“I’m not big on trends,” admits Courtnay Daniels, seated in an 18th-century dining chair at the kitchen table in her pre-war apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side. The founder of Courtnay Daniels Interior Decoration became her own imaginative client when she transformed a claustrophobic galley kitchen into an open, charming place for her family of four to gather.
Kitchen overhauls are typically lengthy and expensive. “There’s nothing worse than renovating and then finding out five years later that your kitchen looks dated,” she says. “I designed my kitchen imagining that 50 years from now it will still look timeless.” When Daniels and her two older children relocated from the Bay Area, with its breezy, light-saturated architecture, to the historic 1920s co-op, where she now lives with her husband the architect Gil Schafer, the original kitchen was so painfully narrow that they couldn’t easily go about their daily business of eating, reading, studying, and cooking together. It was clear that the space hadn’t been updated since the 1970s—as evidenced by blue-veined Formica countertops and floors that crunched underfoot.
Daniels purposefully waited to make any major changes, for a few years prior to the 2019 renovation. “When you live in the space first, you realize that you might want to use it in ways slightly different from how you thought when you bought it.”
The original layout included a dated, unused housekeeper’s room. Daniels first broke down the walls to achieve a more expansive, light-filled room. “It was really important to me to create a space that offered enough countertop spaces for cooking.” That’s no easy feat in dense Manhattan, but was ultimately accomplished with Absolute Black granite that luxuriously wraps around the kitchen, thanks to a decision to omit a kitchen island from the design.
Daniels stashes orphaned fabric samples in a basket next to her desk; rummaging through her cache, she knew right away that the blue-green Duchess pattern by Robert Kime at Chelsea Textiles would be the focal point for the kitchen palette. The textile was perfect for a pair of roman shades framing two small windows with city views. A collector of contemporary photography from the American South, Daniels also knew she wanted the McNair Evans image of a stack of vintage magazines to feature prominently.
The simple Shaker-style cabinetry with classic wooden knobs came together organically, with an eyesore radiator cleverly concealed behind slatted doors. For color, Daniels landed on Pigeon by Farrow & Ball, a moody green-blue that references the birds that rule city ledges and windowsills. The handmade Heath subway-tile backsplash hides pipes and other historic architectural quirks above the Thermidor cooktop and double ovens.
“It’s all made to be imperfect,” says Daniels, with a nod to the mismatched, everyday ceramics informally stacked in the glass display cabinet, and the grey-painted floors rendered more interesting with everyday nicks and dings. The mid-century brass serpent chandelier offers ample light for reading or board games; it was discovered at a Spanish flea market years ago.
The family eats using fine silver each night and doesn’t mind if the flatware gets battered or tarnished. And, instead of an up-to-the-minute upholstered banquette with a coasters-only table, Daniels opted for an antique French wine-tasting table. “If there’s a mark left from a cup or glitter glue from some art project, it’s just a sign that memories have been created there.” They now eat their meals together in the new kitchen, with enough elbow room for cooking and congregating after school and work, when the Manhattan skyline comes alive with neon lights.