Built to Last
Tracey and Rod Berkowitz specialize in marrying centuries-old features with the vestiges of modern industry, creating a niche of the contemporary-farmhouse aesthetic that’s all their own. In their own home, it carries the added benefit of holding up to their young family.
By Scott Edwards
Photography by Josh DeHonney
Just inside the front door sits a small, square room—10 feet by 10 feet, maybe a bit more. It’s part of the home’s original, 1,200-square foot footprint, which dates back to 1794. To the left, there’s a considerable fireplace. The rear opens to the wide-open addition Tracey and Rod Berkowitz added seven years ago. But the eye settles on the circle of four low-slung lounge chairs in the center of the room. It’s here where Tracey and Rod will settle in at the end of another relentless day, the kids in bed, the only light coming from the crackling fire in front of them. It’s also where their guests, during parties, will play a discreet game of musical chairs.
In a home filled with interesting nooks and features, this little room is Tracey’s favorite place to be, as much for its intimate nature as its unexpected presence. This is what they do. They reimagine the home. They source unusual furniture and accessories from all over the world—crank tables from England, large Moroccan pillows, a quilted-linen wing chair, huge oil paintings on reclaimed metal—that make little sense until they’re seen through the filter of their Lambertville, New Jersey, shop, Zinc Home. There, a raw, urban energy amplifies the familiar modern-farmhouse aesthetic, sharpening splintered, worn-down corners to a precise edge. And they approach their home with the same audacity.
It still needs to be practical
Over the course of a single month late in the summer of 2002, Tracey and Rod moved into their home in Sergeantsville, NJ, a few miles north of Lambertville, got married and opened their store (in New Hope, originally). It was owned by a realtor who, at least, restored the original, wide-plank pine floors that were painted blue by the previous owner.
“We loved the charm of it, but it was a beater,” Tracey says. “The outside needed so much work. It was a hideous mint green. It was peeling. But, I don’t know, as soon as we walked in, we knew this was the house that we had to live in.”
Tracey became pregnant with their first child, Noah, the following summer, and once he grew into a toddler, they finally started to feel the pinch of their precious little house on the prairie. When Tracey became pregnant with their second, Piper, in 2007, it was either move or grow the house. Piper was born in June 2008. They broke ground on an 1,800-square foot addition—about a third larger than the home itself—that November. And it was completed by her first birthday.
The two-story addition extends from the rear of the original home. On the outside, a porch wraps around the front of the home and its south side, erasing any noticeable division between old and new. Inside, two large, open rooms comprise the new space, the living room downstairs and the master bedroom upstairs, which is separated from the en suite bathroom by a partial wall, the only interior wall, really, in the entire addition.
Tracey and Rod knew exactly what they wanted it to look like before a blueprint was even rendered. “And then we worked with our contractor to tweak some things that we thought would be one way and ended up being another,” Tracey says. “But, overall, it’s pretty much like a rectangle.”
They needed the space. But they also seized the opportunity to mold the home into their own shape. The reclaimed wood beams and exposed, raw-side pine that form the ceiling grid (and tie the old in with the new) juxtapose the concrete floor in the living room. The rear walls of the entry and dining rooms in the original home were removed, turning those spaces into extensions of the addition and, in turn, creating the illusion that they’re a bit larger than they actually are. Basically, all of the old was preserved and made practical again, while the addition afforded them new leeway, physically and aesthetically.
“We love industrial,” Tracey says. “But, we wanted to make sure that we could keep that [farmhouse] vibe and not have it look too country—even though we do live in that kind of house.”
With the store as a fallback and a couple whose tastes are constantly evolving, it’s easy to envision a high turnover rate for the furnishings, but the opposite is closer to the truth. Relatively little has changed from the initial installation.
“We spent more money and more time to find just the right pieces, instead of just trying to decorate because we had the space to decorate,” Tracey says. “I get bored with how things are merchandized,” so the accessories are shuffled often. But the furniture—“actually, we’ve had three couches so far,” she says and then laughs at the realization.
The newest couch was found at the Brimfield Antique Flea Market. It’s a French frame upholstered in Japanese denim.
“I just love it. But the cushions are all down and it’s super-uncomfortable,” Tracey says. “But I love the couch so much that I’m willing to suffer.”
She is not willing to suffer for it, or any other piece of furniture, for that matter.
“It’s on my to-do list, to make sure I get those stuffed, because then it’ll be super-comfortable and we can go back to where I sit here and Rod sits over there,” on the other sofa, which faces the French one from the other side of the coffee table. “I’m infringing on Rod’s sofa. He’s like, ‘This is my space. But because you had to have this uncomfortable sofa, you have to watch TV with me over here.’ And the kids don’t care. They love it over here,” on the French sofa.
How much, I ask, do two young kids, now 12 and 8, influence what you bring into the house?
“They don’t influence it at all. Like, I don’t care what they think,” Tracey says, laughing with me at her bluntness. Sarcasm tends to not be read as well as it’s heard, so I feel obligated to note that she’s kidding. “Our house is not a museum. The kids are allowed to lay all over everything. The dogs”—there are two of them, both around 85 pounds each—“lay all over the sofas. It’s a totally livable space, which is why I think the kids like it. We don’t put restrictions on them at all.
“However,” she adds, “they do know that, I don’t know if it’s because we’re in the business, they do know that they have to be respectful of the stuff that we have, that stuff costs money, that we look for stuff that’s really special that we may never be able to replace if it was ruined. As with anything, I don’t let them sit on the back of the sofa because they shouldn’t be doing that with anybody’s sofa.”
Later, Noah comes downstairs to alert Tracey that he’s due at soccer practice soon. He’s polite and personable. He stays with us for the next half-hour or so, while we finish talking and Tracey shows me around upstairs. Throughout, he’s wearing his neon-green Nike soccer spikes. Tracey never flinches.
The thrill of the hunt
When you work long hours, six days a week, in an industry as finicky and aloof as theirs, inspiration dries up fast. So it’s not unremarkable that Tracey and Rod’s home remains a wellspring of it for them. There are two reasons for that, Tracey says. One, it took them a long time to arrive here. And two, the home, in her eyes, is still very much a work in progress. The kitchen, an addition somewhere around the middle of the last century, appears next in line. They recently covered the north wall, floor to ceiling, in white subway tile with dark gray grout. Changed the complexion of the room entirely, Tracey says. She fantasizes openly now about replacing the cabinets with a sleek, modern kind.
This is not a couple, though, that loses itself every weekend in renovation projects. The home, after all, isn’t going anywhere. And Tracey feels that in order for them to remain relevant (and feed their insatiable addiction to design), they need to be closer to the action. So, they make regular trips to New York for two, three days at a time—kids in tow.
“I just want them to appreciate what we do,” she says. “A lot of people, their parents leave for work, they don’t know what they do. But my kids have to live with what we do. At times, it stinks for them. I want them to understand that it’s hard. Like, the things that we bring into the store and the things that we bring into the house, we don’t just go to a store, normally, and buy them. We found it somewhere. It has a story.”
Sitting in one of those low-slung lounge chairs in the entry room, Tracey smiles at the memory of the late-night bidding war on eBay that played out before they finally secured them.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “Then we were like, ‘Oh, shit. I hope they’re nice.’ ”
Tracey insists that of their two kids, their daughter, Piper, is the clear favorite to follow in their footsteps, or at least, walk nearby. She’s creative and she’s already helping with the merchandizing in the store. But, “Noah won’t, for sure,” she says. “He wants nothing to do with it. He wants a nice house. He wants us to do it.”
My tour of the upstairs finishes in his bedroom. It’s the largest upstairs room in the original part of the house, but it’s modest by modern expectations. Still there’s room for a queen-size bed and a leather loveseat and a small table. The walls, up to about waist-high, are covered in square metal diamond plates, the kind you’d find on the floor of an exotic mechanic’s garage. But Noah’s grown out of them, and much of the rest of the motif—he’s 12, remember—so they’ll be coming down soon, likely with a lot of aggravation and cursing from Rod, who’ll be doing the prying. The bed was the first part of the makeover. Noah is filled with ideas for the rest of it.
“We’re gonna do a butcher-block desk. And we’re gonna mount my TV to the wall,” he says. “And we’re thinking of getting a—what’s that called?”
“An end table?” Tracey answers. “We’ll talk about that.”
“I could definitely design, like, boys’ rooms my age,” he says.
“Oh, really?” Tracey says with mock surprise. This is hardly the first time she’s heard this.
“Yeah. I’ll pay people. I’ll have people pay me. And I’ll design their rooms.”
Some of it appears to be sinking in, at least.