Second Nature: A New York City Apartment Makeover

Second Nature: A New York City Apartment Makeover

September 12, 2011
Photo by: Todd Coleman

When I moved to New York City from Southern California nearly 20 years ago, I missed the easy access to nature I’d always enjoyed there. Over time, though, I became attuned to the ways the natural world reveals itself even in the heart of the city—in its rambling parks, its abundant farmers markets, its window boxes erupting with blooms. Still, by the middle of last year, my fourth-floor apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and my daily commute on the subway had begun to feel stifling. It was time for a change. 

More than anything, the copious sunlight streaming in through the windows first drew my partner, Daniel, and me to the two-bedroom apartment we eventually purchased in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. We loved the architectural details that remained in our new home, which was built in 1901, but many had been scrubbed clean over time. Most of the apartment’s original molding had been removed, so we installed matching segments in places where it was missing. We found 100-year-old lighting fixtures appropriate to the era and overall aesthetic. The previous owners had laid down contemporary bleached bamboo flooring, which we replaced with white oak rescued from a barn in Virginia.

Then we waited—and waited. The beautiful but largely empty apartment that we now called home daunted us. We didn’t know what to do next. That’s when Lindsey Taylor, style director of Garden Design, introduced me to her friend Shane Powers. “This is exactly the kind of situation he excels in,” she told me. A designer and editor at Martha Stewart Living with an abiding respect for the natural world, he’s worked on interiors for clients all over the world.

The aim was not to create a garden indoors but to evoke the feeling of being in a garden.

For a while the exchanges between Shane and me bordered on the abstract. I cited a particular piece of piano music by Claude Debussy as being what I wanted the apartment to feel like. Shane responded by e-mailing images of furniture and decorative elements he felt expressed the same sense of quiet, comfort, and contemplation. At ABC Carpet & Home we found a sofa and chair upholstered in unbleached loose-weave linen. From Tara Shaw Antiques in New Orleans, we bought an old dining table that was refinished with a textured, distressed-whitewash surface. The convergence of old and new felt perfectly in sync.

From the start, Shane knew he wanted living plants to punctuate the space and echo the leafy treetops visible outside. We installed window boxes filled with different ivies in variegated hues that would keep their foliage year-round. Two urns sprouting snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata) with striking bladelike leaves anchor one end of the living room, and a rotating assortment of different plants and simple arrangements of cut flowers inhabit various corners and surfaces. We were careful not to overdo it: The aim was not to create a garden indoors but to evoke the feeling of being in a garden.

One particularly meaningful element grew out of an early conference with Shane in which we laid out on a table a collection of fragments—leaves, blossoms, swatches of fabric — that reflected the mood and palette we were going for. One of those scraps was an old snapshot I took on the cross-country trip that carried me from California to New York City years ago of a stretch of New Mexico desert. We ended up blowing up that snapshot, framing it, and positioning it as the focal point of the living room. The image is nature and the contemplation of nature at the same time, a fragment of the past and a poignant emblem of a new beginning. It is absolutely right in our home. 

Sourcebok:  French furniture reproductions at ABC Home (212-473-3000;, antique furniture from Tara Shaw (504-525-1131; and advice on interior décor by Shane Powers ( 

James Oseland is Editor-in-Chief of Saveur


This article was first published in Garden Design September/October 2011