Home Tour: A Pattern-Packed Townhouse in Brooklyn Heights
Working with clients tends to get easier as your rapport develops, but for interior designer Nick Olsen, his long-term relationship with a certain client presented one major challenge: incorporating their existing furniture, most of which he’d selected himself. “A young couple originally from California, very active and easygoing,” Olsen’s clients had been living part-time in a Manhattan rental and “were ready to embrace a Brooklyn lifestyle and aesthetic.” The pair restored a mid-1800s townhouse in Brooklyn Heights, which had been converted in the 1970s to a rental property, and called in Olsen for the interiors—this time going in a drastically different direction.
“Their original mandate was ‘steampunk,’ which I had to Google because I knew nothing about it!” says Olsen. “I incorporated some industrial elements, some Victoriana (a stylistic departure for me!), and raw textures hinting at frontier culture. Our first project had a more urbane quality.” Olsen re-imagined a few existing pieces to suit the new style, reupholstering French furniture in bolder fabrics and leather and ebonizing a traditional English breakfront to give it edge.
While you won’t find exposed pipes or Edison bulbs in the space (both signature to steampunk style), Olsen made subtle nods to the aesthetic in the most sophisticated ways. A bathroom was given “an industrial-glam combo of glossy black tile and polished copper fittings.” The kitchen was wallpapered with pages torn from books on Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “whose fantastical etchings of Roman ruins somehow fit the mood—and offer a lot to look at at mealtime,” Olsen says. A sitting room was covered in thin sections of cork backed by shimmering copper paper.
Overall, the palette is much more muted than we usually see from the designer (who trained under color maximalist Miles Redd). “I wanted to make the design as cohesive as possible,” he says. “A lot of this was achieved by using a consistent neutral color palette in the living areas—black, ivory, and chocolate brown—with jolts of persimmon orange and deep green thrown in for fun.” When it oxidizes, the copper elements will turn green, too.
Restraining the palette in this way, he says, was a challenge in and of itself. “When you use neutrals like black and white, it places more pressure on the furniture and objects within the space.” Thus, Olsen shopped for pieces with a lot of personality—a Fornasetti-inspired desk and a weathered brass footman table in the living room come to mind.
Beyond shape, pattern is a great carrier of personality. Olsen upholstered a headboard in Lulu DK’s “Ocean” and had custom pillows made in Stark tiger-print silk velvet, B&J Fabrics cotton ikat, and vintage Clarence House chintz. He wallpapered a bathroom in Kelly Wearstler for Groundworks “Feline” and a bedroom in Brunschwig & Fils “Empoli on Jute.” “In general, I think any room can handle one geometric pattern, one floral/organic print, and one animal print,” he says. “And I’ll cop to being a snob about each of those categories… all tiger velvets are not created equal!”
Truer than Olsen’s admission of snobbery is his thought that mixing prints is an art, not a science: “Beyond that, it depends on scale and adjacency, and my eye is the only formula,” he says. “A kuba cloth throw pillow might sound wrong against that Deco-print settee, but the scales and colors complement each other.” If only we all had his eye for style.