Double Vision- Globe Magazine

By combining their small condo with the unit next door, a young couple keep their roots but find room to grow.

By Jeffrey Osborne and Cristina Moniz | Boston Globe October 10, 2004

When Laura and John Barkan heard that the one-bedroom corner apartment adjacent to their cute but ever-so-small 650-square-foot condominium was going up for sale, they offered to buy it before the unit was even officially on the market. "After almost five years of efficient - or cramped! - living and our first baby on the way, we knew we needed to make a change," says Laura. "We agreed on a few things: We wanted to stay in the city, we wanted a contemporary interior design, and we wanted parking."

By buying the unit next door and combining it with their own condo in a building that includes garage parking, they got it all. Still, they had to adhere to a strict budget. "We knew some things like the flooring, drywall, kitchen, and lighting were big-ticket items that couldn't be avoided," says Laura. "And we knew we wouldn't live here forever. So we prioritized." They chose to do the decorating themselves, spending less on kitchen cabinets and appliances, buying marble remnants for the bathrooms, and doing fewer built-ins and custom work. "We spent more on the details that we felt would make the apartment distinct: floors, kitchen countertops, hardware, and a white-marble, glass-enclosed master bath/shower."

They hired architect Anne Draudt of Stow, who had formerly worked at Bruner/Cott architects in Cambridge. "Draudt had worked on some really large spaces, like the newly rehabbed Landmark Center in the Fenway, but was also passionate about doing small residential spaces," says Laura. "When we met with her, she seemed to immediately get our vision of clean lines, open space, and minimalist decor."

The new floor plan features a living and dining area with city views. It also includes a home office, a nursery, a second full bath, and more closet space.

Construction began in August 2001. "To complete the work in the fastest time frame possible," says Laura, "we had to move out of our old apartment and find a place to live. Fortunately, John's parents live nearby and had the space and the patience to let us stay with them."

Before they began tearing down walls and ripping up floors, the couple spent time at appliance stores, stone yards, and kitchen and bath stores looking for good deals. "We were very quickly overwhelmed by the number of decisions that needed to be made," says Laura, adding that the toughest part was keeping abreast of the construction schedule. "For example, we needed to order our kitchen appliances before choosing the cabinets and countertops, which would be fitted according to the appliance specs."

Instead of the open eat-in kitchen that they found in the corner unit, the Barkans wanted an enclosed kitchen in their merged space. "It was a quick decision for us," says Laura. "Living in the city with so many great restaurants and takeout options, we knew we would not be doing a lot of cooking. Plus, why do you want to watch someone doing the dishes?"

They also knew they wanted dark, high-gloss flooring that would bring an element of drama to their home. "We considered poured concrete and exotic woods like Peruvian walnut, all of which would have blown our budget," says Laura. They turned to Evan Mihaich, who owns Evan Mihaich Flooring Co. in Needham. He recommended a wide-plank oak floor that he dyed (rather than stained) in multiple stages and finished with a high-gloss urethane. "The result was less expensive than the other options and came out even more beautiful than we expected," says Laura. "The floor has become our favorite design element in the apartment."

Selecting the stone for the kitchen and bathrooms was one of the bigger challenges. "Since we didn't love the most affordable, highly patterned, marble," says Laura, "we made countless visits to Adamo Stone in South Boston and eventually found a dolomite kitchen countertop and white statuary marble for the bathrooms. We were lucky to find remnants of gorgeous marble tile that had enough square footage for both bathrooms."

However, rather than trying to match veining and colorations, the contractor who initially installed the marble put up each square foot of tile in the order in which it was packaged. The result looked like a mixed-up puzzle on the master-bath wall. "Fortunately, we were able to move much of what he had done and oversee the installation of the remaining tiles," says Laura. Now, the veining matches nicely, and the wall has the unified look the Barkans desired.

The construction phase of the project was completed in January 2002, just in time for the birth of their son, Jacob, in March. The decorating phase came next.

"When it came to furnishings," says Laura, "one thing we learned is not to be afraid of your mother's attic. We got some great pieces from John's mother: a pair of vintage B&B Italia chairs that we had restored, and one of our favorites, a bright-red vintage chair used at the new desk."

In addition to the desk, there were some other new pieces. Like the white marble Saarinen dining table with a curved base. "I love how it contrasts with the dark floors," says Laura. John, on the other hand, favors the new faux-leather white chaise purchased from Area I.D. in New York." The funny thing is," he says, "two weeks after we bought it, we found our son coloring it with a green sparkly pen. That's when we learned that you can actually use bleach on faux leather. It looks as good as new again."

Comfort is important to John, so they chose a leather sofa from Adesso that reclines at the touch of a button, much like an airliner seat, from which John can view his huge plasma-screen television in pure bliss. Other favorite purchases are a custom entertainment center made of wenge wood and frosted glass by furniture designer Marcel Albanese of Studio in South Boston and Ultrasuede B&B Italia dining chairs from Montage in Boston.

The decor is meant to complement the couple's growing art collection. "Before the renovations," says Laura, "John and I had purchased a few pieces of art together, like the Dao Tanh Dzuy painting that we found in Hanoi in 2000. Since then, we've become very interested in contemporary drawings and have started a small collection of mid-career artists. We've found it fun to focus on a particular technique and a certain artist profile."

The newfound openness of the renovated space allows some of the art - such as Laura's favorite piece, Roll Me a Rainbow, by Pat Steir, which rests on the lattice-work sideboard in the dining room - to be viewed from many different angles. John's favorite piece is the oversized Polaroid photograph of him and Laura, taken on their fifth wedding anniversary, with then 1-year-old Jacob.

When asked what they would change if they had had a bigger budget, the couple list very few desires. "We may have done more built-in bookshelves and custom closets and storage spaces. That would be an enormous treat for us, now that we realize how much gear babies need," says Laura. "We could have also completed our original vision of enclosing the office space with custom steel-and-frosted-glass doors."

But "there are lots of possibilities now for that space," Laura says, adding that she and her husband are expecting a second child in December. "Maybe a new nursery," she says.