Design:

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

Words by Sacha Strebe. Photography by William Jess Laird.

From the impressive marble kitchen to the terrace, and even the laundry room, it’s safe to say you’ve seen every inch of Athena Calderone’s Brooklyn townhouse—right down to the paint colors and the hardware—but there’s one element she hasn’t shared (that’s also remained completely untouched this entire time): the garden! “This is the very last corner of my house that was never designed and therefore has never been seen,” Athena reveals. Until now… and rest assured, this epic garden design in collaboration with Brook Klausing of Brook Landscaping was well worth the wait!

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

So why did Athena take this long to tackle the garden design? Well, when she bought the 1800s Greek revival townhouse in 2015, it was split into four separate apartments, and sadly most of the original architectural details had been stripped away. With the help of Elizabeth Roberts Architects, Athena and her husband, Victor spent over two years bringing it back to life. “We had never taken on a gut reno of this scale before—we really stretched ourselves—and the garden was something we did not have the budget to do,” she recalls. “At the time the garden was an absolute mess. It was completely overgrown, a tangled mess of vines and weeds, and it stayed that way for a couple of years. We ignored it for a while.”

BEFORE

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

Untapped Potential

Since the house renovation also included the terrace (complete with bi-fold doors that opened it up to the parlor floor kitchen), the Calderone family could enjoy the outdoors and let the weather in all year round without needing to walk downstairs to the garden area. “The terrace really is an extension of the living space so it felt like enough outdoors for us but truthfully, the reason the garden was neglected for so long came down to budget,” Calderone admits. “So it was left in that jungle state for years.” When they eventually rented the downstairs apartment on the garden level, they did trim it back a little but it still wasn’t a functioning space. Nobody used it. It just sat there in all of its untapped potential.

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

A Stop-and-Start Project

The garden continued to sit bare for a while until March 2020 when mutual friend Taylor from Fox Fodder Farm introduced her to the CEO and creative director of Brook Landscape, Brook Klausing. As Athena recalls: “I love collaboration and I have a lot of loyalty for those who I build relationships with. I also trust my instincts when I meet someone. After the first conversation we had discussing the materiality and vision for the garden, I just felt like he got it. He understood design but he also had expertise in landscaping and horticulture—he really bridged the two worlds. I had never met a landscape designer who had that same symbiotic approach to design that I have.” 

But almost as soon as they started talking, the world shut down and COVID hit pause on all of their plans. With everyone spending more time at home, the Calderone family started looking for projects to keep themselves occupied. “We spent a week, just the three of us, hacking away at the garden, getting our saws out taking down an old wire fence, removing tree stumps, and digging,” she says. “It felt good to do it ourselves and to have a clean slate. It was also easier to imagine what could be there once it was demoed.” It took them a week to clear everything out and eventually they were left with a rather large but vacant dirt space. “We didn’t quite know what to do with it at that point, haha! So we put a fence up and laid grass down but it still remained this vacant space. At least it was cleared out and not a menagerie of weeds anymore, but there was no plant life, no soul to it, no creativity, no plantings.” 

Athena reconnected with Brook a few times during that period but something always seemed to interrupt the process. “It has been a start-and-stop project for about three years,” she says. “When we did finally get together and sketch out the initial idea for the garden, Victor was diagnosed with cancer and so once again, the project was put on hold. I felt bad having to cancel this garden twice, so it feels good now to finally see it all come to fruition.”

AFTER

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

Let the Planning Begin

While Athena doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of plant names, she was steadfast in her vision for the garden design. She worked very closely with Brook on the tone and texture palette along with the scale of the plantings. “What I love about the Brook Landscape team is that they do everything—design hardscaping, construction, planning, irrigation, lighting—they’re a true holistic collaborator,” she says.

While Brook also has his own style, his primary goal is to interpret a client’s vision and evoke the feeling they want from a space. “Athena had some really great inspirational images and ideas,” he recalls. “She didn’t want it to be overly architectural or make everything feel hard which is a common default in New York. She wanted it to feel soft and loose like a European vacation as opposed to something standard that you see around the city.” Athena chimes in: “I always like to resist the obvious.” Something Brook finds really refreshing as a designer. “Often we are pushed into a conservative repeat model of what everybody sees so I was really excited when I realized we could create something different here,” he states. “Her transformative vision really gave me something to look forward to creating and thinking through ‘how can we pull this off and strip away the typical box that we are normally resigned to?”

The constraints created a fun challenge for Brook and his team, kicking them into high gear. “What is really nice about the space is that it is uniquely wide,” says Brook. “There were a couple of trees but for the most part, we needed to create our own little world back there, and focus on how we could block certain views and exaggerate others. As a designer, that is generally my starting point: What are the key elements or anchors that we need to lay down and map this place out?”

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

The Patio 

Knowing she wanted to do a gravel yard with a Mediterranean feel, Brook and Athena set about designing a patio area using ABC Stone Renaissance Dolomite Flamed and Brushed tiles that felt complementary to the travertine and blue stone marble checkerboard on the terrace. They arranged the stone tiles into quads and mortared the pebbles in between to avoid any instability when people are sitting or walking in that area. Brook then laid creeping thyme in between the tiles to break up the tonal monotony. The end result is a space that feels lived in and natural while still being rooted in a European sensibility. 

Initially, Brook’s suggestion of a 45-degree angle for the patio area took some convincing but eventually, Athena came around to the idea. “I was inspired by the 45-degree angle of the upper terrace and unifying that with the patio in the garden was a way to tie that language into the lower section,” he explains. “It also allowed us to have a looser planting plan. If we had decided on 90 degrees and dropped it straight in the middle, the format would have been too matchy-matchy, but flipping that and making it feel random, allowed the plantings to feel random, even though they weren’t at all.” That is the beauty of this garden. It doesn’t look formulaic even though there is a lot of formula and strategy behind it.

Athena really admired Brooks’s thoughtful approach to the garden design, hiding certain elements that were unsightly but also drawing your eye to the beautiful areas. “I wasn’t thinking of the exterior in that way,” she says. “You want a visual break where you can have a reprieve, some negative space to disrupt the continuum and draw your eye further, keeping it engaged. I thought that was incredibly wise and thoughtful.” 

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

The Dining Table and Chairs

The dining table was the unlikely starting-off point. As someone who cooks and entertains often, it was imperative that the garden be a space Athena could host guests alongside a loungy area with a sofa and coffee table. “Over the years, I’ve seen these beautiful vintage French 50s slate tables and always wanted one, but they are really hard to come by and really expensive. I recently came across one in the Hamptons, it’s not vintage, but it’s crafted from salvaged material. It also weighs over 400 pounds but I am so persistent when I have my eye on something. I’m really happy that we made it work. I can’t wait to share a meal around it.”

Athena wanted the table to be the focal point (no issues there!) but being that it is a rough stone and almost black, she wanted to pair it with chairs that offered contrast in terms of the palette but also in materiality. After seeing some Scandinavian vintage stools from the 30s that she loved, Athena worked closely with Brook and his team to design and execute an interpretation for the outdoor space in just three days! The warmth and slickness of the common cedar wood stools felt appropriate with the tactility of the materials and the pared-back nature of the garden design. “Whenever I am playing with sharp angular lines, I am always going to want to soften the edges a bit,” she explains, “I am always looking for that counterbalance. It’s something that is pretty rooted in my design sensibility.” 

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

The Lounge and Coffee Table Area

Athena loves to be led by design. You just never know where it will take you and there is so much beauty in the mystery. The coffee table is an example of that design magic in motion. As they were demoing the backyard, Athena noticed the team extracting the large raw bluestone tiles that had been laying dormant in the backyard. Immediately she asked Brook’s team if one of these could be reimagined into an outdoor coffee table. “When you have an image of something, people want to buy it, but it’s really hard to look at something raw and see beauty there” notes Brook. Excited by Athena’s vision, they paired the stone with salvaged timber from the old Rockaways boardwalk after Hurricane Sandy for the base. The raw materials contrast beautifully with the soft, plush B&B Italia x Vincent Van Duysen Pablo Outdoor furniture. “Both of us appreciate the tension of something new against something old,” Athena muses. “That juxtaposition is really important in design.”  Brook adds: “There are a lot of subtleties in this space. I love understated beauty. I don’t like anything that drips luxury. I want you to know it’s fancy but it’s not a gold-plated toilet—it’s the inobvious that excites me.” We couldn’t agree more.

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

The Finishing Touches

Once everything had been planted, Athena set about adding the finishing touches to bring her vision to life. She sourced a beautiful stone sculpture that had the patina she craved for the back fence; a broken urn they found during excavation was repurposed as a European ruin coming out of the earth; and a wooden plinth from Brook’s collection became the perfect resting spot for an artisanal vase. “Everything has a grit and patina, and level of imperfection that will allow you to enjoy and relax in the garden that much more,” says Athena. And to think it all came together in just two weeks. “Sometimes the mania and chaos of putting something together at the last minute can actually inspire a creative vacuum,” she recalls. “When things are too strategic you lose that inherent magic. For me, there’s something about rushing to get a project done, and seeing those magical decorative pieces come together and find their rightful place in the garden. It feels so studied and thoughtful—you’d never know the furnishing came together in a week!”

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

While there was some healthy push and pull between the two creatives along the way, for Brook, it’s never about right or wrong, it’s about getting the best out of each other. “Sometimes it takes a bit to get there, but I get so excited when I see the potential,” he says. “We now have an incredible rapport. I would never have done this with another person. We created these little magical moments that you can only experience when you are in the space. We actually nailed it better than anybody else in New York in terms of providing that feeling with those small details that bring the romance, but we still made it feel authentic to Brooklyn.” Athena agrees: “It was the most beautiful collaboration. I am so happy it all came together in the end because there were moments along the way where it almost fell apart.”

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!

PLANT names

The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
The One Area of Athena’s Brooklyn Home You’ve Never Seen: The Garden!
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