In Brooklyn, a couple with opposing tastes strike a balance
A CHILD in Virginia, Michael Brown collected bird nests, stamps, beetles and mounted butterflies. By the age of 10, he had switched to Goofus glass vases – cold painted trinkets produced in the early 20th century that were often given away as fair prizes – and the old-fashioned eyeglass frames he found. in local flea markets. His first job, at 18, was dressing the windows of the Thalhimers department store in Richmond, and on weekends he started collecting antique furniture and curios, a habit that continued through his age. an adult, while working as an interior stylist and retail art director, picking up treasures wherever he went: a 1920s gold lacquered Japanese room divider from a living stay in Portland, Oregon; Sun-bleached sea turtle shells from vacation in Maine. By the time the 59-year-old found his current home in 2013, a 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom rental on the top floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he needed a 20-foot truck to transport the goods he had accumulated. “I wish I could be one of those people who could buy one thing, live with it, throw it away and move on,” he says. “But I can not.”
A few weeks after Brown’s installation, the apartment was almost unrecognizable. He had been drawn to the well-preserved 19th-century details of the building and had left intact the pine and walnut marquetry floors and the carved oak mantels. But he repainted the walls to create atmospheric backdrops for his objects. In the living room, whose large bay window overlooks a sea of wild gardens to the south, he has chosen a grayish blush which matures to a seashell pink at dusk; for the compact library-jewelry box, a deep Prussian blue; and for the generously sized bedroom, whose shuttered windows overlook the quiet tree-lined street below, a heartwarming shade of sour cream. His belongings are displayed in dense and ever-changing arrangements which, in the style of a Renaissance era Wunderkammer, neglect the traditional distinctions of value or origin in favor of pure pleasure. Hanging salon-style from the walls of the small galley kitchen – a modern reflection added to the west wing of the apartment when the house was converted into apartments in 2011 – are various images of food that Brown has scooped up over the years. years (including a close-shot of an English breakfast by British photographer Martin Parr), brown and white transfer dishes from the 1880s, and small shelves filled with vintage sake cups from Japan. In the living room, an 1890s built-in oak hutch is now a showcase for the bounty of the crepe-paper fruit and veg stylist, which he purchased at the beloved Tail of the Yak gift shop in Berkeley, in. California. taxidermy birds: a quail, a sparrow, two jays, a red woodpecker and, surrounded by a large glass dome, a yellow canary.
“When he first came in he was probably horrified,” Brown said of his partner, Duy Pham, a 34-year-old graphic designer who was born in Vietnam and lived in Canada for 10 years before living in a series. rental apartments. At New York. When he moved in with Brown in 2018, he brought with him little more than a collection of art books, some of which, to Brown’s horror, had been stripped of their covers. But Pham’s profession and itinerant past have also taught him to adapt. “I use what I am given,” he says. “For me, it’s much more interesting than having a blank canvas.” And so, he and Brown began an ongoing process of integrating their seemingly incompatible visions of what the house is – a utility crash pad; a personal museum – in a space in which they both feel inspired.
FIRST, THEY BOUGHT together a few key items that would temper the ornate and old-fashioned atmosphere of the apartment. In each room, the couple installed a differently shaped Isamu Noguchi paper pendant, their crisp white shapes offsetting Brown’s dark wood furnishings, including a pair of 1940s wingback chairs upholstered in cornflower blue velvet and Scalamander cut chocolate. One day while strolling through the Lower East Side of New York City, they stumbled upon a gallery run by Japanese artist Kazuko Miyamoto and purchased a balsa wood model – an irregular white cube about a foot tall. in diameter that she had made for one of Sol LeWitt’s minimalist sculptures. while working as his assistant – which is now hanging on the living room wall. More recently, they imported a ’60s Dieter Rams sofa from Amsterdam, its modular fiberglass base contrasting boldly with the faded ocher floral patterned rug it sits on.
Cohabitation, of course, also required a certain amount of editing and compromise. In the 100-square-foot bookcase, the shelves along the east wall are still topped with Brown Goofus glass vases, and on the opposite wall a 1920s display case still holds a generous assortment of the many mercury glass vessels that ‘he gathered. over the decades. But the once expansive taxidermy menagerie in the room has been downsized; among the few survivors are a lobster, encased in an acrylic box that sits atop the display case, and a misshapen iguana which Brown says is “too ugly to part with.” Shortly after Pham moved in, they started a monthly flea market in the backyard of their friends’ restaurant next door in an attempt to unload themselves; the ritual eventually turned into periodic front porch sales outside the couple’s brownstone. Last year, the couple launched an online store, SpeakLow, offering everything from 1950s Japanese silver teaspoons to palm-sized forest dioramas that Brown makes from moss, hand carved clay tree bark and mushroom.
The couple’s opposing aesthetic is more clearly on display in the bedroom: the wall behind the black upholstered platform bed is almost completely covered in nudes in different mediums, a quilt from Brown’s collection of mid-century academic sketches and works of art. from some of Pham’s favorite contemporary photographers. , including an image of nested bodies by Ren Hang. The visual tension created by two viewpoints that may seem contradictory manifested a particular kind of chemistry that Brown and Pham ultimately prefer to their individual tastes. “It feels like things aren’t meant to be together, but kind of make space for each other,” Pham explains. As Brown has learned to give up certain possessions, Pham sees more and more the value of having possessions. “During the pandemic, a lot of my friends packed their bags and moved. It’s always been my dream, or maybe how I’ve dealt with crises in the past, ”he says. “But when you have things, you can’t just go.” The couple’s house, as he sees it now, is the product of their shared experience, something they’ve built together over time that is solid, complex – and not easily taken apart.