Garage transformation

Cecil Crawford walking his dog Cracker past his family's townhouse. Left: Twins Cecil and Hank Crawford, eight, on a glass floor in their townhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Right: The open living, dining and kitchen areas of the townhouse of artist
The open living, dining and kitchen areas of the townhouse of artist Tara Donovan and her husband, architect Robbie Crawford.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Through the years, artist Tara Donovan and her architect husband have converted a one-storey car-body garage building into a cosy home

NEW YORK • Polished-brass pendants dangle in the walnut-panelled sunken lounge.

Low-slung sectional sofas flaunt plum-coloured upholstery. A flame in a cone-shaped metal fireplace ignites with a turn of a knob.

The space, on the recently renovated ground level of a three-storey townhouse in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, looks like something out of a Sean Connery-era James Bond movie.

But that is not what tends to be on view down here.

At least once a week, the home owners, artist Tara Donovan and her husband, Mr Robbie Crawford, an architect, settle in with their eight-year-old twin sons for dinner while watching "something dumb and funny and appropriate", in Mr Crawford's words.

The couple send the boys downstairs to set things up - the panelling on one wall opens to reveal a big flat-screen TV - while in the kitchen on the third floor, Donovan and Mr Crawford load bowls of pasta into a dumbwaiter for retrieval as the credits begin to roll.

 The open living, dining and kitchen areas of the townhouse of artist
Twins Cecil and Hank Crawford, eight, on a glass floor in their townhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Donovan, 48, a native New Yorker and one-time MacArthur fellow, is renowned for using mundane materials to make large-scale sculptures that often evoke the natural world.

In her hands, stickpins, drinking straws and plastic foam cups blossom into thrilling biomorphic forms. A mid-career retrospective of her work just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

As her career has been evolving, so has her home, with the ground-level renovation among the latest projects that began soon after she and Mr Crawford moved in.

The building was a one-storey auto-body garage listed for US$750,000 when Donovan, then single and living in a loft in Bushwick, first laid eyes on it.

The brick structure took up the entire 6m by 28m lot and backed up to a public playground shaded by trees.

 The open living, dining and kitchen areas of the townhouse of artist
Cecil Crawford walking his dog Cracker past his family's townhouse. PHOTO: NYTIMES

After purchasing it in 2005 with the idea of turning it into a garage and studio with a living space above, she sought help from Standard Architects of Long Island City in Queens.

Mr Crawford, who is nine years her junior, was then a designer at the firm, having recently graduated from the architecture programme at the University of Southern California.

He was not on the design team for the Donovan project, but when the artist asked for a study model of what would become her townhouse, the architects turned to Mr Crawford, who is that rarity in the age of computer-aided design - someone still adept at making them.

He happened to live in Bushwick too and when he and Donovan occasionally bumped into each other on the street, she would ask playfully: "Where's my model?"

They began dating as second and third storeys were added on top of the garage, both levels aligned with the front lot line and set back on the rear and providing outdoor space on the garage's roof, bordered by the playground's trees. In 2007, they married.

When they moved into the house, the front of the garage had become a carport with a honeycomb grille of Donovan's design painted a blue-green that is the colour of the sides of clear panes of glass when stacked.

"I'm interested in fugitive colours in materials," she said in a telephone interview.

Behind the carport was her studio with the garage's original concrete floor.

An office for her and her studio manager occupied the front of the second floor, which, at the rear, opened onto the terrace. On the third floor, the living room flowed into the kitchen, with the bedroom off that.

The arrangement did not last long.

When the boys were born, their parents turned Donovan's second-floor office into the twins' bedroom, and she and her studio manager squeezed into a smaller space at the rear of the floor.

Because she and Mr Crawford did not like sleeping on the third floor with their babies below, they installed a fold-down bed in the area outside the boys' room.

As the twins grew, their room was redone repeatedly. Currently, two beds line up under the long horizontal window. Bookshelves showcase large, complicated Lego models built by the boys, who apparently have inherited their parents' knack for construction.

As they began to approach their preteen years, the family yearned for more space and Donovan and Mr Crawford switched things up again.

She moved out of her studio, relocating to a warehouse in Long Island City, and the transformation of the ground floor began, once more with the help of Standard.

Today, a new staircase descends from the second floor with a generous landing where Mr Crawford, who now has his own architecture firm, Crawford Practice, works.

At the bottom of the stairs, what Mr Crawford and Donovan conceived as an entertaining zone begins. The renovation, which cost about US$200 (S$274) per sq ft, has resulted in a setting where the twins can hang out with friends or their parents can have art-world acquaintances over for drinks and dinner.

Could a parallel be drawn between her transformation of ordinary materials into art and her conversion of a homely garage into a fabulous home?

Certainly not, Donovan insisted. Compared with the rigours of creating her art, working on the house with her husband is pure pleasure.

"Renovating the ground floor - that was so much fun for us," she said. "We both might have different ideas and we hash it out. It's a part of our relationship we both really enjoy."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2018, with the headline 'Garage transformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe