How to bring back the charm of prewar design in a modern apartment

The appeal of prewar homes

Many people who love interior design are drawn to the historic details, high ceilings, and decorative moldings of prewar homes. These homes were built before World War II, when construction practices were elaborate and skilled tradesmen were involved in the detailing. Prewar homes have a sense of formality and individuality that is hard to find in newer constructions.

However, not everyone can afford to live in a prewar home, especially in New York City, where even the smallest apartments with quaint features can be too expensive. Many renters end up in plain white boxes that lack character and charm. But don’t despair, there are ways to add some vintage appeal to a featureless apartment without breaking the bank or the lease.

prewar design
prewar design

Tips from the experts

Two longtime brownstone renovators, Barry Bordelon and Jordan Slocum, also known as the Brownstone Boys, have recently taken on a design challenge that involved adding prewar style to a new development. They did the interior design for studio and one-bedroom model units at 595 Dean St., a luxury rental project in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Their work involved only cosmetic touches, such as lighting, paint, and molding, that can be easily replicated by renters.

The Brownstone Boys are used to mixing old and new in their projects, with the goal of adding modern upgrades to historic homes. For 595 Dean, they did the opposite: They incorporated vintage details into new construction, which they admit “had more charm than the typical new development.” They spent a total of $3,000 on materials for both model units, and the results were so impressive that the new tenants decided to keep the décor intact.

Here are some of their prewar design tips that you can apply to your own rental, whether you want to take on a full renovation or just a weekend project. Remember to discuss any changes with your landlord first, and be prepared to restore the apartment to its original condition at the end of your lease if required.

New lighting is a bright idea

Changing your light fixture can transform your space, Bordelon says, especially if your rental light fixture is a dreaded builder-grade “boob light.” He suggests looking for vintage or vintage-inspired fixtures that have more personality and style. For example, he chose a brass sputnik chandelier for the living room of one of the model units, and a black metal pendant for the bedroom. He also added a ceiling medallion to create more visual interest and drama.

Think texture and warm tones

Prewar homes often have textured walls, such as plaster or wallpaper, that add depth and warmth to the rooms. You can achieve a similar effect by painting your walls in rich colors, such as the pinkish-brown shade of Dead Salmon by Farrow & Ball that Bordelon and Slocum used for one of the model units. They also added some faux brick panels to one of the walls to create more texture and contrast.

Add visual interest with moldings and new hardware

One of the most distinctive features of prewar homes is the intricate moldings that frame the walls, windows, and doors. You can add some moldings to your rental, either by using real wood or foam, and paint them white to create a beautiful contrast with the wall color. You can also change the hardware of your doors, cabinets, and drawers, by choosing vintage or vintage-inspired knobs, handles, and hinges that have more character and charm.

Score bonus vintage points with a mantel

A fireplace mantel is a focal point of many prewar homes, and it can add a lot of charm and coziness to your space. You can find a real or faux mantel at flea markets, antique shops, or online, and install it on your wall. You can then decorate it with candles, plants, art, or anything else that reflects your personality and style. You can also add a mirror above the mantel to make the room look bigger and brighter.

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