How to Bring Modern Design to Historic Houses

What’s the trick in taking something old and making it new again? Interior designers and architects have plenty of schemes up their sleeve when it comes to the challenge of modernizing historic homes, some even dating back over a hundred years. Four experts — Fauzia Khanani of Studio Fōr, Peter Pennoyer of Peter Pennoyer Architects, Sarah Magness of Magness Design and Alexandra Barker of BFDO Architects — spill on the projects they’ve successfully melded the modern and the historic to gorgeous results.

By: Emily Nonko

Photo By: Garret Rowland

Photo By: Garret Rowland

Photo By: Garret Rowland

Photo By: Scott Frances

Photo By: Scott Frances

Photo By: Richard Powers

Photo By: Richard Powers

Studio Fōr

A smart designer never approaches a historic home with the intent to destroy its good bones. “Initially we want a solid understanding of the existing architecture,” says Fauzia Khanani, who revamped this Rhinebeck, New York, home dating to the 1800s. Then, she says, the firm looks to places they can sensitivity upgrade for modern living – like adding exterior windows to bring in light.

Studio Fōr

Plenty has changed since the 1800s – including the way we live in houses. Architects often open up floorplans to create seamless entertaining areas and also overhaul spaces like kitchens and bathrooms. Khanani went “really modern” for the kitchen in Rhinebeck, from the cabinetry to the lighting.

Studio Fōr

Still, Khanani decided to maintain the home’s formal spaces, like the living and dining rooms. The final result, she says, is a “modern Victorian” that fit her clients needs raising a big family (plus a puppy!) in the home.

Peter Pennoyer Architects

Architect Peter Pennoyer notes that “unlocking the magic of the old but making it fresh is always a fun puzzle.” He hit all the right notes at this landmark Virginia farmhouse, where he moved the kitchen from the basement to the veranda level, made it feel light, airy and connected to the more formal parts of the house. He also extended new cabinetry to the ceiling to take advantage of underutilized space.

Peter Pennoyer Architects

On these projects Pennoyer isn’t attached to the past – “we aren’t purists and our clients don’t come to us for period rooms,” he says. At this 19th century brownstone he designed this vaulted stair hall to replace a dark Victorian hall. A large skylight at the top, and huge sliding doors at either end, bathe the space in light.

Magness Design

Designer Sarah Magness seeks “opportunities for creativity” when re-imagining historic interiors. At an Upper East Side, Manhattan townhouse with limited natural light, she looked to the stairwell. First and foremost, she wanted to maintain details like the curvy bannister, wainscoting and wood floors.

Magness Design

But she made a bold statement at the top of the stairwell, where she added an elliptical skylight inspired by modern lighting artist James Turrell. “It was many hours and many different craftsman to make it a reality,” she notes, “But it brings in a massive amount of light to all five floors and looks incredible even when it rains or snows.”

BFDO Architects

Alexandra Barker, of BFDO Architects, uses what she calls “the mullet strategy” for these types of projects: maintaining a “business/historically correct” approach in the front and a “party/modern attitude” toward the back. The facade of this wood-frame row house in Brooklyn was fully restored with bright and open spaces inside.

BFDO Architects

Barker says the biggest challenge spiffing up a home like a wood frame is that “it was not built with the same materials we commonly use now.” She saves whatever historic elements she can to “mix in little historic details within the modern renovation.” Here, existing pine flooring was bleached and pickled to give it a modern loft-like effect, while colorful books and furniture were added to pop against white walls.

BFDO Architects

Also in Brooklyn, BFDO revamped a brownstone, upgrading the layout so a family of five could live in harmony. She chose a deep blue paint color – not so common in 19th century architecture – as the “organizing thread” throughout the common spaces, and added this painted, perforated steel staircase that allows light to pass through it. Barker doesn’t shy away from fun design elements to offset the historic. “You want your clients to be able to express themselves with unique, sometimes wacky things,” she says.

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