interior designsneak peeks

A Harlem Home Filled with Memories and Artwork

by Grace Bonney

Chef, restauranteur, author and opera singer, Alexander Smalls is a self-described “social minister” in New York City. He is always on the go, bringing together people from across the city and treating them to great entertainment and wonderful food. From his home in Harlem, Alexander oversees Minton’s Supper Club and The Cecil (named Best New Restaurant in 2014 by Esquire), as well as his involvement in charity groups like C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) and The Union Food Lab at Columbia University. Over the last 25 years, Alexander has traveled the world studying the cooking techniques and foodways of the African diaspora and brings that great passion for culture, art and food back with him to Harlem.

When he’s not working, singing (Alexander received both a Grammy Award and Tony Award for the cast recording of Porgy and Bess with the Houston Grand Opera!) or traveling, Alexander comes home to this colorful apartment in Harlem’s Convent Avenue area. We were so thrilled to be invited inside and were blown away by his incredible collections of artwork and photography. It’s an honor to share a peek inside this special place and to hear some of the amazing stories behind the space and special pieces Alexander has spent decades making his own. I love the way his home is designed for guests and entertaining. “Growing up in the South, the public rooms had to be on view,” Alexander says. “We didn’t think about sitting in the living room until the weekend. It’s for company! We could sit there on Sundays if we were in our Sunday clothes.” That respect for home and welcoming others into yours is something that carries through into each of Alexander’s rooms. His joy for life and art is evident in each room, too. “Every day I am thankful. Truly, every day. My joy starts when my eyes wake. There’s nothing like greeting the day. Waking up allows you an opportunity to meet new experiences every day.” Thanks to much to Alexander for welcoming us inside and to Julia Turshen for conducting this interview. xo, grace

Photography by Kelly Merchant

Of his hallway of photos, Alexander says, "My mother sent up the family photo albums and she got upset with me because I didn’t give them back until much later! Ms. Lorna Simpson, a friend for many years, went through them and selected the photos she wanted to take. 80% are my family, plus a few from friends’ families (Lorna’s and Thelma Golden and Gordon Parks). Lorna took photos of the photos and the albums and printed them and then went to junk stores to find old frames and framed them herself and hung them on the walls of Café Beulah. It was the greatest gift. Now they live here. They all speak to me."
Alexander's home, and his Harlem neighborhood, have "served as my salvation over the years," he explains. After two of his earlier restaurants closed, this space and this community helped him feel comforted and inspired again. "If I had stayed downtown, I would’ve floundered. Harlem was nurturing. It was a cradle. A place where I could find sustenance and comfort. It took me out of the spotlight and let me pull the pieces of my life back together. I’ve lived everywhere and I love it the most here." [View from the hallway into the kitchen]
Alexander's kitchen is painted a sunny mustard yellow. Of his stove, Alexander says, "I LOVE my stove. You know I like to wok it."
The bar/music room is filled with artwork and treasured family pieces. "I am a collector," Alexander says. "My art, my books, my music -- those are my most important things."
Above Alexander's bar is a collection of cherished artwork. "[One of my] cherished pieces is my Elon Brasil painting (above left). He’s about 10 years old. I have a few pieces of his. I love the haunting eyes. The other four pieces above the bar are the foundation of my art education and experience. I bought them when I was in graduate school. Susan Reich did these pieces. She was from Philadelphia and she was a good friend. There is something about making a purchase for something that doesn’t have a utilitarian purpose…especially when you’re young. My mother used to say 'if you pay for something, you don’t lose it'."
When it comes to entertaining and guests, Alexander says, " I like to think of myself a host with the most. I am always prepared. I always take a note of things like my friends’ favorite drinks and I don’t want anyone to come and think there aren’t options and choices."
Alexander's piano and artwork in the music room. "I sometimes see myself as an editor in life. I'm attracted to things that are personal and am drawn to things that show who I am. Sometimes I have to buy extra suitcases on trips to bring everything home. I buy fabrics in Africa and have clothing and tablecloths made. My mother was a dressmaker and my father was a shoemaker and an upholsterer. When they were first together, they redid homes for people. Our home changed seasonally. I come by this honestly. The next time you come here, this apartment will probably be different."
The dining room. The large painting of the woman was shipped over from Paris. The painter was originally from Martinique. "A very good friend of mine saw the pieces and sent me slides and this one kept talking to me. She’s grand. She presides over that room," Alexander says.
Alexander in the dining room. Of his apartment's many drapes and curtains, Alexander says, "My background as an opera singer most likely influences my taste. I sometimes feel like this is an opera set. I have curtains everywhere; I get that from my mother. She was a curtain freak. I grew up with drapes. We used to hide behind the drapes. It’s out of style and fashion for people. Even in college, I would buy sheets with styles and patterns and hang them. Fabric is how I keep my parents alive."
Looking from the dining into the sitting room, you can see more of Alexander's amazing collection of artwork. "I think it’s important that the space you inhabit holds your essence and supports your thoughts," Alexander says. "Particularly, your silent moments in life. Inadvertently, it becomes a reflection of who you are. This apartment is layers and layers. It’s the textures of my personalities. This apartment can be overwhelming when it looks back at you!"
The purple sitting room, filled to the brim with artwork, photographs and textiles from across the globe.
The view from the sitting room through the dining room and back to the bar/music room.
The layout of Alexander's apartment. A few spaces were off-limits for our photo shoot. Alexander explains, "I’m Southern, I don’t share my bathroom."

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  • Oh wow, what a lovely home! I love all the stories within the home. You know this person has lived life and has a lesson or two for us younger folks!

    • Linda

      Agreed. I think seeing homes owned by people who have had a long and rich life so far is so inspiring. You can’t build a home with this much character overnight- it takes years and so much passion and editing :)


  • Blessed to have been in that place, that amazing space–as guests of Alexander, the arbiter of good taste!

  • This home really is inspiring from the lovely yellow hallway to the books, art and that amazing kitchen.

  • Yes! There is something about such a layered home that just feels so honest. Love the explosion of art…what a reminder that a gallery wall isn’t necessarily something that should be curated but built from all the things that you love and are inspired by. I love, love the more Scandinavian and minimal style, but while it feels light and airy in the summer, it is starting to feel a little cold as the days get chillier. Never thought of the style of a home as being seasonal…but what a freedom that is to change things up!

  • Those barstools! What a wonderful apartment, but I think my favorite part is that the curtains that show the selvage edge of fabric. Such fearless style – which is so fun.

  • Whenever in NYC, this is my “home-away-from-home”…so comfy, cozy, beautiful & Artfully eclectic…Mr. Smalls has such great Style!…& I must add, several refrigerators full of Gourmet food!!!

  • Wowzer! I was transported by the words and images in this post, instantly imagining a cozy, memorable evening filled with amazing food, art, sparkly drink, music, laughter and stimulating conversation. Alexander truly does look like ‘the host with the most’!

  • Amazingly individualistic home, layered, fearless and exactly like the wonderful owner. Don’t care if its trendy or not but those curtains are the perfect backdrop for this dramatic space. Thanks for showcasing this.

  • This home speaks to my soul. This home has life. I know the next color for my kitchen. Forget gray and white.

  • What a warm and welcoming well lived home. The stories are what makes it. “Fabric is how I keep my parents alive” stopped me in my tracks
    I am obsessed with fabric, all types all kinds, my grandmother was a seamstress and we sewed everything together. Being a performer I also adore curtains and the drama they provide. And now my Saturday will consists of sewing….?

  • Love this! That Lorna Simpson reproduced his family heirlooms and took the next step to find appropriate framing is amazing! I am an artist so am always happy to read about collectors. Also my mother was an opera singer who integrated a few opera companies, sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra Choir, etc. (before his time). She also was a paid soloist for a church in New York! I am in a Harlem art collection, but would love to be in this one, too! LOVELY piece! Thank to Black Art in America for posting!

  • The Alexander’s home is exquisite as his cooking and heart. I am blessed being his old French-speaking friend for more than 30 years. That’s why I can identified among his rich art collection, pieces from Haitian painters. The big painting just above Alexander’s head and sofa for example is from amazing French Caribbean artist Christiane Laval, à former alumni from Art’Déco, Paris, France (alike French designer Stark). But the one on the spot is Alexander’s fabulous and warm decoration. Roland (Paris and Algiers)

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