Designer Dionne Rivera
The Hugo Tollner House, 421 Franklin Avenue
Interior Designer Dionne Rivera dishes on everything—from what inspires her, including her favorite wood-frame house; to regional design motifs; favorite museums and decorative arts collections across the globe—to a breezy walk around Park Slope, her home for the past 24 years. A Seattle native, she earned her degree in Fashion Design in Los Angles. “I’ve always wanted to design interiors, so I was lucky it worked out that I was able to have a home-based business and still be close by for my children.”
Which are some of your favorite wood-frame houses in Brooklyn?
There is a house in Bedford Stuyvesant that has always captured my attention. Looking up the address (421 Franklin Avenue) I found that it originally belonged to Hugo Tollner, son of Eugene Tollner, co-founder of Gage and Tollne. It is an asymmetrical wood-frame Gothic house with a mansard roof. And the wood-frame house that I’ve loved for years on 12th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Describe your style. And does it differ from the kinds of interior’s you design?
I have an eclectic style, I like to mix it up: a little modern, family heirlooms, flea market finds—I try to incorporate a bit of humor into every interior, but my top priority is that absolutely everything is comfortable and functional.
My clients’ tastes differ wildly and I have been able to design amazing Art Deco spaces, Mid-Century Modern spaces, traditional houses, beach houses, and even a ranch in New Mexico.
Any regional design motifs that are particular to Brooklyn?
Brooklynites prefer original details—moldings, over-mantels, tin ceilings, cornices, and the original hardware, etc. that might be in bad repair, but salvageable. People will keep a non-working fireplace because the original mantle is amazing. The east coast homeowner is more likely to have bolder colors, and because of space restraints, most of the furniture will be used, so it has to really be practical and not just decorative.
On the west coast, people like smaller moldings, most of the homes are newer and don’t have a long history of design like we have here. There will be one fireplace, cooler colors, more visible wood, and on the plus side, in the Northwest; you don’t have to deal with air conditioning.
What kind of research, if any, might you do for a wooden house homeowner that may differ from an apartment dweller or brownstone owner?
If it hasn’t already been done, I would bring in a licensed home inspector/structural engineer to thoroughly check the home. There might be termite damage, the façade might have problems; the wood absorbs moisture so expansion and contraction caused by humidity could cause sticking windows, doors, if it’s been covered by siding, it might have rotted. The framing has to be probed for buckling, any deformations, and many houses and buildings in Park Slope settle at an angle, some are severe enough to warrant attention.
The house might be landmarked; if so, there are rules to follow for paint colors, repair or replacement of ornamental elements, shingles, clapboards, etc.
I also like to research the history of a home. At the Brooklyn Historical Society; you can research through the records and documents to piece together and find out details about your building from many different sources.
What challenges are unique to a Brooklyn wooden house homeowner?
Wooden houses require much more attention than Brownstones or Limestone buildings. The exteriors require attention (paint or sealing) every 5-10 years, Brick is good for 50 years, Brownstone and Limestone up to 100 years.
Drainage is really important, gutters, downspouts, and you don’t want to make it convenient for the termites. Most of the wood frame houses have some kind of termite damage already. But they are so unique and most with some kind of front and back yard, and maybe a porch in New York is so unheard of, a little secret in the midst of a dense urban setting. The lawns, though they might be minuscule by suburban standards, are magnificent for such a crowded, coveted corner of the world.
How does the layout of a wooden house differ from a typical Brownstone?
A wooden house might have a pitched roof, the interiors of most are much simpler and the layouts might be smaller than a brownstone. With some of the wooden houses, the front porches are lower than a stoop, your windows tend to be eye level and you might not have much privacy.
They usually don’t have many closets or storage areas; I always recommend trying to build a closet or two.
Any special consideration for lighting the wooden house interior?
Because there might be a lack of privacy, but a need to let in light, I like to use the bottom-up shades on the lower floors. Also, if they can be incorporated, the recessed lights work well because you don’t need to take up valuable space with table or floor lamps.
Have you incorporated any salvaged period pieces into a design?
I am a frequent visitor to Olde Goode Things. It’s easier to use the salvaged doors, cabinetry, sinks in the houses we work on upstate because the space is so restricted here. But I love hardware and lighting, I’ve brought back so many things from the flea markets in Paris, London, and Bangkok. Since you usually can’t get all the handles or knobs you need in a certain design, I will bring back one and have it copied.
What kind of amenities do Brooklynites want in their homes vs. other urban homeowners (besides space!)?
People really want instant hot and cold filtered waters from the tap in the kitchen and the bathrooms. I have been putting in Japanese toilets (toilet seats with built-in bidets) a lot lately.
Are there special considerations when designing for the wood-frame owner in Brooklyn vs. other urban areas?
I’ve found that the wood-frame houses in Brooklyn tend to have smaller interiors which need smaller appliances and clean, minimal furniture. No Shabby chic sofas or Aga Stoves. Using butcher block for the kitchen countertops is a good way of staying within the right look and you can use it as a chopping board. The house might be landmarked, there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do. They tend to need a lot of repair, so you have to be prepared time and money wise.
It’s all in the details, yes?
I think with most wooden houses, incorporating the details that look the closest to handmade (but not fussy) works the best. Moroccan or Spanish matte tiles, upholstery and case pieces, tables, mirrors with a 1940’s or New England-y feel, there are used appliance stores with small, older stoves. Use of shutters, blinds, and shades for windows instead of long panels.
Some say that “it’s what’s inside that counts.” Have you ever convinced a homeowner that a particular design element original to the home should be preserved and incorporated into your design?
Yes, sometimes it really is worth stripping off all the paint to reveal the original design. The window shutters in most of the buildings are really well made and fold back in to a recessed pocket; they just might need some work. The pocket sliding doors are really worth trying to keep, original doors, window frames, any columns … the only thing I find hard to deal with is picture moldings, they are usually gloppy with layers of paint and dictate where furniture is placed in a room. If they are in good repair then painting them the same color as the walls is the best way to make the walls look uncluttered.
If there is a beautiful piece of molding that is in bad condition, sometimes we will have it copied and repeated in other rooms.
If the house has any built-ins, they are usually beautifully done, so I really try to keep those.
What inspires you? Anything specific about working and living in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
The first time I visited Park Slope was in 1985, and I found it to be stark, the streets were deserted and the park was depressing and dangerous. I was reluctant to move here, but once you start looking at the charm and potential in this area, you feel like the pioneers who started living in Soho lofts.
As I learned the history of the area from some of the old timers, I could picture how the area must have looked. And now, being able to see the resurgence of Park Slope has been amazing. The gardens, window boxes, building restorations, and community pride is inspiring. I love to travel, but nothing really compares.
What else do you find inspiring?
The period rooms in any museum are always my favorites. You really get to see what it would be like to live in that specific era. I love the Wisteria Room and the Ottoman Rooms at the Met, the Jeanne Lanvin Apartment by Rateau in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the entire Neue Galerie because it once was a private home, and the period rooms at the V&A are amazing because you are free to walk through the rooms and get up close to view the details.
And of course, just walking around New York!
Check out Rivera’s portfolio and contact her at (917) 755.7576.
- Sara Durkacs