He may be a furniture restorer to the stars, but in his own Brooklyn townhouse, Karl Kipfmueller opts for the worn and the faded
"You might say my aesthetic is more maids' quarters than lord of the manor," says, laughing. The affable artist, whose home in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn would today command a princely sum by any measure, has lived in New York City's most sought-after borough since his graduate school days at the nearby Pratt Institute, where he studied painting. Built in 1864 in the French Empire style, his home has a glamorously decaying facade that stands out among the turn-of-the-century Italianate brownstones that define the neighborhood. Inside, it's filled with cast-off furniture Kipfmueller has lovingly brought back to life. "I found almost all of it on the street or in local junk shops," says the unapologetic scavenger, who professes a great dislike for anything new.
The stucco facade of the 1864 house.
Not that he lives with rickety things. Kipfmueller's Grand Avenue Workshop, right down the street, is where some of the country's top designers—Thomas Jayne, Steven Gambrel, and DD Allen among them—send their most important pieces of furniture for reconstruction and restoration. Kipfmueller developed his expertise while working for an Italian master restorer in the early 1980s. "That was back when designers like Peter Marino were buying up 1930s French rosewood and parchment furniture—a lot of it was by Jean-Michel Frank—and had no idea how to revive it," he says. Since then, Kipfmueller has earned a reputation as an expert on such luxury materials as shagreen and parchment.
In the living room of the Brooklyn townhouse of Karl Kipfmueller and Dan Myers, the English club chairs are vintage, the Mies van der Rohe cocktail table sits atop a rug by ABC Carpet & Home, and the 1950s chandelier is Italian; Kipfmueller made the plaster statue as well as the painting, a copy of a Diego Velázquez portrait, that hangs in front of a vintage aluminum-leaf mirror. The walls are painted in Benjamin Moore Gray and topped with a coat of pigmented Butcher's wax.
His taste for iconic furniture dates back to high school, when he built a dollhouse for one of his sisters. "I made the Chippendale sofas to scale," he recalls. One of eight children, he grew up in a small town in Michigan, in a house that he likens to the Bates Motel in Psycho. "Lots of dark furniture with marble tabletops," Kipfmueller says. His grandmother, however, lived in a sprawling 1950s ranch in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. "It had h wall-to-wall white carpeting with a huge black bear rug set on top. It was all very good Midwestern taste, but sort of swinging," he explains.
The kitchen cabinetry and stainless steel countertops are by Galesi Design, the pendant lights are by Progress Lighting, the undercounter freezer and refrigerator drawers are by Summit, and the Wolf stove is vintage; the walls are painted in Benjamin Moore Dulamel in White, and the flooring is cork.
As for his own interior-design predilections, Kipfmueller takes his cues from Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock movies. "Murder on the Orient Express and Rebecca really made an impression. And then, of course, all of those PBS period series," he says. Only a person with such vivid visual references—and a history of transforming objects—could see past the hot pink and Wedgwood blue walls and tile floors that ran through three of the house's four stories when it was put up for sale. "It looked like a Mexican restaurant," says Kipfmueller. The white studio with a skylight on the top floor, however, sold him on the place. As for the rest, it was nothing 40 gallons of Benjamin Moore Linen White couldn't erase.
A drawing by Aleksandar Duravcevic hangs behind an American Empire–style chair in the dining room, and Kipfmueller did the drawing over the mantel, which was inspired by John Singer Sargent; the 19th-century mahogany table is English, the oak floors are original, and the walls are painted in Farrow & Ball Dead Flat in Etruscan Red.
Over the years, Kipfmueller and his partner of three decades, Dan Myers, who works with nonprofit organizations, swapped out most of the white for a muted, moody palette. "I had this idea that the rooms should look like those in an English country house after the creditors took all the family portraits away," says Kipfmueller. In place of the oils of ancestors, the artist has hung contemporary and traditional pieces that include black-and-white photographs, charcoal drawings by friend and fellow artist Aleksandar Duravcevic, and a series of porcelain slabs by Kelly Driscoll.
Kipfmueller hand-stenciled the fleur-de-lis pattern on the walls of the third-floor hallway and painted a sky motif on the ceiling; the mahogany armoire is American.
Kipfmueller does stray from England, however, and to Italy in particular. "I often have strangely baroque ideas that I tend to execute when Dan goes out of town," he admits. Such was the case when, inspired by a recent visit to Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, he painted a fleur-de-lis pattern all over the walls of the third-floor foyer. "Dan wasn't out the door five minutes and headed to the airport when I got the paint and brush out," he says with a smile.
The living room's parchment cabinet is by Grand Avenue Workshop, the drawings are by Kipfmueller, and the armchair belonged to his grandmother.
A trip to Rome provided the solution for the master bedroom's cracked plaster walls. Kipfmueller washed them in raw umber paint, applied a coat of wax, then rimmed the room in a gold-leaf checkerboard pattern. "I did it in the spring, with the windows open. All summer, we found ladybugs wearing a thin coat of gold," he says.
In the dining room, a vintage cabinet from David Stypmann; the vintage chairs are French, and the 19th-century chandelier is Italian.
A cast-iron bust of the Apollo Belvedere near the entrance.
It wasn't until 2006 that the pair decided to turn what had been a separate ground-floor apartment into a kitchen. Kipfmueller and Myers did all of the work themselves, apart from the cabinetry, which they farmed out to an aspiring craftsman. "It was his audition for becoming an employee at the workshop," says Kipfmueller. (He made the cut.)
Kipfmueller's top-floor studio. The ceiling is painted in Benjamin Moore Dulamel in White.
Humble materials—subway tiles, stained cork for the floor, stainless steel countertops—and exposed beams give the kitchen that Upstairs, Downstairs look of servants' quarters, of which he is so fond. But underneath the counter, there's a nod to the 21st century. "I saw no reason to renovate if we couldn't have an ice maker," he says with a smile.
In the master bedroom, the bed is custom made, the early-20th-century rocking chair is upholstered in a suede by Dualoy Leather, and the chest of drawers, a street find, was wrapped in leather by Grand Avenue Workshop; the oak-and-cherry floor is original.