before and afterInteriors

Before & After: A Brooklyn Apartment Gets A Vintage-Inspired Overhaul

by Kelli Kehler

Entrusting an interior designer to interpret your own personal style, and then translate it throughout the walls of your home, isn’t always the easiest surrender of control. And for those with endless creativity and inspiration springing from their life’s work and surroundings, that personal style can become even more nuanced, more difficult to convey, let alone execute at the hands of someone who is not yourself.

For Nicki Pombier Berger — an oral historian, educator and artist — articulating her vision for a full-apartment renovation in Brooklyn’s Park Slope to designer Elizabeth Mercer Aurandt first included talking at length about the project at hand. For Elizabeth to fully understand the inner workings of Nicki’s brain and the type of space that would feed her clever idea tank, she, as Nicki says, “internalized and metabolized” her ideas to bring them to life. After this gathering of ideas, Nicki says, “[Elizabeth] gives back a portrait of myself that I wouldn’t be able to come up with on my own.” Aside from the aesthetics of the home, it needed to be welcoming and functional for Nicki’s two sons, aged 5 and 13, one of whom has multiple disabilities.

Elizabeth, who grew up immersed in the arts — from performing music to studying visual arts to jewelry design — was up to the task of executing the needs of Nicki and her family, and used nature to greatly inform the apartment’s design. “I had gone camping on and around Lake Superior with my family while I was working on this project,” Elizabeth recalls. “As we were walking different parts I took note. There was the beach and that became the kitchen and the dark stones became the bathroom. The deep woods were a reflective place and that was the study. There were also lots of wildflowers and that was translated to the bedroom. Nicki goes to some of the areas [where] we were with her family, and I knew those were places she really loved, so it was a good place to pull from.”

A rental for over 20 years, the apartment was in need of several updates before aesthetics came into play. “When we opened different areas up there were crumbling exterior walls, plumbing issues — we had to get things up to code,” Elizabeth shares. “Lots of repair work came before the pretty stuff.” Repairs led the way for a full kitchen redesign that involved preserving existing wood flooring and incorporating a hutch that was original to the building. Trim paint, custom shelving and interesting artwork were features added to Nicki’s study, and her bathroom’s original cast iron tub was refinished to maintain the space’s character.

In Nicki’s bedroom, the greatest surprise to her of all is a bold wallpaper she chose that’s a departure from the rest of her apartment’s neutral palette. Her selection of this pattern was a result of honing in on what she was instantly drawn to, not unlike how Elizabeth deeply pinpointed what she perceived to be Nicki’s greatest needs for her apartment. “It is reflecting back to myself everything about my life,” Nicki says. “It shows back to me the things that I love. For me that is important because, in addition to being a mother, I draw a lot of meaning out of the work that I do and the people I engage with in the world. To have my home be a surface for that is validating on a daily basis.” —Kelli

Photography by Emily Gilbert / @emilygilbertphoto

Image above: Before Elizabeth redesigned the kitchen, it was dark and lacking proper storage. Reconfiguring the space — including the sink and range placement — opened up new cabinet opportunities to improve functionality while elevating the room’s overall design.


A new IKEA kitchen with Emtek cabinet hardware now pops with backsplash tiling to the ceiling and vintage-inspired sconce lighting.


Before, the kitchen’s previous tiling dwarfed the space by stopping halfway up the walls. By carrying the new tiles all the way up to the ceiling and adding a sleek vent hood, the room now appears taller and larger.


Elizabeth made sure to restore the original built-in hutch and dressed it up with new hardware from Emtek. Painting the trim work adds depth to the kitchen.


The same effect was achieved by painting the window trim. Before, the windows faded into the wall — now defined with paint, they anchor that side of the kitchen and enhance the space’s color palette. “I was most pleasantly surprised with the transformation of the kitchen because it was such a hot mess!” Elizabeth remembers. “We really wanted to keep the original sink, but it was just too far gone to keep.”


A Restoration Hardware pendant light replaced a ceiling fan light fixture, carrying forth the vintage-inspired theme Elizabeth was going for.


Beyond the kitchen in Nicki’s study, a neutral color palette is made interesting with various textures and patterns, giving the space a warm, layered feel.


The same deep green hue was used to define the trim work in the study, a smart choice that both unites the kitchen and study, yet defines the two spaces from one another.


Floor-to-ceiling shelving offers ample storage for all of Nicki’s reading materials. Her latest project is “a 9-day pilot artist residency at Selinsgrove State Center in Selinsgrove, PA, a residential institution for people with intellectual disabilities. The program aims to bring artists to work collaboratively with the people who live there to create a portrait of the place. Many of the residents communicate non-traditionally because of their intellectual disabilities (some may be non-verbal, for example). First person accounts of the place will be told through documentary makers, visual artists, dancers, an oral historian, and more.”


A memento framed on the passthrough windowsill between the study and kitchen.


Artwork by Nura Qureshi and Nicole Antebi complete Nicki’s study.


Before, a plain white, nondescript bedroom.


After — the same deep hue dresses the window trim, accentuating the feature instead of blending it in. A colorful wallpaper by Lindsay Cowles sets a completely new tone for Nicki’s bedroom. “I loved the process of looking at this artist’s portfolio of patterns and allowing myself to be drawn to something that surprises me,” Nicki says. “It’s kind of glam. It’s NOT neutral and not something I thought would be for me. I love it so much and it’s a surprising detail. It allows for me to recognize parts of me that still surprise me.”


The wallpaper, combined with textured accessories, sets a lively tone for Nicki’s bedroom.


Before, the bathroom had decent square footage, but older features left the space feeling dingy.


A fresh new monochromatic tile job on the walls and floor adds interest to the space without overwhelming it; the refinished cast iron tub now looks as new as the bathroom’s design.


Elizabeth tells us that while completing this project, she learned “To trust my gut. I agonize so much over my projects and I have to trust my intuition and the client’s needs and their vibe. I lose a lot of sleep over seemingly tiny details. Things are always resolved satisfactorily… but I wonder if I can relax into the fact that I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I will have the solutions without the stress.”

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  • Lovely, calm renovation. I just worry about the cabinet next to the stove getting hot- see the teapot picture. (And it’s probably lead paint on that cabinet, if it’s original to the house….)

    • Hi Naomi,

      Lead paint removal is being taken seriously in a new way across the US (yay!). Very recently the rules and regulations around testing for lead paint have changed and we are all for it. We took great care in removing the original paint with trusted professionals, especially because there are children in the house.

      -mercer INTERIOR

  • Oh wow, I really love that kitchen transformation – I’m not usually a fan of tiled walls, but it really does make a massive difference for the better in the before/after, and the color looks so beautiful with the painted hutch! Lovely.

  • Beautiful space! Would be so grateful to know how the living room floor to ceiling shelving was assembled. Is it DIY?

    • Thank you! We used a kind of bookshelf where you attach the shelves to the metal rails and then lean it against the wall and secure it at the top. We don’t DIY so much as we have the idea and hire someone else to DIFU (Do It For Us :D) I think there are plenty of retail options with this look.

  • My goodness, what is that magnificent shelving? My husband is an English PhD, and we will soon be moving his massive library into a smallish condo. These shelves would be the perfect marriage of form and function!

    • Oh you flatter us! You can get a custom look without the price if you get as many bookshelves as your space will fit and install them side-to-side so that they’re touching. Just make sure they’re open on the sides/ don’t have any verticals that would separate them- that is the key!

      -mercer INTERIOR

  • Such a beautiful space!! May I ask what was the source for the Swiss Cross bathroom (wall) tiles? Thank you!

  • Love this! This is a very specific question but I’d love to know how the window trim (the metal, not the wooden moulding) was cleaned and painted. I would love to paint our dingy gray trim black but am intimidated by the process.

    We similarly saved our vintage Brooklyn kitchen built-ins and while the drawers drive me nuts sometimes, I have never regretted the decision.

  • Are you aware that you have page-hijacking ads? Whenever I come to your site on my phone I get redirected to one of those pages that tells me that I’ve won an Amazon gift card (or some such). It makes the site close to unusable – scrolling through this post alone I got hijacked 3 Times. I love this site so I hope that it’s something that you can fix.

    • Hi Karen

      I’m so sorry that happened to you! These ads are exactly that – hijackers. They hijack our ad server nearly as quickly as we block them. Rest assured we’re on the case and never want our readers to have that experience.


  • lovely…the only thing I could not have given up in the kitchen was the double sink!
    I am curious – are the plates in drawers and where is the dishwasher?

  • Such a great use of art!
    I love the straw–is that a gazelle–head. Do you have a source?

  • Love it – where did the bathroom vanity come from? I love the openness at the bottom.

  • I love how you used the trim to anchor the spaces. So many of us get used to the standard white and I love seeing this fresh approach to coloring the trim. It adds another layer in a space with a neutral color palette.

  • I’d have kept the picture rails in the living room, though. They’re the BEST for hanging stuff on plaster walls!