This Under-$1 Million Gem Is Your NYC Dream Home

Photographed by Winnie Au.
I can't recall the first time I heard someone at Refinery29 whispering about The Baxter Project, but I do remember how delighted I was when I searched the hashtag on Instagram. I later discovered the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights apartment I was falling love with (Those chairs! That tile!) was actually the home of our own R29 cofounder and global editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, and her husband, architect Kevin Baxter. The couple scooped up the modest 800-square-foot, top-floor apartment in 2014, and spent the next year-and-a-half transforming it into the small space of their dreams — and all for less than $1 million...in New York City!

Thanks to Kevin's background in construction and design and Christene's creative vision, the renovation went well beyond the typical makeover (in fact, Christene says Kevin helped her create the home she's always dreamed of since she was a kid). An awkward crawl space was cleverly converted into a light-soaked home office; a new (ginormous!) picture window welcomed incredible views of the harbor; and the kitchen and bathroom were gutted and completely reworked into shiny focal points for the two-bedroom refuge. And while the major overhaul didn't come cheap — the couple cashed out everything they could to fund the project — it's an investment they believe will pay off in the long run.

I suppose it only makes sense that Christene indirectly inspired my own apartment search. We were in the middle of an edit team dinner, and she was showing me some photos of her guest room, which at that point was still a work-in-progress. When I told her I've always dreamed of owning a place, she demanded to know what was holding me back. I said that I couldn't afford it. She insisted that you don't need to be a millionaire to buy an apartment in New York. The conversation planted a seed that led me down a Zillow/Trulia/StreetEasy rabbit hole, and I realized that my partner and I did have enough money set aside for the down payment, if we stuck to a strict budget and paced ourselves wisely. Six months and countless open houses later, we are now in the process of securing the small space of our dreams.

If I've learned anything from following Christene's journey, it's that creating a beautiful home in New York City on a budget is far from easy — but it is doable. And since I'm just starting the process, I figured there was no one better equipped to give me advice on how to turn a new apartment into a personal sanctuary that hits all the right notes. The Baxter Project is filled with pieces that are beautiful, carefully considered, and most importantly, a reflection of Christene and Kevin's style. Ahead, step inside for a before-and-after look at the apartment and discover some of their design secrets.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Christene, did you and Kevin both immediately fall in love with this space? How did you know it was The One?

Christene Barberich: "That's a great question. I think I almost believe more in love at first sight with regards to a home! We had been going to so many open houses, all these icky, cramped apartments in our modest price range were becoming a blur. As soon as I stepped into our apartment, I had a really powerful feeling come over me. The ceilings were quite high, and there was this spectacular HUGE industrial-style skylight in the middle of the main living area...honestly, that's what sold me. I think that feature along with the funky storage loft was what sold it for my husband, too. We're both very dependent on light, and spaces with real architectural integrity. This apartment has excellent bones, no question!"

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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Did Kevin's background as an architect make it easier for him to visualize the gut renovation?

CB: "He has a deep respect for his craft, and I think our home gave him a chance to integrate all his favorite moments and details from spaces he's admired for so long. He created a very simple design scheme, but it's also deceptively complex, too, in how it so beautifully enhances the foundation of the apartment. I've always admired my husband's work, but actually living in his work has given me a whole new respect for his knowledge and natural instinct."







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Photographed by Winnie Au.
The space is unrecognizable. How did you figure out the budget for such a major undertaking?

CB: "It was pretty simple: We basically added up every penny we had within our 'goal' budget, but then put some spillover cash into another reserve for anything unexpected or additional we hadn't initially planned on. That ended up coming in very handy when we decided to move forward with the fireplace frame and the big picture window. Given we're both in our 40s and this is our first owned home (individually and together), neither of us really wanted to skimp. But we also didn't go whole hog, either. We kept ourselves generously in check, I think."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
One of my favorite things about your home is all of the natural light. Was that something on your "must" list?

CB: "Completely. It's energizing on many levels, so much so that we had to put a blackout shade in our bedroom skylight so our cat Pheebs didn't wake up so early! The really beautiful experience, though, is seeing how the light throughout the day changes and transforms the feeling in the space. I don't want to be dramatic, but it's pretty magical."

Wicker lamp, IKEA; wall hanging and teak magazine rack, both vintage.

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Photographed by Winnie Au.
The master bedroom is so bright and spacious now. What was the biggest change you made?

CB: "Kevin reconfigured the hallways and entrances to the two bedrooms, so each was more independent, and the hallway had a real 'moment.' I never would have imagined that structural shift would make such a big difference, but it truly did. We lost about a half a foot in both rooms, but the overall effect made that part of the house look so much huger."




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Photographed by Winnie Au.
How did you decide on the palette?

CB: "I never pre-plan colors or patterns either in my home or my clothing. I just respond to what my heart is drawn to in the moment. Like my closet, I suppose, our home is also a constantly changing tableau of crazy shades, patterns, and textures — I can't live without that visual stimulation... Minimalism just ain't for me."

“Fred” dog painting by Andy Bridge, “Moth” screen print by Bruce Goold; Denim jeans, by Kava Gorna.

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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Farrow & Ball's All White paint turns the master bedroom into a beautiful canvas for all of Christene's favorite things.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Then there's your epic shoe collection... Do you rotate which ones are put on display?

CB: "Ugh, my shoe collection. This is truly a topic I would like to delete the word 'collection' from. I'm beginning to like the notion that less is more when it comes to shoes. But alas, I'm a work in progress. I do love beautiful shoes, but right now the goal is to only hang on to the ones that don't butcher my feet...no time for that anymore. As for the silver boxes, I will forever be grateful to Sigerson Morrison for giving me a few extras they had hanging around. I think they're just beautiful."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
How has your style changed over the years?

CB: "It's become more honest, more gentle, a little more fuck it, you know? I feel as though I'm just now coming into my own as a woman and a creative force, so allowing that to unfold and develop has been gratifying. I try to pay attention to the world around me and take note of how things or people or situations make me feel…and really, my contribution to that. My gut reaction to things is getting sharper and sharper as I get older, and that's helping me to express my style a little more effortlessly than ever before."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Before the renovation, how much storage space did the apartment have? Did you redo all of the closets?

CB: "We added a good amount of storage space, but again, Kevin really extended a lot of respect to the framing of the apartment, and only added functional storage where it felt the most natural, like vanishing doors in the hallway, which became his closet, and the secret laundry room in the guest room — people can't even believe it's there!"


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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Where did you find your bedside table? Do you have any rules for what goes on it?

CB: "This is one of the first good pieces Kevin collected. It's an early Knoll design and, like him, I treasure it. You should know me well enough by now, Caroline, that I think rules are just bullshit. If it brings the table to life, it's good to go."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
The bathroom looks so much bigger after the renovation. Did you move things around?

CB: "Yes, we did. Because we only have one bathroom in the apartment, we wanted to make sure it had the feeling of a real room. Kevin expanded the space by about a half-foot, and inside we have a vintage bench and a real soaking tub now. The tiles have radiant heat, and there are also three different kinds of dimmer lighting. I tell you, taking a bath in there on a cold winter night is like having a mini vacation... It's one of the most nurturing rooms I've ever experienced, and I'm super grateful to Kevin for appreciating my need for that."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
I am obsessed with the tile here. Did you know you wanted to do something monochromatic in this space?

CB: "It was Kevin's idea to mix up the three different tiles. We weren't sure if it would look crazy, but it seemed like a risk worth taking. I'm not sure how but each size and pattern brings out the best in each other. I highly recommend this approach to make a bathroom feel less generic, and it can be super economical, too, if you can find closeout tiles in smaller quantities."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
All towels are by the Brooklyn lifestyle company Dusen Dusen. According to Christene, they're as close as you can get to practical art you can use.
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Did the guest bedroom require a ton of work?

CB: "Not really. We've never had a second room to play around with, so going with a darker shade of paint (Down Pipe by Farrow & Ball) felt like the right choice. Now, we both think it's the coziest room in the house. Sometimes we'll just hang out in there and watch a movie... It's like a nest."

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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Where do you go when you’re looking for design inspiration?

CB: "Everywhere! But mostly thrift stores. I don't like curated stores. I like to do the hunting myself based on what catches my eye and what I'm drawn to."

Abstract painting by Sher Akbar. Vintage hot-pink bedspread by Fred Leighton.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Just another one of the cozy home's art-filled (and 'gramworthy!) nooks.

Vintage screen prints.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
I love seeing so much of your wardrobe on display. Have you always made clothing a decorative focal point in your home?

CB: "Yes, if it moves me the way art or nature or a film does, I hang it where I can see it. I've been this way since I was a kid. My grandmother was a seamstress, and both my mother and I have a deep respect for well-made clothing and rich fabrics. When you see that in a garment — it's hard for me to hide it away somewhere."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
You are constantly traveling for work. Do you often bring items home with you? Do you have a favorite find?

CB: "All the time! Much to my own dismay, I'm constantly shipping boxes home, giving things out as gifts, and rotating stuff around the apartment. I love putting things out on display that maybe aren't meant for such a use. Like this Mara Hoffman beach bag...it's just awesome."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Christene's shoes are by Paula Cademartori, and you'd never believe it, but they're ridiculously comfortable. Her pants are by Rachel Comey.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Can you tell me about where you found this piece? It's so striking!

CB: "I bought it for my husband for our seventh anniversary from the student art gallery at the Savannah College of Art and Design when I was there for a speaking engagement. It's a string sculpture by a student, Jialuen 'Stasia' Luo, titled '7' — in nail and thread. I've since made shopping the gallery with director Chris Constas a regular routine whenever I'm down there now.”
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
The loft area is now a shared office. Was having that work space important to you?

CB: "The former tenants were using this space as a sort of makeshift attic storage area, complete with an old pull-down ladder. Standing up there and seeing the potential, despite its dimensions, was utterly thrilling. Since the ceiling is lower, we knew it would function best as a work space where we were mostly sitting. We didn't expect it, but it's become our favorite place to have coffee in the morning. Even Pheebs loves it up there... It truly makes the whole apartment feel like a treehouse."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do your aesthetics generally align as a couple? What, if any, compromises did you have to make?

CB: "We definitely have different vibes — Kevin is a modernist at heart, whereas I draw influence from lots of different periods and style. That mix, for me, is mandatory. So, those two sensibilities together generated a great flow and exchange of possibilities, creatively."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do you think having a distinct personal aesthetic made it easier for you to decorate your place? Or, is it more of a challenge to find things that work for you?

CB: "I am of the philosophy that a style is alive and always changing and morphing into something else. If you're conscious and relaxed in that, beautiful things can emerge. Rules and boundaries are style killers, no question, so I try not to limit or censor myself, ever."

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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Kevin, did you enjoy working on a personal project? Was it fun for you to collaborate on ideas?

Kevin Baxter: "Very much — it's not often in this business that you get a chance to work on ideas that have been rattling around in your head for a while — I don't believe in signature styles in architecture, but I believe in using personal projects to expand your vocabulary and rid yourself of any preconceived ideas or design tropes, so you are truly inventing and not just sampling or quoting from things you have been absorbing from the field. We have a lot of overlapping interests, and good collaborations are ones in which you challenge each other to work slightly outside your comfort zone; that way you are growing and learning from the process."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Phoebe likes to sleep alongside Christene and spends her days pouncing on Kevin's feet and ankles. Basically, she's the ideal roommate.

Christene's dress is by Rodebjer; her shoes are vintage.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do you have any advice for how to spotlight a personal collection without creating clutter?

CB: "Again, I'm not a lover of rules, but I will say that small spaces like ours demand you make choices. Really take the time to hear what YOU want in that spot, not just what ended up there. And those choices need to happen on an ongoing basis. I follow the one in, one out rule. That seems to work in keeping a collection from crossing over into clutter territory."

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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
What inspired you to open up this wall?

KB: "Everyone loves a room with a view, so once I figured out the structure of the wall, I knew I could open it up safely and install a modern window wall system that would bring in more natural light and open the apartment up to the views of waterfront and also the beautiful six-story ivy-covered wall directly adjacent to us."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
It lets in so much light! Do you take advantage of the view?

CB: All the time. I honestly have to pinch myself that we have such a beautiful view of the East River...it's glorious, no matter the weather. In fact, weather makes the view even more glorious."

Custom walnut table by Ken Neilson; Mies van der Rohe leather-bound chairs.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
The living area has so many great details. Did this room take a while longer for you to get just right?

CB: "For me, a room is never finished...it's a living thing that just keeps on evolving. That's how I look at all the rooms and corners and shelves we have. They are their own works in progress, and I'm just there to facilitate new dimensions into the mix."

Custom sofa designed by McGrath II, vintage Milo Baughman lounge chairs recovered in pink Knoll ultra suede.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Tell me about the art you have in your apartment. Do you collect anyone's work?

CB: "I'm not faithful to any one artist, though I am a fan of contemporary photography, like Kava Gorna, and the works I find on return visits to the Savannah College of Art & Design. I love being able to support so many incredible visionaries at the start of their careers. On another note, the NYC painter Ryan Hixenbaugh is one of the most low-key but talented artists I've ever encountered. I wish he would paint more!"

White Ode Desk Lamp, $385, available at Herman Miller.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
How do you make such an eclectic mix feel so tied together?

CB: "I'm not sure...sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't! Believe me, there's always a hot little mess somewhere... You just don't see it in these pictures."

Zebra painting by Jenna Snyder Phillips. Smile painting by Ryan Hixenbaugh. "Red Arrow, 1965" by Allan D'Arcangelo. Gold leaf mirror by Sandra Spannan.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Isn't that a photo from your wedding day?

CB: "Yup! City Hall...still one of the best experiences NYC has to offer."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
What was the trickiest part of the kitchen renovation?

KB: "Squeezing in more appliances and more storage than was there before. I even had the contractors build a small hidden storage cabinet between the studs in the wall next to the refrigerator — it's where we store vitamins and nuts."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
It's almost impossible to recognize now. Do you have a favorite change you made?

KB: "The layout as we found it was more cramped than necessary — the spaces didn't flow together, so I tried to work from as much of a clean slate as was practical and reconfigure the spaces so they relate to each other in a more relaxed and easy way. It is really amazing how organizing spaces in this manner makes them feel larger, even when they aren't. It's because your body isn't tensed up trying to avoid colliding with corners and such."

Threshold Hamden Industrial Wood Top Counter Stools, $103.99, available at Target.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Christene, I love the light fixture in here! Where is it from? And, do you have any advice on how to make a smaller kitchen work?

CB: "I found the vintage Rolleiflex lamps on eBay for barely anything. At first, Kevin didn't think they'd radiate light well, but they turned out to be one of our favorite features in the kitchen. Shopping on eBay is truly a crapshoot, but if you keep your budget in check, you can take risks on pieces that could end up being absolute jewels...just like these lamps. Who knew?

"As for making a smaller kitchen work, that's easy: Have less stuff. Everything in our kitchen is scaled down in size, even our coffeemaker. Adjustments are important if you want smaller space to function more efficiently."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
A working fireplace! Was that one of the original details that you were excited about?

CB: "Of course! We don't use it as often as I'd like, but it's a wonderful feature that makes the space feel way more like a home."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
The mantel you added is beautiful. Was it a custom piece?

KB: "Yes, thank you. I just sent a simple sketch to a metalworker that was working on another one of my jobs. After he bent the sheet metal to match the sketch, I went to his shop in Queens and did the blackening, which is a technique I learned as a metalworker myself many years ago."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
#therealpheebs snoozing in her favorite Valentino box under Christene's desk.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
That couch! It looks amazing from every angle. Tell us where it came from.

CB: "It was a team effort, thanks to Suzanne and Lauren McGrath of McGrath II. And it's almost 100% green, which was really important to both Kevin and me. Best of all: It's comfortable, and custom-designed to feel roomy, but not so much so that it overwhelms the space."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Want to see even more of Christene and Kevin's Brooklyn Heights home? Check out the fall 2016 issue of Domino Magazine, on stands now.
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