Sunday, May 31


I think these hand-stitched pillows in Mario's living room are so sweet. Some of them picture rodents, but they're the cutest ones I've ever seen. A few more pics after the jump.

These pillows were made by a really eccentric couple who once managed a residential building he owns. I'm working on getting their names. Think they're in the Boston area...


Wednesday, May 27

Mario Brockman, Park Slope

Mario Brockman likes airplanes, Ducatis, cycling, sunning, plants, healthful beverages, his cat Cybil and sleeping in his light-washed bedroom during the especially bright hours of 6 - 9 am. Self-described as an AV-equipment helper as a schoolboy, he also enjoys being the PA-guy at the Park Slope Food Coop for four hours every month. Mario grew up in Tanzania, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), so that may explain why his home in Brooklyn, which he shares with his friend Debbie, has what some people might call an ethnic vibe (unless you're from those environments--then what is it? Just normal, I guess.). African art hangs on the walls, coconuts sit on the kitchen counter, Pygmy textiles cover pillows, etc...

Homebodies subject Bob introduced me to Mario via SMS and said his friend would be fun for the blog. Soon after Mario's response, "It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance," I was on an F train to Brooklyn.

Blogging in people's homes can sometimes be weird, though. I never realize how strange it might be until I'm on a stoop with a gifted cappuccino muffin for a stranger whose dietary preferences I haven't been able to detect. I start second-guessing everything. What on earth am I doing here?

Fortunately, Mario was heaps of fun and game for it all. When he called my name out from a second-floor window, his silver curls like springs in the sky, I knew I was in good company. Six hours later, Debbie had come and gone and come back again, and we joined the downstairs neighbors for dinner (another post for Homebodies!).

Mario was nice about the muffin. He cut it into fourths and neither one of us really ate it. I think he's probably more of a vegan- or organic-muffin type, and I realized I don't even really like muffins. We ended up along the lines of coconut water, Red Stripe and scotch.

"It looks like such a guy's apartment," Mario said when he saw the above pic. "A girl would never have a t-shirt hanging from the window." The reproduction French Provincial chairs from Haiti, where his parents also lived, are leftovers from a brilliant business plan to import them. "I'd say we didn't lose that much money," he says, laughing. Roomie runner Debbie wins races--and trophies. Our sad muffin. Mario whacking a coconut for its water. On the refrigerator, a provocative note: "...thanks for taking such good care of my feminine needs..." He ran some tamponian errands for a friend during a road trip.

In this home, it's called Acapulco. Because, says Mario, it's blue and 1970s-ish and it reminds him of the Neil Diamond song. And so, a curtain of hula girls hangs in the shower. A louvered window leads to the roof.

Bicycles, plants and shoes crowd the narrow hallway.

Living Room
Tons of plants make the living room feel like a jungle. They also purify the air. On the wall is a painting by Moke, probably the most famous artist from the Congo. Considered a "painter reporter," he recorded urban life. Moke, who died of AIDS in 2001, was friendly with Mario's mom, so his work hangs throughout the apartment. Table by Paul McCobb. The colorful pillows depicting hot-air balloons and rats were handmade by friends.

A wildebeest head hangs above the fireplace. Mario joked that, due to the spelling, it was German for "wild beast." Turns out he's right: Wildebeest means just that in Afrikaans, a South African language with Dutch (and therefore Germanic) roots. High five! It's from his sister Domenica's store Petrune, in Ithaca, New York. She sells vintage clothing, accessories and furniture, and the store is named after their Grandma's cat. The iguana was a birthday present from Domencia when he was a teenager. Professional homebody.

Dressing Room/Massage-Chair Room
Between the living room and the bedroom is the "dressing room," which contains most of Mario's clothing, as well as a massage chair he got off Craigslist. "So for $200 I've had an eyesore for four years," he says. It features an uncomfortable donkey punch. The painting on the wall is a self-portrait of Moke. Below it are antique Haitian chairs and pillows his mom covered with woven-grass Pygmy textiles. That's my beer. His scotch.

On the dresser, a stuffed groundhog, also from Petrune, watches over sunglasses and cash. Yoga mats. The bulldog doorstop, from his mom's sometimes-open store Upcountry Antiques in Trumansburg, wears a price-tag ankle bracelet. Mario says that because the fam has furniture stores, it's not uncommon for relatives to shop, keep the tags on and switch stuff out when they get bored.

Mario likes to chill on the bed, where ficuses and banana plants give off more green. On the wall is a failed papier-mache project by a Bread & Puppet puppeteer friend--it turned out more Ferdinand the Bull than savage beast (up close, the horns are about as menacing as baby arms). It was a gift for his 20th birthday. The crooked brass lamp on the side table was $3 at a garage sale (originally priced $5). A cute little doll lives in a planter near the window. His mother teamed up with a handicap center to make them and sell in the U.S., which they did not do very well--long story--so, as Mario puts it, "We have a lot of dolls kickin' around." Him and Cybil.

Below, Mario Speedwagon and his Pimp guitar, a birthday gift from Debbie. The pimp sticker is from the Ferdinand/puppeteer guy. We took a breather and formed a band at around 5:32 pm that day, according to the time stamp on these pics. Another Moke. On the other table, a thank-you note from his sister, who recently stayed there, begins, "Hey my brother..."

Laundry/Stretching/Yoga/Storage Room
Around the corner from the bedroom is another room for whatever. Frequently worn pants hang on a hook behind a door. On shelves are old t-shirts--"for painting, but I don't paint"--and backstock of favorite jeans, like five of the same. "It's from growing up in Africa," he explains. "There are limited resources, so you're buying stuff for the millennium." Mario likes building and flying radio-controlled airplanes. This yellow number is a high-tech throwback to the 1950s-style toy planes. "It's called an Old Timer," he says. "It floats low. I got this one cause you can fly it with a cocktail in your hand."

Saturday, May 16

Serge Van Lian, East Village

Remember Serge Van Lian from Bravo's Top Design? Back in September, he was the first designer to get "kicked off" (as they say) the second season of the show, not that it's mattered much to his career. He's been cruising around his East Village neighborhood, founding an eponymous design firm, salvaging decorative treasures from New York sidewalks, frequenting hardware stores for industrial decor, refueling with espresso at Abraco and finishing a very important project: his own two-bedroom apartment...

A mutual friend in Los Angeles introduced us via email, so we met for the first time one Saturday afternoon when he opened his front door with a big, friendly smile. (He keeps his shoes outside the door. I like that idea of appropriating the hallway.) The second I walked in, I was in awe of his beautiful place. Though it's small, and it's broken up into several small areas, which makes filling them with right-size furniture even more challenging, he's created a warm environment that's elegant, cool and industrial.

Serge is from LA and studied music, but he's always had an interest in design. He grew up watching his mom buy, fix up and sell houses, so he picked up some tricks from her. The rest he learned on his own.

The maybe-500-square-foot space is anchored by a big room at each end--his bedroom on one side, and a wonderfully peaceful "white room" on the other. Connecting them is the entry, where there's a lovely seating cove, a narrow kitchen he never uses but to sit on the counter while talking to guests, apparently, and a tiny bathroom with a giant window he knocked out of one wall, so it looks out--into and past the bedroom--to south-facing windows and views of turn-of-the-century brick buildings. There's another window, from the seating area, that looks into the bathroom and also through the bathroom window to those bedroom windows. Trust me, it works. So although the place is small, there's always some clever view to the outdoors, even if you're skimming past plaster, brick, a clear shower curtain, more plaster, more brick and glass. It's a lot like Serge; his vision is unstoppable.

By the end of my visit we were on the rooftop, climbing ladders and scaling concrete to visit the area Serge has claimed as his workshop. With the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in view, it's the perfectly inspirational place to spray-paint chairs and refinish tabletops.

(Looking at these photos now, they seem dark, and I should've taken more shots of entire rooms. Whoops! You can Google Image him and see more pics of his place. Check out the bathroom pics, since I don't really have a good one here.)

Entry and Sitting Room
Below, Serge in the doorway. Converse is a hit at this house. In the sitting area, electrical boxes act as sconces and support candles. A twig-and-pencil mirror by Laura Mazza from the Think Gallery. Nearby is the door to the bathroom, and you can see the window into the bathroom on that wall. He installed the checkered marble floors.

From the sitting room, you can look through a window (below, on the right) into the bathroom, and then into the bedroom. That's the shower head visible in the photo. Serge couldn't find just the right Empire-style frame he envisioned should go around this window, so he made one with hundreds of pennies. Only one depicts Lincoln's head, the rest are tails.

Past the kitchen is Serge's bedroom. His prized possession is this crazy-expensive Swedish bed from Hastens, which he got for a great deal because it was a floor model at the Soho store. (He's such a fan of Hastens that the company invited him to tour the headquarters in Sweden, and he's featured on the company's infomercial.) He now sleeps in Hastens heaven, on a bed of horsehair, cotton, flax and other organic materials that's wrapped in the brand's trademark plaid casing.

This room, colored in olive and hazel, looks like Serge. That's him in the kitchen. In the corner, he stacked a suite of bedroom furniture he found in a second-hand store. It's a dramatic way to use vertical space and have storage space. The middle one is filled with laundry.

Serge knocked out a huge section of the bathroom, so you can see into the bedroom--when the curtains are open, like they are here. He "wallpapered" the showering area with a shower curtain from Bed Bath & Beyond. The narrow medicine cabinet is actually a repurposed CD case he found on the Upper West Side. Around the bathroom are parts from a meat grinder. The base appears to support the cabinet but is only decorative, and the crank hangs on the wall because it looks good there.

Why don't I have a better picture of the kitchen? Serge rarely uses it, anyway. On the wall is another CD case that he strung with wire and uses for the storage of jars and spices.

The White Room
I love this peaceful guest room. Along the length of one wall is Flemming Busk's Twilight Sleep Sofa from Design Within Reach. When it's open, like it is here, the mattress covers almost the entire floor. Along another wall, a gigantic mirror stretches from floor to ceiling and is braced by some pipes and other industrial parts. Behind the mirror a "closet" with rows of hangers. Functional and inexpensive. He loves the John Keats line "Beauty is truth," so he took a nail and carved the words into every slat of the wood lath. The Victorian-Gothic mirror is from a friend's mother, and the black medieval-style chandelier is from the famous Billy's Antiques & Props in Soho.

I met up with Serge recently, and we walked around the East Village, went to a bookstore, ate pastries and looked at decor magazines. Such fun! He told me he'd finally replaced the counters in his kitchen. He also showed me a brand new tattoo: a nine-inch ruler, at half-inch increments, that runs up his right forearm. "In case I forget a tape measure," he says. "When you're pulling stuff from the streets and hauling it home, you want to make sure it's going to fit."