building like this, it’s really hard to imagine living without a dishwasher, a washer/dryer, light, or an outdoor space. And I was looking for two-bedrooms recently in Ft. Greene and Clinton Hill and everything I saw was not nearly as nice as this and was a huge amount more a month, so we just decided, let’s make this place even better. So we’re going to do more planting and just upgrade what we have and really get into it.” Based on what they did with that IKEA cabinet, there’s no doubt that they can upgrade their existing space in an incredible way.

Although both Rachel and Joel are from Cape Cod—hailing, though, from different towns—they’ve been in New York for some time now. Rachel told me, “I’ve been here since ’99—14 years. We lived in Williamsburg for 5 years, off the Lorimer stop, and I was getting really sick of the noise. The subway would shake the floor, the highway outside would shake the windows because it was right on a truck route, so I started looking around for places to buy and this neighborhood [Bed-Stuy] was not developed at all at this point, but this was a new development, and I drove around here one day and saw some guys moving band equipment out of a warehouse and I was just like, This is it. This is my neighborhood. I could just tell it was this great, untouched area with a great location. Once I saw the light and the views, it was just incredible. I just knew.”

Even though, back in ’99, as a recent graduate of RISD’s acclaimed textile program, Rachel didn’t exactly know how she would make New York happen, she had a very specific vision of what she wanted to do. She wanted to work with fabrics and textiles and make a career out of the things that inspired her artistically. Of course, it was much more than just a vision, as it was backed up by years of study and a lifetime of artistic pursuits, but it was still a plan that needed to be implemented. Putting that plan into action meant driving down from the Cape for interview after interview in New York until she got a job at Echos Scarves, which she left after one year to work at Pollack.

Pollack is a textile design studio known for its beautifully constructed and nuanced fabrics. Rachel joined Pollack in 2000 and started as a designer, where she learned about the industry, telling me that, at the beginning of her time there, it was “almost like textile grad school—velvets, embroidery, weaving techniques—everything.” Rachel is now a Vice President and the Design Director, and has won awards for several of her designs.

It seems, perhaps, that this attraction to textiles might be genetic. Rachel told me, “I’ve always loved fabrics, my grandmother was a weaver and I grew up doing projects with her. One of the first projects I ever did was taking curtains that my grandmother made for me, laying them on the ground and doing an ’80s multicolor splatter paint project all over them.”

Although that might have been the beginning of her love for textiles, it certainly wasn’t the end. Rachel continued, “I learned to sew in elementary school and I made my own clothes all throughout middle school and high school—always doing fabric projects. I went to UMass Amherst for fine arts—painting and print-making—but I did a little soul searching about what I should do and realized that I was always sewing. So I looked for textiles programs and transferred to RISD. At that point, I didn’t know that there was a job in fabric. You go to the fabric store and you don’t know where the fabric comes from, It comes from the fabric planet, you know? But I realized that it was something that I could really try. Fabric has been something that has never been a question, it was something that was growing within me forever.”

“Finally I asked myself, What would you actually do for free? What would you do in your day-to-day and actually feel fulfilled?” And the answer to that question is what led her to New York, to Pollack, and, ultimately, to this apartment which is a lovely reflection of a life full of art, music, and embracing and pursuing opportunity.

When I asked Rachel if she and Joel ever thought about leaving Brooklyn, she didn’t really hesitate in saying that, while they might like a house with a yard, there lives are here. Rachel told me, “In my life, I’ve made decisions based on doors that were opened and opportunities, but for us to leave New York would involve a major reason. Our careers are here. My husband just built his studio. We’re here for a long-term. We’re here!”

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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