My 680sqft: A staging professional mixes family heirlooms and eclectic finds in a modern Harlem condo

Posted On Tue, February 28, 2017 By

Posted On Tue, February 28, 2017 By In Features, Harlem, Interiors, My SQFT House Tours

Our ongoing series “My sqft” checks out the homes of 6sqft’s friends and fellow New Yorkers across all the boroughs. Our latest interior adventure brings us to the Harlem apartment of realtor and interior staging professional Ellen Silverman. Want to see your home featured here? Get in touch!

Ellen Silverman grew up in the large apartment complexes along Eighth Avenue in Chelsea with “three mothers”–her grandmother who worked at Macy’s for 40 years, her aunt who worked for Butterick Patterns, and her mother who loved browsing furniture stores. Needless to say, decorating and design have been in Ellen’s blood from the beginning. After moving out on her own, she lived for 20 years in the architecturally rich pre-war co-ops of Washington Heights, but five years ago, she found herself in a brand-new condo in burgeoning Harlem. Determined to bring that old-warm charm into an otherwise “white box,” Ellen used her upbringing to influence the design of her new home, blending family heirlooms, eclectic and colorful accessories and art, and plenty of personality–all of which led her to start her own staging company, Staging With Style.

Why did you decide to make the move from Washington Heights to Harlem? 

It was a journey! I had lived in two pre-war coops in Washington Heights for 20 years – 11 years in one and nine in another. In both homes, I thought I was going to live there forever. I left the first because I was engaged to a neighbor, and when we broke up I had to leave to move on with my life. The second was a one-bedroom river-view apartment in the beautiful Beaux-Arts Riviera building on 157th Street and Riverside Drive. I absolutely loved it, but because the Riviera was built in 1910, it had 100- year-old problems and spirits that would drop in now and then. Call me crazy, but some strange things happened in that place; I knew it was a sign that I had to move.

At that point, I decided I wanted virgin territory and that meant a new condo development. I had a limited budget, but I was lucky with timing. In 2009, a lot of new developments in New York were having a hard time selling, so I had quite an assortment to choose from in Brooklyn and Harlem, the areas that were most affordable for me. Every weekend for two years I went to open houses and fell in love with Fort Green and Clinton Hill, but the commute was long, so I decided to buy in Harlem.

Was it challenging going from pre-war co-ops to a modern, new construction building?

Not one bit! I was craving new construction after all those pre-war issues. To me, it represented a fresh start. The building in which I bought [The Apex] is adjacent to the Aloft Hotel. The building is part hotel and part condo. I like that I can take advantage of some of the hotel amenities and that there are always people coming and going. I also loved the design and finishes of the apartments, as well as the fact that all the owners here were new and we were experiencing this new development venture together.

Have you seen Harlem change in the five years since you moved in? 

Harlem seems to change every month! I can’t keep up with everything, between the restaurants, the new condo developments, and the stores. I’m a native New Yorker, and I remember the edginess and creativity that made New York so rich in culture growing up. I think Harlem is becoming a part of the city for those New Yorkers who can’t afford to live elsewhere in Manhattan. I just hope some of the soul and vibrancy of the neighborhood does not disappear.

Speaking of which what are some of your favorite spots in the neighborhood?

The restaurants here keep getting better and better. I especially love Chaiwali, Corner Social for brunch, Savann for Mediterranean cuisine, and Seasoned Vegan. And of course, Bebenoir for funky clothes and accessories.

Ellen worked with designer Kim Depole, who also did the building’s model units

What made you decide to work with an interior decorator?

My mother and aunt always worked with a decorator. One of my impressionable childhood memories was the family’s interior decorator from W. & J. Sloane, an upscale furniture ‎store that was in Midtown in the ’60s. My mother and aunt never made a decorating decision without consulting this woman. I remember going to Sloan’s week after week looking at floor plans, furniture, and fabrics. I guess this strategy was in my genes, so I hired a decorator for every home I owned. Moving is an overwhelming event, and I needed helping sorting through what I wanted to keep versus what I needed to buy. But most importantly, a good decorator can provide a vision for what they see is next in the home and life of their client and make recommendations based on their own design aesthetic.

The sketch in the bathroom is of Ellen; in 1994, she and an ex-boyfriend were having pizza in Soho and he drew this of her in 20 minutes.

You said you didn’t want to feel like you were living in a “white box.” What were the biggest ways you got around this?

The problem with all the new condos now is that they are cookie cutter boxes in these tall, cold, glassy steel structures. In addition, the furniture from my 20 years of pre-war living was very classic, so the challenge was combining old-school style in a very modern and sleek environment. To address this, my decorator recommended accent walls in every room and floor-to-ceiling curtains for every window. For further dimension, we selected eclectic furnishings and accessories that were plush in texture and rich in color. Electronic devices were minimized by storing the flat-screen TV in a Chinese armoire and buying a tablet computer with wireless keyboard and mouse to fit in seamlessly with the kitchen appliances. The kitchen and bathroom had beautiful fixtures but looked bland and needed some punch. We painted the door of the washer/dryer closet a dark brown with white accent lines and added a brown accent wall with Asian art hangings in the bathroom. Since these boxy condos rarely have foyers, we placed a rug in the kitchen area to create the illusion of a hallway.

You mentioned needing to sort through what to keep and what to buy. How did you balance keeping a mix of vintage and contemporary furniture and decor?

This was a one-year process actually. My decorator warned me that I can’t keep everything. Letting go of things from childhood was like losing an arm. I was stubborn, so I moved more than I could handle. When the movers dropped off my grandmother’s dresser and desk it was obvious these pieces had no place to go, so I gave them to my movers and they were so happy! Do you know that expression, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?” That was definitely the case. I realized I can’t let possessions run my life. However, my aunt’s leather desk still sits in a storage unit in New Jersey; I’m not ready to let that one go just yet.

But I also knew there were certain items I had to have in my home no matter what, such as my mother’s green sofa table and Japanese screen and my aunt’s sitting chair and all those lamps. I kept experimenting with placement and reworked the layout until I was satisfied. I love living with furniture from my childhood. I believe more than ever, one has to remember their roots and feel grounded in this crazy digital world we live in.

The photo of Jackie O is by Alan Kleinberg; Marilyn Monroe is by Richard Avedon.

After this process, how would you sum up your design aesthetic?

It is definitely an eclectic mix. I would say contemporary, peaceful, comfortable and a bit whimsical. I love pop art and can’t live without my stuffed animals and dolls from childhood. You have to live with the things that bring you joy. And I try not to take style too seriously.

Ellen says she loves “women’s empowerment.” On the table in front of the window is a photo of her mother in 1945 when she was 20. The three photos to the left are (top to bottom): Model and friend Cindy Joseph; her best friend from high school; and herself when she was seven-years-old.

Do you have a favorite piece of furniture or art?

I absolutely love the green sofa table from my mother’s home and the turquoise lamp that belonged to my aunt. My favorite pieces of art are from friends. I bought the shoe painting in my bedroom 20 years ago. The artist is Meryl Ranzer who does incredibly strong female figures with bold, rich colors. I also love pop art, and when I saw Andrea Cook’s “Chanel No. 1 Pussy Power Perfume,” I just had to have it. The colors blend so well with my bedroom. And believe it not, I bought Andrea’s painting before Trump was even nominated! How fortuitous was that?

Ellen framed a 1980 invite to Studio 54 for an Andy Warhol book signing. 

Outside of friends and family, where do you like to shop for furniture and decor?

For inspiration, I love walking around ABC Home & Carpet. For classic and contemporary furniture, I love Arhaus in the Meatpacking District, as well as Ethan Allen. CB2 tends to have simple, playful décor and features some interesting up-and-coming designers, which won’t break your bank account. For Asian accent pieces, I love CQ Asian Furniture in Chelsea and Pearl River Mart in Soho. Of course I adore Jonathan Adler! His style is so whimsical yet luxurious. His book, “My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living,” is my design bible. I also love Z Gallerie for their gorgeous Art Deco-style mirrored dressers, and I love breezing through Horchow online and Madura for bedding. And for a quick and very affordable pick me up, Home Goods has a daily rotation of high-quality accessories; I’ve found the most amazing accent pieces and pillows there for less than $10.

The Warhol-style prints above the desk came from a friend asking Ellen who she would like to have dinner with. These are her four favorite celebrities–Angelina Jolie, Joan Rivers, Oprah, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

You recently left your banking career to focus on real estate and your staging business. What made you decide to make the change?

Even though I have spent most of my career in finance, my friends and family always counted on me for help with interior decorating. I turned 60 this year, and I decided it was time to put the Wall Street sword down to pursue my passions. I got my real estate license last summer and founded my own staging company, Staging With Style, this year. I help people stage their homes for resale and also provide decorating tips.


All photos taken by Erin Kestenbaum exclusively for 6sqft. Photos are not to be reproduced without written permission from 6sqft.

Neighborhoods : Harlem



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