Saturday, May 16

Serge Van Lian, East Village

Remember Serge Van Lian from Bravo's Top Design? Back in September, he was the first designer to get "kicked off" (as they say) the second season of the show, not that it's mattered much to his career. He's been cruising around his East Village neighborhood, founding an eponymous design firm, salvaging decorative treasures from New York sidewalks, frequenting hardware stores for industrial decor, refueling with espresso at Abraco and finishing a very important project: his own two-bedroom apartment...

A mutual friend in Los Angeles introduced us via email, so we met for the first time one Saturday afternoon when he opened his front door with a big, friendly smile. (He keeps his shoes outside the door. I like that idea of appropriating the hallway.) The second I walked in, I was in awe of his beautiful place. Though it's small, and it's broken up into several small areas, which makes filling them with right-size furniture even more challenging, he's created a warm environment that's elegant, cool and industrial.

Serge is from LA and studied music, but he's always had an interest in design. He grew up watching his mom buy, fix up and sell houses, so he picked up some tricks from her. The rest he learned on his own.

The maybe-500-square-foot space is anchored by a big room at each end--his bedroom on one side, and a wonderfully peaceful "white room" on the other. Connecting them is the entry, where there's a lovely seating cove, a narrow kitchen he never uses but to sit on the counter while talking to guests, apparently, and a tiny bathroom with a giant window he knocked out of one wall, so it looks out--into and past the bedroom--to south-facing windows and views of turn-of-the-century brick buildings. There's another window, from the seating area, that looks into the bathroom and also through the bathroom window to those bedroom windows. Trust me, it works. So although the place is small, there's always some clever view to the outdoors, even if you're skimming past plaster, brick, a clear shower curtain, more plaster, more brick and glass. It's a lot like Serge; his vision is unstoppable.

By the end of my visit we were on the rooftop, climbing ladders and scaling concrete to visit the area Serge has claimed as his workshop. With the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in view, it's the perfectly inspirational place to spray-paint chairs and refinish tabletops.

(Looking at these photos now, they seem dark, and I should've taken more shots of entire rooms. Whoops! You can Google Image him and see more pics of his place. Check out the bathroom pics, since I don't really have a good one here.)

Entry and Sitting Room
Below, Serge in the doorway. Converse is a hit at this house. In the sitting area, electrical boxes act as sconces and support candles. A twig-and-pencil mirror by Laura Mazza from the Think Gallery. Nearby is the door to the bathroom, and you can see the window into the bathroom on that wall. He installed the checkered marble floors.

From the sitting room, you can look through a window (below, on the right) into the bathroom, and then into the bedroom. That's the shower head visible in the photo. Serge couldn't find just the right Empire-style frame he envisioned should go around this window, so he made one with hundreds of pennies. Only one depicts Lincoln's head, the rest are tails.

Past the kitchen is Serge's bedroom. His prized possession is this crazy-expensive Swedish bed from Hastens, which he got for a great deal because it was a floor model at the Soho store. (He's such a fan of Hastens that the company invited him to tour the headquarters in Sweden, and he's featured on the company's infomercial.) He now sleeps in Hastens heaven, on a bed of horsehair, cotton, flax and other organic materials that's wrapped in the brand's trademark plaid casing.

This room, colored in olive and hazel, looks like Serge. That's him in the kitchen. In the corner, he stacked a suite of bedroom furniture he found in a second-hand store. It's a dramatic way to use vertical space and have storage space. The middle one is filled with laundry.

Serge knocked out a huge section of the bathroom, so you can see into the bedroom--when the curtains are open, like they are here. He "wallpapered" the showering area with a shower curtain from Bed Bath & Beyond. The narrow medicine cabinet is actually a repurposed CD case he found on the Upper West Side. Around the bathroom are parts from a meat grinder. The base appears to support the cabinet but is only decorative, and the crank hangs on the wall because it looks good there.

Why don't I have a better picture of the kitchen? Serge rarely uses it, anyway. On the wall is another CD case that he strung with wire and uses for the storage of jars and spices.

The White Room
I love this peaceful guest room. Along the length of one wall is Flemming Busk's Twilight Sleep Sofa from Design Within Reach. When it's open, like it is here, the mattress covers almost the entire floor. Along another wall, a gigantic mirror stretches from floor to ceiling and is braced by some pipes and other industrial parts. Behind the mirror a "closet" with rows of hangers. Functional and inexpensive. He loves the John Keats line "Beauty is truth," so he took a nail and carved the words into every slat of the wood lath. The Victorian-Gothic mirror is from a friend's mother, and the black medieval-style chandelier is from the famous Billy's Antiques & Props in Soho.

I met up with Serge recently, and we walked around the East Village, went to a bookstore, ate pastries and looked at decor magazines. Such fun! He told me he'd finally replaced the counters in his kitchen. He also showed me a brand new tattoo: a nine-inch ruler, at half-inch increments, that runs up his right forearm. "In case I forget a tape measure," he says. "When you're pulling stuff from the streets and hauling it home, you want to make sure it's going to fit."


  1. A fantastic space! What a great idea to use windows between the rooms to bring natural light throughout the apartment. It looks so much bigger than 500 sf.

  2. Another great post. Can't imagine why he was voted off, he seems to know his stuff. But then shows like that seem to be geared for failure and success only if you know how to play their games!

    Would you like to me to post-edit your photos? Just to lighten them or add focus or such? I would only ask that you give me credit and have a link to my site. Let me know if you're interested!

    Otherwise, you have a great point of view and the photos have good composition!


    Have a great weekend!

  3. Everything about the place except the floor makes me sad :-(
    It all looks so worn and dreary. Am I mean? Am I wrong or simply used to a clean Swedish style? Nice photos though.

  4. What a really clever,stylish home that is ,
    There's a lot of truth in it.
    I love his tatTOO TOO.
    Looks great AND is also really
    useful.Probably a bit like him ;0)

  5. That tattoo is amazing! Seriously...he seems like SUCH a practical guy. I don't care much for the design of his apartment, but I LOVE his personality.

  6. Hi Maria-Therese, I think my photos might be too dark! It was a dreary day, so maybe that's what you picked up on. And having been there in person, I can say that Serge's cheery personality certainly brightens things up, too! :) Thanks for commenting!

  7. The fact that Serge was voted off Top Design says all the right things. Clearly, he was too talented and creative to submit to Todd Oldham's weird bronzed expressionless expression. (Sorry Todd, I am a fan -- in fact I still have some of your jeans and my favorite green sandals have your namesake). Wait, was Todd even on the second season? Oh, that was India. Sorry. Shows just how memorable that show is....not.

    Love it. Liz rocking as usual.

  8. inspiring! love everything about his place. thanks for sharing.

  9. You coming home for Christmas?