I am so excited to introduce Kermit and Azadeh Westergaard. With all the living choices in New York City, they’ve chosen to settle into a beautiful 1908 row house in Ridgewood. Not only do they live in their home but they work in it as well. Theirs is a great example of how work, life, family, and community can blend together seamlessly.
Originally I learned about Kermit and Azadeh through an article in The New York Times, A ‘Farmhouse’ Near the L Train, May 11, 2008. I was so impressed with their beautiful home and their choice of location and aesthetic that I contacted them immediately to see if they’d chat with us about their house. When I e-mailed them questions for this interview, I loved their answers so much that I decided to post this article as a Q&A. So without delay, meet the Westergaards!
Please share a little about who you are.
The Westergaards are a small family of three, Kermit, Azadeh, and their young son Felix. Both Kermit and Azadeh have professional background and education in design. Please check out their web site at http://madebytwo.com to learn more about this accomplished and creative couple.
Azadeh and I have recently started a company called Made By Two & Co. (http://madebytwo.com) that specializes in the design and renovation of living spaces, as well as developing innovative, useful products for the home. We really love collaborating on projects together.
I’ve designed everything from toys and products to furniture and spaces, and worked closely with renowned designer Eva Zeisel in developing her line of collapsible furniture. As an illustrator and graphic designer, Azadeh has worked for clients such as Target, Simon & Schuster, and American Greetings, as well as having illustrated six books, all currently in print.
Let’s talk a little about the neighborhood, Ridgewood, Queens. It’s a wonderful place – a true melting pot of nationalities. You and your wife have different ethnic backgrounds. Please share a little about your backgrounds and how you honor traditions in your house. It said in The New York Times article that you cook Persian food. Sounds delicious!
Azadeh was born in Iran, but was raised in the Washington DC area. My father’s side of the family is Norwegian. He was first generation American. Most of our cultural interests revolve around food. Currently Persian cooking is more our focus than Norwegian because Azadeh’s mother is such an amazing cook and we’re both learning from her. Our kitchen is really the center of our life. We make meals together every day.
We’ve also discovered some great local spots for food including, amazing tamales from a regular street vendor, a lovely Italian bakery, and an organic market with excellent fresh produce at [reasonable] prices.
Our next home project is going to be growing herbs and vegetables in our garden. We just planted our first tomato plants which were a gift from my uncle’s garden.
Ridgewood wasn’t your first choice. Please explain how you came to find your row house.
I’ve always loved exploring new neighborhoods in New York. About four or five years ago, I had taken the L train out to Ridgewood and was walking around, admiring the many brick, 1920’s, six family, apartment buildings, when I stumbled upon our block. I was totally taken by the twenty-seven identical 1908 brick row houses with front porches, as well as the street paved in matching bricks. Rising tall at the end of the block is St. Aloysius, a gorgeous, well-preserved Roman Catholic Church from the same period. Let’s just say it was love at first sight and I bookmarked the landmarked block in my mind as one of my favorite finds in all my explorations.
Fast forward some years. My wife and I were looking at overpriced real estate across brownstone Brooklyn, [the older neighborhoods in Brooklyn] when I happened upon a Craig’s List ad for our house. I immediately recognized the block. Azadeh and I ventured out for a look. We loved the block, the house, and the light flooding into it. The house had been totally cleared out of furniture and objects except for a closet filled with vintage children’s books. We took this as a sign since Azadeh illustrates children’s books and has a large children’s book collection. The house needed lots of work but it felt structurally sound — just the kind of project we were looking for.
Before we got married, we started looking around at real estate to see what was out there. We were considering a neighborhood on the far side of Prospect Park called Ditmas Park. Similar to Ridgewood in it’s diversity and family feel, Ditmas Park is really gorgeous — filled with free-standing Victorian houses on large 50×100 foot lots. But the neighborhood was really changing, and by the time we were ready to buy (less than a year later), the prices had become prohibitive.
I only mention this because in retrospect, I’m really happy that we ended up in a row house, instead of a freestanding house. For one, it’s amazing how sharing walls with neighbors is more energy efficient. Just before we closed on the house in late winter, the boiler broke down. I was visiting the house and noticed that the heat wasn’t working — so I called the realtor, concerned that a pipe might burst before we closed. He said he would have the owner fix it but also suggested that I come back the next day (during a snow storm!) to see the advantage of sharing walls with neighbors. I did. Without any heat in the house in the midst of a blizzard, the thermostat was still in the 50’s!
The other thing we’ve really grown to appreciate about row houses is the privacy and sense of security you get from only having one side of the house exposed to the public. Our garden is completely enclosed by a picket fence — a future safe haven for Felix to play in. Finally, there’s something inherently community-building about having your house match all your neighbors houses. We both love that.
You have a young son. How do you think living in Ridgewood will affect him as he grows?
Our neighborhood has a lovely family feeling to it and our front porch has really facilitated getting to know our neighbors. It’s amazing to sit in rocking chairs on our front porch in New York City and to be able to interact with people walking by. I would guess we have over twenty kids living on our block, from at least a dozen different nationalities. Last spring, we watched from our porch, over several weeks, as a neighbor taught his son to ride a bike — vicariously enjoying the challenge and eventual success. Somehow that vision made us feel fortunate to be raising our child on this block. We’re both really excited for Felix to grow up in a diverse, safe neighborhood. Actually, as a result of The New York Times article, we were recently invited to speak for career day at a local grade school and we were really taken by what a happy, engaged and positive school environment it seemed to be.
You came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Azadeh, from Manhattan. Moving to Ridgewood was probably a leap of faith being that it’s farther away from Manhattan. Has it surprised you?
I think our move was more of a leap of faith for Azadeh, who had been living on 14th street in Manhattan since college. But she loved the house, the block, and the feeling of the neighborhood. When I moved to Williamsburg, it really felt like the middle of nowhere — there was one cafe, lots of abandoned streets and it was pretty sketchy at night — amazing that that was only about twelve years ago.
Ridgewood is on the L train, so it’s actually a really quick commute to Manhattan — about fifteen minutes to Union Square once you get on the train. It’s actually easier and faster to get to downtown Manhattan from here than from many more talked about neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. You also get a sense of connectedness to Manhattan from the straight-shot view of the Empire State Building from every avenue in the neighborhood. Of course there’s been an adjustment period, but it’s actually been much easier than expected. We already have more neighbor friends than we did after living for even more time in a big post-war building in Manhattan.
You have a true row house meaning that it’s identical to its neighbors and was developed in a row. Do you know the history of the row? Quite a few homes like yours are two-family. Was your’s originally a single dwelling?
All the houses on our block were built by Germans at the turn of the century. They were actually built for German immigrants as two family’s that look like one family houses — so apartment dwellers could feel like they were coming home to their stately house. We’ve been using ours as a one family, which is great [because] we have space for Azadeh’s parents to stay with us (they’ve been spending a lot of time with us and their grandson, visiting from DC). One perk of its history as a two family is that the second floor has parlor height ceilings — just under eleven feet — which makes for lofty, spacious rooms.
The exterior of all the houses on the block remain remarkably unchanged from when they were built, 100 years ago. They all have matching cornices, columns and front porches. We recently restored our front porch with tongue and groove wood decking that matched the original. The houses… are all built with yellow brick from the Bathazar Kreischer kilns of Staten Island.
Were there any original details, such as fireplaces, moldings, bathroom fixtures, stained glass, etc., remaining before you renovated?
The house had gorgeous plaster crown molding in several rooms, though many of the ceilings were crumbling. To save the moldings, we cut out much of the ceiling just inside the molding boundary, replacing it with sheet rock This was a cost-effective way to keep our gorgeous moldings, but to replace our ceilings. In the kitchen/dining room, the moldings were beyond repair, and we opted to open up the ceiling exposing the original beams. We then painted them white, which gave the space a warm, country feel that was both light and airy. Much of what might feel like original detail is actually work we did to the house — all of the arches, wainscoting, and period fixtures (many reproductions) were elements that we added as part of the renovation.
I know you were motivated to restore a historic home. Did you want something older or were you aiming for early 20th Century? How close did you stay to the original design and period details of the house?
I think anything pre-war appealed as a potential renovation project. Part of the appeal is just how well houses were built one hundred plus years ago. I wonder how many houses built today will be as solid as ours is a hundred years from now. We weren’t really looking to do a historical restoration project; rather, we wanted to take the warmth and classic aesthetic of a historic home and respectfully imbue a modern sensibility to create a warm home with clean lines and light, airy spaces.
One thing that really came out of the renovation project was that it gave Azadeh and I a chance to define the vision for our home design and renovation company. It’s amazing to be your own client for a design project — in that you really get to define your voice. We’ve also designed a studio apartment and we’re currently designing the gut-renovation of a two bedroom apartment in NYC’s West Village. In addition, we have another historic house redesign project slated for this September — a country house we’re doing for a New York family. I think a lot of people love the warmth and classic detailing of an older home, but would love having more light and openness in a contextually appropriate way.
In The New York Times article, you recalled fond memories of time spent upstate New York at a friend’s farmhouse. How have your translated those memories into your home? What specific elements have you included to achieve this look? Can you share some of your sources for materials you used?
One of the main elements from that upstate farmhouse that we incorporated into the design was the wainscoted cabinets and built-ins. We both love built-ins — they’re just such efficient use of space and they can really add a sense of substance to a room. Some of our wainscoting we purchased from Dykes Lumber, a great resource for moldings in the city but I found the wide-board wainscoting at Home Depot. We actually used the back of the board — the front is a more narrow, traditional wainscoting. One compliment we’ve gotten from several visitors is total surprise that the built-ins aren’t original to the house.
Other elements inspired by the farmhouse were the painted wood floors. Our house had the original simple pine floors covered in almost a dozen layers of linoleum tiles and carpeting. The original floors weren’t fancy — actually, I’m pretty sure the original builders intended them to be sub-floors to another material. But we opted to keep them. They were in great shape in certain areas, like the living room, so we stained and polyurethaned them where we could. In rooms where they were less pristine, we painted them with a semi-gloss deck paint. In the kitchen and dining area, we did the floors in a wine red and were really happy with how it added warmth to the space.
Other great resources we found in the process included Olde Good Things — a warehouse in Pennsylvania where we bought period doors. The house had some original doors, but others needed to be replaced and finding old ones kept the character of the house consistent. Actually, we had a great door related moment with the house about a month after we had closed on it. I was upstairs doing some work on the [house] one evening when it occurred to me that there was something curious about the five foot opening between the future office and future Felix’s room: the wall there was thicker than any other wall in the house. I immediately grabbed my crowbar and started ripping off the molding that framed out the opening. My suspicion proved correct. Hidden in the walls were a pair of gorgeous antique pocket doors. They needed to be stripped and put on a new track, but it was lovely surprise a month into home ownership.
What is the square footage of your home? How are you expanding into your space? Are you going to stay with an open and minimal feel or will you get more antiques as time goes on?
Our house is about two thousand square feet, not including the large basement and garden. We run our company out of an office in the house, so the space is needed, and being well utilized. The biggest expansion we see coming is working on the garden, and really having that become a space where we spend more time. We also hope to put in a roof deck at some point, as there are great views of the city and stunning sunsets.
We have a pretty eclectic taste in the things we collect — whether it’s international or country antiques, or more modern pieces where we’re just taken by the design. But we also love living in a clutter free home. I’m sure we’ll collect more pieces over time, but not too many. We try to think of our objects as paying rent for the space they take up — which can help eliminate the ones we don’t really love.
You are approaching your first year anniversary in the house. How does it feel after being there for a year? Not to mention it’s your house’s centennial birthday! Such a gift for the house to have owners that cherish it as you do.
It’s wonderful living in a house that you’ve been so hands-on in rebuilding — you really feel like you know the space in this intimate way. I love that we were able to breathe new life into this house on its centennial — nothing had been done to it in decades, so it really needed it. We tried to renovate the house in a way that would take it through it’s second century — both in terms of a classic design that won’t feel out of date in five or ten years, as well as doing quality work to the mechanics of the house — like putting in all new electric and adding substantial insulation to all exposed walls.
We were also environmentally aware with all of our renovation decisions. We used an insulation product made from recycled blue jeans and chose appliances that met European efficiency standards. Much of our lighting is low-voltage halogen, which ranks high for efficiency — and every light is on a dimmer, so we only use what we need. Of course, having a wood stove as your household hearth is also much more efficient than a fireplace, which draws more heat out of the house than it creates. It’s amazing how our little stove can really warm the first floor for hours with just a couple of logs.
There’s a settling in period when you move into a new place; I think we’re through that now… it’s really become our home. As Azadeh said recently, once you live in a house you’ve designed, it’s hard to imagine going back. I guess that means we’re here to stay… unless, of course, we do it again one day!
Photos were provided by the owners, made by two & co.