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Expert Advice: Making a New Build Look Lived-In with Hendricks Churchill


Expert Advice: Making a New Build Look Lived-In with Hendricks Churchill

May 12, 2023

Heide Hendricks and Rafe Churchill are whizzes at adding a sense of history to just about any space—just see The New Connecticut Farm, Sustainable Edition, their net-zero farmhouse inspired by Shaker villages and an old New England classic: Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine.

But what if the bones you’re working with are as standard-issue as they come: a new build with few quirks to speak of? Such was the case with a two-bed, two-bath contemporary apartment in New York City that had a young family itching for more texture and story. They brought in Hendricks Churchill and architect Gitta Robinson from Robinson + Grisaru Architecture PC, proving charm can be injected just about anywhere.

Here, Heide shares tips and tricks for creating a lived-in look no matter how plain the space.

Photography by Tim Lenz, courtesy of Hendricks Churchill.

in the nyc apartment, heide and rafe softened the lines of the dining room with 17
Above: In the NYC apartment, Heide and Rafe softened the lines of the dining room with a curved screen, layered textiles, and floor-length window panels.

Remodelista: New builds can feel like white boxes. What are some ways to soften the lines of a new space?

Heide Hendricks: We rely heavily on paint colors to prime the surface with the first layer of the room’s soul. First, assess the details that are worth accentuating or minimizing. For example, with this client’s apartment, they had a long corridor leading between the front and back. It had doors of varying heights, so we made the passage more uniform by making all of the doors look the same size with a combination of panels and dark green paint. We also kept the wall color slightly darker than the living room in order to make the living room feel even larger and brighter in contrast to the narrow hallway and its dark green accents.

the living area, too, a mix of vintage textiles and family heirlooms along with 18
Above: The living area, too, a mix of vintage textiles and family heirlooms along with more modern finds.

RM: Are there other paint tricks you use?

HH: It’s important to create a color story that flows from space to space. You don’t want the color palette of one room to feel completely different from the next—almost as if you walked into another house. One convention I follow is to bring a color from one space into the next space, whether as an accent or feature. Or we’ll often take the same shade and bump up its intensity as we move into smaller or darker spaces. This creates a variety of mood throughout the home that can be conducive to each room’s primary activity. For instance, a lighter, brighter color in an open living room, then going to a light blue in a north-facing bedroom, where the color reads as a fresh sky blue at daybreak but turns more velvety gray in the dusk evening, when you are getting ready for bed.

Above: The kitchen feels right out of a country cottage, with glass display cabinets and a robins-egg hue.

RM: How can someone add character in the kitchen and bath, whether gut-renovating or working with standard fittings? 

HH: We love to bring bead board into kitchens on the walls and the backsplash. It’s a great way to make the room feel substantial. It also brings texture into a space that has a lot of slick stone and stainless steel.

heide and rafe also added a breakfast nook. the pressed flower prints are a nod 21
Above: Heide and Rafe also added a breakfast nook. The pressed-flower prints are a nod to the homeowners’ love of plants.

RM: It seems like texture goes a long way. What are some fresh ways to add this?

HH: Texture can be how something feels but also how it looks. I like to bring in varying tactile experiences into the room but also aim to balance the look of these layers. A lot of hard woods in this room, like the walnut table and ebonized bench from Sawkill, are softened by the beautiful drape of the woolen Rogers and Goffigon fabrics. Likewise the antique rug was complimented by a woven silky jute rug for the dining area.

RM: Any solutions for avoiding the big-box new-build lighting that often comes with new builds?

HH: We try not to rely too much on recessed lighting. It’s great to have it as additional means to light up a room, but we always prefer to build out the room with layers of light rather than trying to solve it all with overhead lighting. Here we used sconces, table lamps, and central ceiling lights to make the rooms feel cozy without compromising lighting for the tasks and mood of the room.

painting the trim can make a big difference. 22
Above: Painting the trim can make a big difference.

RM: For renters, or those who can’t change their space in major ways, what are some simple tricks to add historic charm?

HH: Accentuate an interior architectural detail with a trim color in contrast to the wall color. This trick is especially great if you’re renting and have white walls. You can change the whole mood of the room, and the contrast color serves as its own decorative layer, which can make a sparsely furnished room feel more cozy and settled.

Above: Layer, layer, layer.

RM: Lightening round: Five things you have in your arsenal for adding instant character?

HH: 1. Antiques rugs for sure! Bring in a rug made before 1920 (when they were still largely made by hand and with natural dyes) and that one element brings character, color and pattern into the room without overwhelming it.

2. Textiles for bringing in layers of pattern, either through window treatments or throw pillows. In this apartment, we brought in an antique hand-woven Kashmiri paisley shawl for a layer of color and texture on the coffee table. It also doubles as a throw blanket on movie night.

3. Books. Don’t feel like you need to color-code your books! Arrange them by subject so you can find them and step back to enjoy the collage. If you’re concerned about it getting too busy and messy, don’t add objects to the same shelf. Either do just books or just objects on a shelf. That’s a good trade secret to fall back on.

4. Artwork. Follow your gut. If you love it, it will work in the space. Don’t restrict yourself to only selecting artwork that matches the room’s color scheme. Think like a curator and select artwork that gives you associations you’d welcome in your home. Depending on the mood it conjures, place it in a room with a primary function most appropriate to its vibe. In this apartment, our clients are passionate about birds, so we placed this wonderful large-scale landscape photograph of a bird skipping across a watery horizon in contrast to the incredible urban skyline out their window. It offers a reflective moment while dining (and its glass bounces more daylight from the large picture windows around the room). Another example is in the kitchen, where we framed a series of her favorite pressed flowers to bring nature into the kitchen.

5. Decorative objects. These are key to enlivening a space with interesting vignettes to rest your eyes. For this project we mixed in fine antique painted porcelain, iconic midcentury-modern barware, and quirky finds like an antique clock from a steamship. Place objects in groupings of prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, etc.) for a harmonious pattern that is aesthetically pleasing even to an untrained eye.

textiles add dimension and contrast, even in a modern bathroom. 25
Above: Textiles add dimension and contrast, even in a modern bathroom.

RM: Finally, what should people avoid at all costs when adding character?

HH: Faux finishes. I favor authentic, time-worn patina over a faux finish every time. It lends a sense of history for a more soulful interior.

the young son&#8\2\17;s room got a coat of playful blue. 26
Above: The young son’s room got a coat of playful blue.

More expert advice:

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Frequently asked questions

What is the Hendricks Churchill design?

Hendricks Churchill is a design firm that specializes in high-end architecture, interior design, and landscape design. They work on both new builds and renovations.

How can I add character to a new build?

One way to add character to a new build is to incorporate vintage or reclaimed materials. This can include salvaged doors, antique lighting fixtures, or reclaimed wood flooring. Additionally, adding architectural details like molding and trim can also add charm.

What style is the Hendricks Churchill design?

Hendricks Churchill doesn't specialize in any one style. Instead, they approach each project individually and tailor their design to the client's specific needs and preferences.

How can I create a cohesive design in a new build?

A consistent color palette and material selection can help create a cohesive design in a new build. Additionally, repeating design elements like lighting fixtures or hardware throughout the home can tie everything together.

Can I incorporate modern elements into a traditional design?

Yes! Mixing modern and traditional elements can create a unique and interesting design. Just be sure to maintain a cohesive overall look and feel.

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