Inhabit: Tysons Corner area condo owner reboots his living space

April 22, 2011

On April 12, 2010, Marc Bransky decided to plunge his 1970s condo into the 21st century. Out went his clunky old stereo components and his CDs; the bulky desktop computer and monitor got the heave-ho; dozens of books went to Fairfax library; the bedroom bureau, chest and file cabinet went to friends, and 20 garbage bags filled with clothes went to Goodwill.

In came a Sonos wireless music system the size of a tissue box, controlled through a new iPod; a new, silvery MacBook laptop; a Kindle for reading; and a kitted-out walk-in closet for all his sartorial needs.

But first in came architect Andreas Charalambous, head of the District’s Forma Design studio. 

“When Marc called me last April,” the architect recalls, “he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ Of course, I did.”

Twelve years ago, Charalambous turned the plain bathroom in the bachelor’s one-bed, one-bath Tysons Corner area condo into a space with a velvety concrete countertop, large-scale ceramic-tile floor and walls clad in limestone and mirror. The redone bathroom still looks as though it is all of 10 minutes old. But as so often happens, when one room gets a face-lift, the rest of the place winds up looking tired. As he was about to retire from his job in the federal criminal justice system and begin a “much more fun period” of his life, the 60-year-old Bransky wanted to streamline his surroundings. 

What emerged is a 900-square-foot home that, while compact, is soothing and complete. “I have everything I need,” says Bransky of the place where he has lived for about 20 years, “but I feel lighter.”

The walls forming the perimeter of the place are painted a deep, moody charcoal gray, interrupted one recent day only by the sunny views from the apartment’s west-facing balcony. In the center of the apartment, in effect separating living room from bedroom, is a gleaming white “cube.” 

The living-room wall of the cube is a long horizontal sweep of custom cabinetry with a white lacquer finish, a combination of storage cabinets and shelves. A flat-screen TV is installed in the center; speakers are hardly visible behind white screening at the top corners of the unit. Tucked inside one lower cabinet is a DVD player and the Sonos music system, which lets Bransky browse libraries of music. (Even the DVD player’s days may be numbered given that he can stream movies from Netflix.) The custom installation replaces a dark, freestanding wall unit that was loaded with a TV, stereo amplifier and receiver, and a few yards of books.

The inside of the cube is a minimalist’s dream kitchen, much of it from Ikea. Long counters of white Silestone quartz stretch along both sides of the galley-style space, topping stainless-steel base cabinets. Upper cabinets have frosted-glass fronts in simple aluminum frames. The backsplash on both sides is glass painted white on the back, so the color has a cool depth to it. Door and drawer pulls are mere stainless-steel suggestions. The front-hall doorway at one end of the 12-foot-long kitchen and the doorway that connects to the dining area at the other end were widened by Charalambous and project architect Juan Martin Gutierrez, giving the narrow room breathing space and allowing its “glow” to spill into the surrounding areas. 

The outside wall of the white cube continues toward the bed and bath. But here, where there is no cabinetry, the wall is covered in a Wolf-Gordon vinyl wallcovering that is vertically ridged, adding texture to all the white.

Around the apartment, like jewels now in their proper setting, are mid-century-modern pieces of furniture that Bransky has purchased over the years. The living room holds a blue Womb chair by Eero Saarinen and a red Harry Bertoia Bird lounge chair, both from Knoll, and a long black leather sofa. The seating is arrayed around the signature Herman Miller Noguchi coffee table. The dining room’s pedestal table is by Saarinen and is surrounded by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1930 Brno chairs. 

“It’s comfortable-looking furniture,” Bransky says. “The whole period is comfortable.”

There was thought of bringing walnut paneling, a mid-century staple, into the scheme, perhaps by having the living-room storage unit made from the wood. But, like the Ikea kitchen, painted wood was quite nice and the cheaper alternative. Likewise, when it came to cladding the “cube,” Charalambous explains, there was paint on the inexpensive end and walnut on the high end, with wallcovering being the middle choice.

Paying special attention to the ceiling and floors may have made the most dramatic difference in the condo.

To start, the flooring was concrete slab covered with wall-to-wall carpeting. Today the floor is wide-plank rift and quarter-sawn white oak, the long lines of which seem to stretch the rooms.

A more serious issue was the “popcorn” ceiling, a sprayed-on, textured finish that promised noise insulation in 1970s apartment buildings but wound up almost universally looking dirty and cheap. Bransky moved out of the apartment last July, staying with various friends over the months, so workmen could plunge into the renovation, starting with scraping off the ceiling. (Thankfully, there was no asbestos in the ceiling coating.)

Charalambous’s team painted the ceilings to match the charcoal-gray walls but dropped a section of the ceiling in the living and dining areas. Dropping part of the ceiling defined the gathering areas; it also allowed for recessed lighting. To Bransky’s way of thinking, it allowed light, period. “The place was really dark,” he says.

Even with all the work that had to be done, Bransky wanted to move back by Thanksgiving — and he did. Punch-list fixes were taken care of in December, and Bransky retired on Dec. 31 into his new life and his new space. As a recent retiree, Bransky goes out “as much as possible, really taking advantage of Washington,” but he has this sleek interior to come back to.

His modernist tendencies aside, Bransky harbors some whimsical, even romantic, notions. One recent evening, at the end of a long day on which the finished apartment was photographed, Charalambous stared out the window toward Tysons Corner in the distance and asked his client what the area was called. Maybe it was the twinkling lights, but Bransky answered, “How ’bout Paris?”

 “Really?” the startled Charalambous answered. 

“No,” said Bransky, “but it could be.”

And in an anachronistic touch, as Bransky lets go of the iPod that fills the rooms with music, he brushes against not his Kindle, but a real book on the coffee table.

“Sometimes you just like the touch of a book,” he says. It’s a memoir by English mystery writer P.D. James. And it’s a library book.

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