After a catastrophic fire, One New York Apartment rediscovers its soul


In October 2016, a three-alarm fire broke through the top floors of a six-story luxury apartment building on Jane Street in Manhattan’s West Village. By the time the fire was under control, smoke and water damage had destroyed more than half of the units in the 1930 condominium building.

Thankfully, no one was injured, but the aftermath of the damage meant “years of heartache” for the evicted tenants, says Sarah Mendel, the interior design firm’s founder cochineal design. But recently, Mendel and her cochineal partner, Risa Emen, helped one of those renters move back into a converted studio. “[The client] took it on and lived in many places – Brooklyn, Nashville, London and Asheville, North Carolina. All of that affected how it would be like if she got it back,” says Mendel.

The small kitchen, painted Farrow & Ball’s Preference Red, features sconces by Peter Celsing from 1stDibs.

Joshua McHugh

Mendel founded Cochineal (named after an insect that produces red dyes, in a subtle form homage to Josef Albers) in 2015, and Emen joined in 2018. The two met in the MFA program in interior design at Parsons School of Design. Experimentation guides their practice, fueled by an annual retreat they call A Beautiful Mind, where the pair pin inspirational imagery and set goals for everything from how they want to photograph an interior to soulmates and design decisions . Each project is guided by its architectural context, location and client, with a balance of dark, medium and light tones. “These are connecting factors, but they still allow us diversity, creativity and cosmopolitanism,” says Mendel.

Such was the approach to the Jane Street apartment, which was a one-bedroom, galley-style “white box” when returned to the client after years of repairs and code upgrades ordered by the New York City Department of Building would. Instead, Emen and Mendel are collaborating with architect David Moore DM A+D, turned the unit into a studio, removed walls and utilized plenty of natural light. The client – from a family with a textile background – brought many material references to the project; The designers helped her narrow them down. “That really pushed us to use bolder materials than in the past,” says Mendel. “And it made her focus on what she wanted to live with and not what she just liked.”

Apartment on Cochineal Jane Street
In the bedroom, the custom Walnut Wiggle headboard was made by RJ Millworkers and upholstered in an Erica Shamrock fabric.

Joshua McHugh

The designers started with the intimate kitchen. As the customer doesn’t cook much, Cochineal focused on the corner as a lavish display for her ceramics collection. Farrow & Ball’s Preference Red custom cabinetry has a matte finish and vibrant look, while a slab of honed Breccia Capraia marble creates a dramatic backsplash. A pair of 1960s Band sconces by Swedish modernist architect Peter Celsing complete the gallery-like corner.

Mendel and Emen then wrapped the rest of the apartment in custom walnut work, from a built-in bench seat to window trim, dressers and a curved headboard (dubbed the “Walnut Wiggle” and upholstered in velvety mohair by Erica Shamrock Textiles). The fixtures “unify the whole apartment,” says Mendel. “It’s our warm midrange throughout and lets us be playful elsewhere.”

Apartment on Cochineal Jane Street
Cochineal chose cream-colored furniture for the living room, which was juxtaposed with a bright painting by Walter Stomps, Jr. The designers uncovered the column during the renovation.

Joshua McHugh

Creamy furniture – like a sheepskin sofa – sets the backdrop for artwork purchased from Wright; 1930s Scandinavian ceramics and metalware from Freeforms by artists such as Just Andersen and Gunnar Nylund; and vases from the customer’s collection. The coffee table uses a piece of leftover marble from the kitchen and sits on a funky Lucite base.

For the bathroom, the designer and builder initially opted for simple fittings; that is, until they discovered an exposed shower owned by Barber Wilsons & Co. Cochineal completed the look with a custom case by Kent Steel, purple marble, and black and white zellige tiles Cle, and light pink walls.

Due to the fire damage, many of the apartments in the Jane Street building were under construction at the same time. According to Mendel, this created a guild-like environment where designers, craftsmen, and contractors shared tips and discoveries. For example, Mendel spotted an exposed Tuscan column in another unit and surmised that something similar was hidden under a bulky cement cylinder in her client’s living room. “We blasted the concrete and preserved this simple column, and then very carefully uncovered an original pine beam,” says Mendel. “The tenants had all gone through such a trauma together,” she adds. “There was a lot of sharing and generosity. It was very neighborly.”

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