AS A CHILD in Virginia, Michael Brown collected bird nests, postage stamps, and rode beetles and butterflies. By the age of 10 he had Goofus glass vases – cold painted jewelry from the early twenties. His first job, at 18, was window dressing at the Thalhimers department store in Richmond, and on the weekends he began collecting antique furniture and curios , a habit that lasted into adulthood while working as an interior designer and art director in retail treasures wherever he went: a 1920s Japanese painted gold screen who lived in Portland, Oregon .; sun-bleached sea turtle shells from a Maine vacation. When the 59-year-old found his current home in 2013, a 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a brownstone district in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he needed a 20-foot truck to move the accumulated goods. “I wish I could be one of those people who could buy something, live with it, throw it away, and move on,” he says. "But I can not."
Within weeks of Brown's acclimatization, the apartment was almost unrecognizable. He was of the well-preserved details of the building from the 19th century. But he has repainted the walls to create atmospheric backdrops for his objects. In the living room, whose wide bay window looks out over a sea of untamed gardens to the south, he chose a greyish red that ripens to a rosy shell pink at dusk; a deep Prussian blue for the compact jewel box library; and a calming shade of clotted cream for the lavish bedroom, with its shutters facing the quiet tree-lined street below. His possessions are exhibited in dense, constantly evolving arrangements that, in the style of a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, overlook traditional differences in value or provenance in favor of pure joy. On the walls of the small galley-style kitchen – a modern addendum added to the apartment's west wing in 2011 – hang various pictures of food Brown has captured over the years (including a close-up) -up of an English breakfast at the British photographer Martin Parr), brown and white transferware crockery from the 1880s and small shelves with vintage sake cups from Japan. In the living room, a built-in oak hutch from the 1890s is now a showcase for the stylist's plethora of crepe paper fruits and vegetables bought at the popular Tail of the Yak gift shop in Berkeley, California. And antiques taxidermists are enthroned everywhere: a quail, a sparrow, two jays, a red woodpecker and, enclosed by a high glass dome, a yellow canary.
"When he first came over he was probably horrified," Brown says of his partner Duy Pham, a 34-year-old graphic designer who was born in Vietnam and lived in Canada for 10 years before moving to a number of rental apartments in New York. When he moved to Brown in 2018, he brought little more than a collection of art books, some of which, to Brown's horror, had their dust jackets stripped off. But Pham's profession and wandering past also taught him to adapt. “I use what is given to me,” he says. "To me, this is way more interesting than having a blank canvas." And so he and Brown began an ongoing process of integrating their seemingly irreconcilable visions of what home is – a utilitarian crash pad; a personal museum – in a space in which both feel inspired.
FIRST, THEY BUY a few important things together that would soften the ornate old-world feel of the apartment. In each room, the couple installed a differently shaped Isamu Noguchi paper tag, the crisp white shapes of which offset Brown's dark wood furniture, including a pair of 1940s wing chairs upholstered in scalamandré-cut cornflower blue and chocolate-colored velvet. While strolling through New York's Lower East Side, they came across a gallery by Japanese artist Kazuko Miyamoto and bought a balsa wood maquette – an irregular white cube about a foot in diameter that she had made for one of Sol LeWitt's minimalist sculptures while he was working as an assistant – that is now hanging on the living room wall. They recently imported a 1960s Dieter Rams sofa from Amsterdam, the modular fiberglass base of which is a bold contrast to the faded ocher-colored floral-patterned carpet on which it stands.
Living together naturally also required a certain amount of processing and compromises. In the 30-square-meter library, the bookshelves along the east wall are still covered with Brown's Goofus glass vases and on the opposite wall a display case from the 1920s still contains a generous selection of the many mercury glass vessels that he has collected over the decades. But the room's once extensive taxidermy menu has been reduced in size; Among the few survivors are a spiny lobster sitting in an acrylic box on the display case and a misshapen iguana that Brown says is "too ugly to part with". Not long after Pham moved in, they started a monthly flea market in the back yard of their friends' nearby restaurant to unload; The ritual eventually evolved into periodic stoop sales outside of the couple's brownstone. Last year the two launched an online store, SpeakLow, which sells everything from Japanese silver demitasse spoons from the 1950s to palm-sized forest dioramas that Brown makes from moss, tree bark, and hand-carved clay mushrooms.
The couple's contrasting aesthetics are most evident in the bedroom: the wall behind the black upholstered platform bed is almost entirely covered with files in various media, a patchwork of both Brown's collection of mid-century academic sketches and works of some of Pham's most popular contemporary photographers, including an interlocking body image by Ren Hang. The visual tension created by two seemingly contradicting viewpoints has manifested a peculiar alchemy that Brown and Pham ultimately prefer to their individual tastes. “You get the feeling that things shouldn't be together, but somehow create space for each other,” says Pham. While Brown has learned to let go of certain belongings, Pham increasingly sees the value of possessions. “During the pandemic, many of my friends just packed up and moved away. It's always been my dream, or maybe I've solved crises in the past, ”he says. "But when you have things, you can't just go." The couple's home as they see it today is a product of their shared experience, something they have put together over time that is solid, complex, and not easy to disassemble.