When Odette Williams first saw the brownstone in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood that would eventually become her home, her then-three-year-old daughter, Opal, clung onto her leg and said, “Oh, Mummy, I’m scared.” It was the middle of winter, and the four-story building, which had been in the same family for 60 years, seemed dark and ominous. “It really was a fixer-upper,” says Williams, a children’s clothing designer best known for her irresistible apron sets, offered at such retailers as J.Crew and Anthropologie. “There were four different apartments, and the first two had been vacant for years.”
Still, she and her husband, Nick Law, were sold on the bones of the 1880s structure, and the family did need more room—four children were a bit much for their existing apartment in Brooklyn Heights. So the couple bought the building and embarked on an ambitious remodel with architect Lorraine Bonaventura. “It took us a year just to get permits, and another for all the structural work,” Williams says. “Renovation takes so much longer than you think. It was a mammoth job.”
The project’s goals were well defined from the start. “Odette and Nick had a clear design vision: they wanted their living area to be open and modern, but then bring in vintage materials and fixtures,” says Bonaventura. “Given the home’s east and west, exposures, we also wanted to maximize natural light.” To turn the four-story building into a three-floor, five-bedroom residence, with a garden-level rental, Bonaventura and her team gutted the structure down to its brick shell. Layer upon layer of linoleum was pulled back to expose wide-board pine subfloors, which were taken up and placed in storage to be reinstalled. The staircase was disassembled and rebuilt using new treads and the original handrails, newel posts, and balusters.
“Both my husband and I are from Australia, so we have lots of visitors coming to stay with us—as well as lots of children—and we wanted to make [our home] simple and clean,” Williams says. “We opened the parlor floor up to have a place where the kids could run around, we could have a big dinner party, and eat out on the deck when the weather was nice.” Glass accordion doors flood this level with light and fold back to create a 12-foot expanse to the outdoors.
Since Williams and her children often cook together—and indeed, her apron designs stem from that pastime—the kitchen is the center of activity. At the heart of the predominantly white space is a cast-iron AGA stove, which weighs more than 500 pounds (“I think it took four huge guys to carry that oven up the stairs,” Bonaventura says). Despite its painstaking requirements—an additional gas line, a supporting structure built underneath—the eye-catching appliance was nonnegotiable. “I come from a theater background, and a set designer once told me, ‘The best thing to do if you don’t have a big budget is to put one great prop in. The rest will come together,’” Williams says. “And so that was the AGA stove.”
Many of the home’s vignettes spotlight a showstopping design feature. The living area’s marble mantel, which Bonaventura salvaged from a townhouse in Manhattan’s West Village, is flanked by two floor-to-ceiling custom bookshelves (Williams and Law met in a bookstore, after all). The master bedroom is a lesson in restraint, with pocket doors that slide back for a floor-through effect. The bathroom on the top floor is adorably old-fashioned, complete with a vintage bathtub and a children’s trough sink found at Demolition Depot in Harlem. And like Williams’s design studio, the shared kids’ bedroom is dominated by a large pinboard where Opal and her brother, Ned, can display their artwork.
“My husband and I have always enjoyed a sunny, bright blank canvas,” Williams says. “Both in my business and at home, I try to eliminate anything that isn’t essential. Every now and then you crave something like a basic white shirt, with just a sprinkling of pattern or color,” Williams says, “and it’s the simplicity that makes it pop.”