After several years of accepting the inevitable design constraints of living with roommates, the Queens-based jewelry designer is Sarah Burns longed for a blank slate to make her own. So when she got a tip about an unlisted unit in Ridgewood, she was willing to rob the “dirty” railroad apartment on one condition: “The place was an absolute mess,” she shares. “But I knew if I could remove the vinyl and find solid wood, I’d have a good place to start.” Although her rent there would double, it was still the most affordable thing she could find. Sure enough, under a layer of shabby brown carpet, she found the potential she was looking for.
As pleased as Burns was with her discovery, she also found that the surface underneath had been painted burgundy (not to mention the glue residue), plus the situation in the kitchen cupboard was nothing short of claustrophobic and there were smoke stains yellowing the walls. “It needed a lot of TLC, but I wanted a challenge,” she says. Now the only yellow can be seen on the cheerful curtains that cover the front door and the cabinets that frame the refrigerator.
With days marked by hands-on work and a knack for woodworking from growing up building ice huts with her father, Burns was armed to take on most of the major updates herself. She did, however, call in reinforcements for the floors. Getting them sanded by a professional to reveal the natural grain of the pine was her biggest splurge. “I probably paid the equivalent of a month’s rent on that,” she admits. The landlord was pretty hands-off even when changes were needed, so it was up to Burns to make the space work for her. “When the floor was done, the stage was ready.”
Patience was key for her next act. Fortunately, her master’s degree in interior design from The New School prepared her for a more steady pace. “My thesis was an argument for slower interior practice,” she recalls. Rather than decorating everything at once, her intention was to live with things and play with the placement of one or two pieces at a time. “My bed has been on the floor for a year and a half! It wasn’t that I was non-committal, I just needed time to figure out what I needed.” Unlike most railroads, where people could put the sleeping quarters at the end, she let her office take that place. To this day, she continues to change and rearrange the space; it’s never really “done”.
After living solo for eight months, Burns’ friend, writer and photographer Adam Callier joined her and suddenly a new set of needs had to be met. Mainly “eating a lot more,” she says with a laugh — and that meant a lot more storage. The couple made two freestanding units from maple and pine in the kitchen to house dry goods, pots and pans. They plan to take them with them in their next move. Under the open shelves above the sink, Burns built a separate, deeper shelf for cutlery. “That’s a collaboration between Adam and me,” she explains. “We call it a cutlery tray.” Not only does the addition free up precious drawer space, it also allows Callier to show off Jens Quistgaard’s Kongo silverware pieces he’s collected over the years.
Almost everything in the apartment is specially tailored to the hobbies and tastes of the couple. “Adam is a critical part of my process, in life and in this space,” Burns says. “If he wasn’t interested in aesthetics, I don’t know if I would have done so much here.”
Bookshelves extend to the ceiling to accommodate the couple’s combined library, plus a metal lamp, which takes pride of place on its own half-moon shelf. In the bedroom, the custom headboard, built to the exact width of the space between the doorway and the wall, was made from pieces of an old platform bed to cunningly bend around a pipe that radiated “tropical heat.” “I think the most unique aspect of our way of life is that we reuse materials and rebuild our world based on what we need,” Burns says. “I can’t imagine not being able to build things.”
Even something as small as a button takes on new meaning. A collection of vintage green glass specimens from a flea market sits on a cabinet panel after years of no home. “One day I followed a whim and blinded the door,” she says. “You could grab the door almost anywhere and slide it open.” One of her favorite details is the blackened steel protrusions that frame the top of her closet. She designed the storage with the idea that she could leave the plywood box behind and take the rails to a future location. It’s a new concept she’s exploring, and she envisions a space where an entire wall can be interrupted by those metal pieces, making it possible to easily change a room from season to season by simply adding fabrics. to change panels.
Even Frank, Burns’ Bichon-Poodle mix, has a custom moment in the apartment: His food and water bowls are built into the wall so they float off the floor. ‘It’s better for his digestion,’ says the designer. “And I just love him so much that I decided to bead them.” Wooden balls painted with milk hang from a rope around enamelled dishes. They were such a hit, the detail is also reflected on sconce covers in old jewelryher newly opened store in Chinatown.
As Burns prepares for her first solo show of furniture and household items in Marta gallery in Los Angeles this fall, she reflects on how her apartment was part of her growth as an artist. “It’s been this experimental space,” she notes. “I’m figuring out how to translate my creations into a set of freestanding work.” The old railway layout has in fact come full circle.