great rooms

A Joyfully Painted Gowanus Walk-Up, Inspired by Rome and Bert Stern

Tara McCauley left roommates behind and set herself free.

Photo: MJ Kroeger
Photo: MJ Kroeger

I’ve always embraced exuberance in my fashion sense, and it was time for my home to reflect who I am,” says Tara McCauley of this walk-up in Gowanus, Brooklyn — her first apartment without roommates. And she wasn’t going to hold herself back just because it was a rental, either. “In all my previous apartments, I was always afraid to paint and I never felt joy entering my home,” she says. “This time, I resolved to paint everything.

McCauley, an interior designer herself, started with a free-form paint job interpreting terrazzo stone on her kitchen walls, seen above. “Painting the kitchen took a crazy long time,” she says, “I’m almost too embarrassed to admit how long I was living in an art project.” Her inspiration came from a vacation in Rome, where terrazzo, a centuries old inlaid stone technique, is everywhere, but McCauley “didn’t want it to look like every terrazzo you saw on a Pinterest board; I wanted the colors to be my own.” The result is a confetti-like pattern. It was a fruitful endeavor that fueled the palette for the rest of the apartment, decorated in a pastiche of found and recycled furnishings.

McCauley says her starting point was the salmon-colored linen-velvet Ferrell Mittman sofa, “complete with bullion fringe; it was the find of the century on” Nick Olsen, the designer she works with, gave her the grasscloth coffee table. On the walls, she did a cheesecloth glaze of two different blues to create a sense of depth. She found the French Art Deco chair on Chairish and reupholstered it in peacock blue corduroy. She made the painting above the sofa traced from a poster. “When I studied in Paris, I fell in love with Op art after seeing a Julio Le Parc retrospective at Palais de Tokyo.” Photo: MJ Kroeger

A former roommate from her NYU days noticed an East Village restaurant going out of business, off loading décor. “She carried the dining table eight blocks home, and it was the perfect fit for our tiny kitchen.” McCauley held on to the metal base of the table when she moved and found the round marble top on Craigslist and glued it on. The leather-seat dining chairs are from Finch in Hudson. “The layout of my kitchen is completely useless,” McCauley says, “I’m always running from the stove across the room to the sink, dripping water all over, and it’s fine because the leather has a natural patina to it!” Her inner circle of design-minded friends contribute to the ever-changing tableau of test ideas, as McCauley has been working with designer Nick Olsen for the past seven years.

It’s also a fusion of inspirations from iconic movies and photographs, including a Richard Rutledge photograph of Irving Penn’s wife and muse, Lisa Fonssagrives, that inspired the palette in the hand-painted walls of the bathroom. As for the living room: “My color scheme was inspired by a Bert Stern Marilyn Monroe screen print I had won at auction, as well as Nina Yashar’s home in Milan.”

McCauley lauds the taste of her grandparents, “In the ’80s, they had the most fabulous contemporary house that was completely black and white.” She can’t wait to see them again once everyone is vaccinated. “The last time I was able to visit them, pre-pandemic, I found that precious, fussy little silk lampshade at a thrift store with my grandma and made it into a pendant in the living room. I think it adds a touch of Madeleine Castaing glamour to the room. I think of my grandma every time I turn that light on!” Photo: MJ Kroeger
Housing Works is one of McCauley’s go-tos. “That organization and their network of shops is one of my favorite things about NYC. The massive Fernanda Meirelles painting in the kitchen was won at their Chelsea shop window auction. I’ve worked on three Housing Works Design on a Dime vignettes that Nick designed, and I can’t tell you how many things in my apartment were found at Design on a Dime. Photo: MJ Kroeger

Moving on to the bedroom, she chose the matte-blue color for the walls because “I wanted the room to feel cozy; it feels like being deep under the ocean.” McCauley is a night owl who loved to attend her friend DJ Yestergay’s monthly disco parties at Julius, a bar in the West Village. She can’t wait for the time to get back out there when it is safe again, but in the meantime, her latest addition at home has been a disco ball, and she looks back on this past year saying, “The time I’ve put into this apartment has paid off because for the past depressing year, I’ve at least had a joyful space to spend my time. That being said, I can’t wait to go out and dance till 4 a.m.! And when I come home, I have the deep-blue sea waiting to envelope me as I sleep off the martinis.”

The bathroom is its own little festival, with a roller shade McCauley created from a fabric remnant “using a hot glue gun while I watched Funny Girl.” She painted the pink-and-white abstract pattern on the walls, freehand, of course. Photo: MJ Kroeger
McCauley wanted her armoire from Restoration Hardware to look more Gustavian, so she painted it a chalky white and applied vintage Italian marbleized paper. She keeps her fabric samples in a basket on top of it. She used fabric from textile designer Claire de Quenetain on the seat of her Gustavian chair. Photo: MJ Kroeger
“I hemmed and hawed for a long time about what to do about the headboard,” McCauley says of her bed. “I knew that I wanted something that would coordinate with the chartreuse taffeta bed skirt.” Her friend, Brock Forsblom, suggested creating a dramatic DIY silk bed hanging, “I was this close!” she says. “But when I happened on this headboard, it felt right.” She reupholstered it in chartreuse leather she found in the garment district. Photo: MJ Kroeger
A Joyfully Painted Gowanus Walk-Up, Inspired by Bert Stern