Inside Refinery29 Co-Founder Christene Barberich’s Compact Brooklyn Home

The global editor-in-chief of Refinery29 invited us into the Boerum Hill apartment she shares with her architect husband

Christene Barberich, the global editor-in-chief and co-founder of Refinery29, invited us into the Boerum Hill apartment she shares with her husband, architect Kevin Baxter. Barberich and Baxter worked together to transform their small space, a constantly evolving apartment they have shared for the past two years. 

Before moving in together seven years ago, Barberich lived on the Upper East Side in an apartment her friends affectionately nicknamed “the dollhouse,” because it was so tiny. For six months, she commuted to Brooklyn to visit Baxter. The couple now share a compact apartment with idiosyncratic touches and bright pops of color, where every inch of space is utilized.

With enormous skylights and sweeping views, their eclectic home feels much larger than 750 square feet. 

Christene Barberich of Refinery29.

Christene Barberich of Refinery29. Emily Assiran for Observer

How does your work influence your ideas for designing a home? It’s this convergence of lots of different inspirations and disciplines, whether it’s architecture, design, photography, pottery, food, fashion, books or old records. I’m a person that really responds to how things make me feel when I see them. I think that’s why we have such a personal collection of stuff. The more traditional decorator look isn’t for me. I like a home that really evolves over time, where you take your time finding special details that serve very specific needs, especially in a space like this, which is on the smaller side.

How did you approach designing a small space? The economy of space is extraordinarily important and such an amazing challenge. My husband, as an architect, had to extract every inch of utility out of the space, which is why the loft was such a revelation. It was used as a storage crawl space by the previous owners, it wasn’t really a focal point in the open house. There was a pull-down downstairs in the hallway and people didn’t even want to go upstairs and see it. We asked to go up and see the strange crawl space and flipped out. Thinking of all the things you can do in a space that height was a really fun and motivating challenge for us together.

Tell us about this view. Being able to see the river is such a rare commodity in the city or Brooklyn. As soon as the leaves start dropping off the trees you can see the Statue of Liberty, which is thrilling. It draws your eye outside and has an expansiveness that’s pretty remarkable.

What are your favorite pieces of art? I love the denim butt shot in the bedroom that Kava Gorna photographed, there’s something really cheeky about it and I adore the chalk animal prints I found in a thrift store. This Dollars & Scents screen print is from Tom Francis, a professor at SCAD. It plays to my feng shui superstition, having dollars and cents when you walk in the door has to be a good omen. The hot pink chairs are special because they’re Milo Baughman, which my sister got at an estate sale. They were the last ones left, and no one wanted them, so they gave them to her for free. There’s a photo of the Swedish countryside taken by a friend of ours, Anna Moller, she’s a really enormously talented photographer. I found the Mies van der Rohe chairs around the dining table at a Salvation Army and they still have the stickers under them, which is incredible.

Which portions of the home did your husband design and what’s uniquely yours? Kevin reimagined the foundation of the apartment. As a modernist, he’s so great at expanding the potential of a space. Everything from the hallway, to the loft, to the way he designed the stairs was a feat of engineering. It doesn’t seem that complicated, but getting the pitch of the steps just right so it was comfortable and didn’t feel so much like a ship’s ladder was all him. He sits up in the loft. He could care less about the tub. I wanted a really deep, restorative soaking tub that felt like an experience. It’s a spectacular bathtub and the lighting in there is just beautiful. It’s really transformative. You don’t think simple things like a bathroom and lighting will change how you feel but it does, especially when it’s really cold and the wind comes off the river.

This painting of a dog Barberich named Fred has traveled with her to every apartment.

This painting of a dog Barberich named Fred has traveled with her to every apartment. Emily Assiran for Observer

Tell us about the benefits of living in a small space. There are so many areas of the apartment where you can dwell and have a minute and really do something. The options are more exciting when you’re limited with space because it becomes a puzzle and it’s immensely gratifying when you get it right. You have to really bond with small spaces. 

What are you currently working on? I’m launching the podcast UnStyled. I’ve never had a podcast before and it’s like a party, I’m worried no one is going to show. It’s an extension of UnStyled, dedicated to our definition of what luxury means, dedicated to our user, a young, millennial woman. It’s shifting the focus away from what luxury in the fashion space used to mean and thinking more about quality of life, like taking an amazing solo trip, organizing their closet or having their first big dinner party, things that are experiential, not just finding the perfect winter coat. It’s also really paying attention to how the industry is changing and adapting to what consumers want. I interviewed 11 women and we focused on a different topic for each women. With Stacy London, we talked about ageism, with Norma Kamali we talked about building an empire on your own. It’s talking about style through really incredible, inspiring women—it’s pop culture, current events, music, it’s everything. 

What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about home design? You never get it all right. You have to live in the space to see what works and what doesn’t. Kevin has made great improvements and corrections by virtue of us being here. A home is really like a living thing. If you’re paying attention to it like plants, it’s going to always be a work in progress.

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