Adjacent to the statement couch (pink, velvet, and tufted), and underneath a crystal chandelier, sit a pair of movie theater seats. They're a faded shade of sunshine and they fold up neatly, a grounding element in an otherwise happy-swanky room. K.V. Harper, the owner and designer of this home, was looking for a church pew when she found them on eBay. "I wanted a piece that would nod to the history of Louisiana, with an understanding of where we are now," she says.
Salvaged from a segregated theater, the antique seats were exactly the sort of relic she wanted to reclaim in her New Orleans home, which is nestled in one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in America.
The Seventh Ward, as this diamond-shaped slice of New Orleans is known, prospered as a home to the people of color who settled here throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries—it was likely the largest free Black community in the US before Emancipation. Of European and African descent, they were educated and highly skilled, speaking perfect French and excelling in building trades. They called themselves Creole (one of a number of ways the term has been applied over time).
A local business district thrived. And when, post-Emancipation, the newly-freed enslaved joined the neighborhood's classically-trained ranks, a little bit of magic called jazz was born. Buddie Petit, Lizzie Miles, and Lorenzo Tio, Jr. and several other greats hail from the Seventh Ward. (So, is it a coincidence that K.V. sourced a vintage piano for the entryway? It isn't.)
But the area has had more than its share of devastation, too: Desegregation rocked New Orleans; the famous photo of Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. marshals to her classroom in 1960 was taken a few miles away from K.V.'s house, in the Lower Ninth Ward. The same year that image was captured, the city's new Interstate 1-10 was completed, driving Robert Moses-style like a stake through the heart of the Seventh Ward's prosperous business district, bifurcating the neighborhood and requiring the destruction of a wide grassy plaza dotted four rows deep with old-growth, live oak trees. Forty-five years later, Hurricane Katrina hit, flooding most of its streets.
The neighborhood lost a lot in the hurricane—but people reclaimed their communities from flooded blocks, and survived. Today, though, there is another, equally urgent threat that's unraveling the neighborhood—the risk of cultural loss. In a call with us last week, K.V. explained how several of the Seventh Ward's long-term residents are being pushed out, both by landlords reneging on repairs, and rising rents and utilities (as incomes stagnate). There is a groundswell of community action, but it's a long hard fight against more powerful forces.
Everything that makes it NOLA is because of neighborhoods like this. The frustration arises because the very culture that black people created, and people love, will disappear if you push those people out of these neighborhoods. I’ve seen it happen in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. So, the question is: How do we retain the culture of the city that’s vital to it, and that people are proud of, but we are losing every day? We're going to have to solve it with political courage.
K.V. has lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York since 2010, though she's originally from Seattle. She fell in love with New Orleans the way so many people do, just by driving around town during a visit with friends. When she got to the Seventh Ward, she just knew. "The neighborhood chose me," she says.
Her career back in Brooklyn as an advertising strategist required both creativity and a sharp business acumen—"understanding the target market, deciding what creative would work, conducting research analysis, working directly with the creative director to execute the creative"—but it wasn't until she bought and renovated a brownstone in Bed-Stuy that she realized how much those skills could segue into a career in design.
When it was complete, the natural step was to buy a place in New Orleans and launch a design-and-build firm there—right?
Along with a local contractor, Erix Peres, she made it happen in just four months. (Getting licensed and insured in that amount of time would be unheard of in New York.) Their joint venture, Kex Design + Build, is a soup-to-nuts renovation shop that does everything from design and planning to construction and detailing.
When K.V. first saw this shotgun-style, two-family house in New Orleans, she wasn't even convinced it had the "potential" that designers so often use to describe the derelicts they plan to transform into gems. It was old and ragged, a muddy grey-brown. But the neighborhood—its history of perseverance, and the way its long, low-slung houses perch in conversation—was perfect, and she crossed her fingers that lurking under the plaster walls would be some hidden goodness.
She was right. Three years later, K.V. is still enjoying making the little changes to it that makes it feel like a living, breathing entity. It helps that she's been spending increasingly more time living and working in New Orleans, with her boyfriend and dog. "Its only when you really spend time in a space that it becomes evident where the gaps lie," she explains. The COVID-19 lockdown, she says, has really transformed her ideas around functionality of spaces. "Like yes, this could be a closet, but would it be more useful as a space for yoga?"
Designing your home is a marathon, not a sprint. At first I was very intentional about having the house reflect the history of the city. As I spent more time here, and now that the heavy lifting of telling the neighborhood's story is done, it's important to make it feel more intimate to my own personality. I've added more artwork, more plants, more chairs, a record player, even that TV I resisted for so long.
Read on to see the home—and hear how she saved money and celebrated the history of the area, and the building, at every turn:
"A little area to sit down, talk, settle yourself," is how K.V. describes the foyer of her home. The original floors had been torn out by a previous tenant, so she sourced sustainably-cultivated, new-growth pine to lay once they got all the linoleum out. She opted for a dark, water-based stain and sealant to offset the rest of the lighter woods in the home, all of which are reclaimed.
And under the plaster, she uncovered not just this one, but three original fireplaces. When she asked a local contractor about restoring them, she got an "impossible" answer, followed by an egregiously large quote. So K.V. sent them pictures to a group of preservationists she knew in Brooklyn.
Unanimously, they told her that it could be done—and that even to fly someone in from New York to do it would cost her less than what she'd been quoted. Her now-partner Erix was a New Orleans-based contractor recommended by a friend; she was impressed not only by his low price but also by his willingness to rebuild two of the damaged fireplaces using the original brick.
The mantels she scored at a local salvage yard, but, are in styles that would have been typical of the home's original era, cleanly designed.
The fireplaces are now purely ornamental—K.V. says the chimneys were probably taken out in the 80s, "which kind of makes sense in New Orleans, because there’s only one month where you need them." She points out that the fact the house was built with three, however, is a testament to how much cooler the climate once was in this now perpetually toasty town.
Unsurprisingly, the entryway is where K.V.'s guests enjoy hanging out in, and mingling, the most—the vintage piano certainly helps.
The fireplaces weren't the only feature under that tacked-on plaster wall; the whole length of the home's interior wall was a beautiful aged brick. But since it would never have been left exposed in the original construction—and under the Historic Tax Credit she'd applied for, the new structure had to truly mimic the old—K.V. had it covered up with a new wall.
The plaster she opted for ended up having a pleasing tint—a mottled grey that cooled down all the mixed wood tones in the room. So she she left it bare. It was around this point in the renovation that K.V.'s aunt sent her a box of old family photographs, out of the blue. These became the anchor for a gallery wall above the theater seats.
It’s interesting to see what my family was doing during the era these seats came from, a time that wasn’t in any way fair to Black people.
Beside one of the pictures of her family that her aunt sent, she hung a photo of young people marching from Selma to Montgomery in the Martin Luther King Jr.-led protest of 1965. "It was such a transformational time," she says, "They were going forward." There's also a print of the "I AM A MAN" poster from the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, and another warning free Black people in Boston of "slave catchers." "It's important to see a reflection of yourself on your walls—and have your guests see that," she says.
K.V. originally fell in love with this sink when she saw it in a home tour on Remodelista, so when Rejuvenation started selling the model, she sprung for it and designed the whole room around the piece. The captain's-style mirror, in a refreshing square shape, echoes the shape of the sink, and the brass, wall-mounted hardware matches a brass shower head.
They kept the plaster walls here to echo the front two rooms (and also because it saved money). But in the upstairs bathroom, she went tile wild, covering the shower half in black hexagonal tiles and half in white ones. Inspired by shower designs of South America and Mexico, which sometimes forego the door entirely, she did just that—the tile extends from the walls to the floor, with a drain to catch the water. There isn't any glass at all.
A marble sink is propped up on a plank of reclaimed wood. ("It's all over New Orleans," she tells me of the material she loved using most in this home; a lot of planks were salvaged during the Hurricane Katrina clean-up.)
To help save money on the design of the kitchen, Erix suggested using reclaimed wood for the butcher block counter, too. To do that, the outermost layer was shaved off and then the newly exposed surface was sanded, stained, oiled, and coated.
The process was "more time intensive than using a new piece of wood, but so much more interesting," K.V. tells me, and it didn't hurt that the whole thing ended up costing under $200. Try that with white marble.
The sink was also an antique piece K.V. found long ago and spruced up, scrubbing it clean and then re-coating it with white enamel paint. "When I find things I love, I’ll just go ahead and get them," she says of her sourcing strategy, "and then just cross my fingers we can use them." Having a place to store such treasures—and the promise of future projects to use them in—certainly helps.
The ceiling height drops dramatically in this back part of the house—it's the lower level of a two-story extension on the rear of the building called a "camelback," a feature commonly added to New Orleans shotgun houses in the 40s and 60s. A shallow, flush-mount lighting fixture echoes the shape of the pendant in the foyer.
For the kitchen floor, K.V. was inspired by a trip to the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana that focuses specifically on slavery. Its kitchen floors are paved in brick—which was then a safety feature, as cooking was conducted by the enslaved over open fires. Following her tour, K.V. sourced a batch of old brick through a local supplier, and paved her kitchen floor with it as a nod to this history.
In her excitement, she admits to having gotten a little carried away, extending the floor well into the space she'd meant to reserve for a previously-purchased dining room table. Faced with the new flooring plan, she decided to build a bar in the table's place (the table now resides on the brick, closer to the kitchen).
There are two bedrooms in this apartment, both upstairs in the camelback extension. Finishing touches included painting the exterior of the home that gloriously cheerful pink, which was actually her second choice color—but there was already a turquoise house across the block. In another nod to New Orleans tradition, the porch ceiling is painted light blue, a feature that, depending on who you ask, is said to ward off spirits and/or confuse mosquitos into not knowing which way is up. It's such a popular tradition that you can actually buy a paint named Porch Ceiling from Sherwin Williams.
As a Brooklynite by way of the Pacific Northwest (and now a New Orleanian), K.V. tells me she has come to appreciate the South for many reasons. Chief among them is the frank way that so many Southerners she's met will talk about the often ugly local histories. "I was looking at a house and the real estate agent said, 'and these were probably the slave quarters' and it was just a normal conversation," she recalls. "You’re a bit surprised, but then you understand—and you’re very grateful that those are conversations people are willing to have."
Her own home—and design work—are part of prompting—and fostering—that conversation: around Black cultural heritage. Does she ever see her work as a form of artistic activism, through shaping the built environment, and influencing the conversation around design and art?
The burden has unfortunately always fallen on Black people to be included in conversations. It saddens me when, say, a design or architecture publication I love has, over 10 years, not featured a Black person at their home. There are so many talented Black makers, artists, and designers—amazing spaces and people that we just don’t see. Mainstream discourse has these walls around it, and they don't let people inside the gate.
Reclaiming the movie theater seats was just one of the many ways that K.V. has made design choices that would remember, respect, and honor the Black history of the neighborhood, and New Orleans. "I wanted to show that despite segregation," she says, "people made a life for themselves." She also hopes that her growing body of work—she'd love to be the go-to for historical renovations in New Orleans—will bring many historic homes back to life. “Preserving the history of the city is a passion," she says, "but also to do it in a way that doesn't upset its cultural balance."
This piece originally ran in March of 2017. Our editors have updated it after a recent phone interview with K.V. Harper.