Headlines are hard. Take this story, for example. The headline as written is pretty straightforward and totally self-explanatory. You are about to go on a home tour of the art-filled, beautifully designed Fort Greene home that HGTV Star finalist, POD Design founder, and New Jersey Institute of Technology professor Brooks Atwood and his lovely wife Estelle Nichols Atwood (who has long worked in fashion, including, among other places, at Zero Maria Cornejo) share with their dog, Sissy. So, basically, that's all in the headline, right? But when writing about such a fun and vibrant space, which just happens to be occupied and put together by two of the more fun and vibrant people you'll ever meet, you want to do better. Other ideas were tossed around: "Design Like a Rock Star" (something that Brooks says, not infrequently) or "At Home with Beauty and the Weird Beard" (an early favorite, but in the end, too vague) or "Out of the Gutter and Into a Brownstone" (a reference to where the couple first met) or, well, the more unorthodox titular possibilities are endless. Which is why, ultimately, I decided to go with simple. Because, really, with a home like this and people like Brooks and Estelle, you don't need to do anything but step back and let the surroundings make things come to life.
I visited the Atwoods' apartment, located in an elegant brownstone on a stately, tree-lined Fort Greene street on what might wind up being the hottest day of this year. As soon as I stepped into the garden apartment though, after being greeted quite vocally by Sissy, Brooks and Estelle's dog, the burden of the summer heat lifted and I was struck by how a space could feel so cool and so warm all at once. Although the couple has lived in Fort Greene for close to four years now, they've only occupied this apartment for a few months. If it were me—or most people I know, for that matter—the apartment would still be littered with half-packed boxes and unhung art would be stacked haphazardly on the floor. Instead, the kitchen is newly painted with a mixture of chalkboard paint and red-and-white candy stripes and original art (by both Brooks and Estelle) is hung all over the apartment, interspersed with mementos like the flower crown Estelle wore when the two eloped in Northern Ireland. In short, the apartment is the perfect blend of lived-in and lively, a dynamic space that still feels settled into.
The same embrace of whimsy and spontaneity that defines the design of their home is also evident in the story of how Brooks and Estelle met. Estelle tells me, "We met five years ago through mutual friends at a birthday party at The Gutter. I was kind of done dating, and so was he. But still he chased me all night. And I avoided him until he ended the night with magic tricks, which actually ended up sealing the deal."
Brooks interjects to admit, "I was a total idiot wearing a leather vest, but it totally worked."
Estelle laughs, "He likes to say he picked me up out of the gutter."
"Well, I did!"
Not long after, the two eloped while on a trip to Northern Ireland, and were married in a field not far outside Belfast. They needed to have a legal ceremony once they returned stateside, and rode their bikes to City Hall to make it official. Once married, the two decided to make the move to Brooklyn. Estelle had been living in downtown Manhattan, and Brooks was up on the Upper West Side, but (as is so often the case) all their friends had already made the move to Brooklyn, so they decided to come too. Plus, as Estelle points out, "We just fell in love with it out here. And everyone is so friendly here, people say hi when they jog past you. You don't get that anywhere else in the city."
And while their Brooklyn neighborhood is a friendly place to all who come, there's a good chance that Brooks has gotten a lot more attention over the last few weeks as he's competed on the reality design competition HGTV Star. Brooks made it all the way to the finale, though he didn't win. However, hearing him talk about the experience of making the show makes it apparent that, well, winning really isn't everything.
Brooks had this to say about his experience, "It was super exciting—just the most fun ever. It was a time where you got to be totally living in the moment of design, which is rare, you know, usually you have clients or real life is happening. But on the show it was just focused—an intense moment of pure design—and so it was really stressful and exciting at the same time. And my brain was just a rapid fire of ideas all the time, and just trying to come up with really innovative and amazing things that have never been done before. And that's really just what I want to do, just push boundaries. So this, being on the show, gave me the opportunity to really focus on one project but you gotta go fast, and there's no time to do it, and you're designing on the fly and you gotta make really fast decisions and it's crazy. So, it was really fun and nerve-wracking and just generally exciting. Just like over-stimulus."
Which, come to think of it, sounds kind of like how Brooks and Estelle seem to go through life all the time, on the highest possible speed, hurtling from one adventure to the next. Brooks agrees, saying, "I think I live my life the same way as being on a reality show. I kind of operate that way, and even when I teach, I teach the same way. And I felt like, now I have the opportunity to show my students that I practice what I preach and prove to them, you know, what I teach, this is how I do it. They could watch me. They've loved seeing it so far. And they love it because it's payback, I'm the student who's getting judged in front of the panel and critiqued and they think it's funny. They're the ones who found the casting call and forced me to go there. I didn't know about it, I wouldn't have done it, but I make my students do all kind of insane things, so if they want me to do it then I'm happy to do it for them. No matter what happens, it's been the most fun I've ever had. What I wanted to get across is that I'm myself. I design like a rock star and I'm really passionate about it. I wanted to do the best I could so that no matter what happens I was gonna be really proud of each design. I wouldn't change anything that I've done. Be yourself and do work that you can be proud of no matter what happens."
The enthusiasm emanating from Brooks is contagious, and it's something that clearly translates in a positive way in all the different places in which he works, whether at NJIT with his students, or at his Brooklyn-based company POD Design, or on HGTV, or even just at home. And as disparate as all those arenas seem to be, Brooks understands what ties it all together, saying, "I think it's a brilliant combination because teaching really keeps you on your toes, students are always asking all kinds of questions, no good or bad questions, just ones from different angles. So you, having to teach something and then show how to do it, really keeps you sharp. And then going back and working in your own office, actually doing those things—and we do all kinds of different projects, from building skyscrapers to designing hotels to coming up with products to constructing chairs, things of all different scales. Shifting between those scales really stretches you and keeps you on your toes exactly like teaching does. I like to say that I think being kidnapped is exactly like being a designer. You don't know what's going to happen, you need to be on your toes."
"So," I couldn't help but ask, "if you're ever abducted by aliens?"
Brooks grins and answers immediately, "I'm gold!"
POD Design; pod-design.com
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen