A-Frame Alchemy | Chronogram Magazine

A-Frame Alchemy

Sitting on two acres of woodlands, Olga Naiman's three-bedroom home is spread out over three different levels. The home was originally intended to be a temporary rental while Smith and Naiman designed a permanent home nearby. The pandemic changed those plans; now Smith is handling the remodel himself and the project’s pace has slowed considerably.
Sitting on two acres of woodlands, Olga Naiman's three-bedroom home is spread out over three different levels. The home was originally intended to be a temporary rental while Smith and Naiman designed a permanent home nearby. The pandemic changed those plans; now Smith is handling the remodel himself and the project’s pace has slowed considerably.

In 2019 Olga Naiman had a premonition. "I knew something big was going to happen," she explains. "I didn't know what it was, but I didn't want to be in the city anymore." Naiman had lived in Brooklyn for 25 years, working as a stylist and editor for shelter magazines, and residing in a boho-chic apartment—a space that embodied the lifestyle and persona that she once loved but was outgrowing.

"Separate from my magazine work, I had a spiritual practice—but the two aspects of my life didn't co-mingle," explains Naiman. "I was on autopilot with my styling and didn't really feel like it was my soul work, but I also didn't know what my soul work was," she explains. Whether it was her own ennui, or an antenna highly tuned to the surrounding milieu—or both—that 2019 premonition proved a fateful catalyst. "I'd been wanting to leave the city and come up to the Hudson Valley forever. It helped me tear the Band-Aid off and just go."

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Winona Barton-Ballentine
Olga Naiman and her husband Mike Smith in their living room. The home’s living room, with a wall of windows and vaulted, two-story ceilings, “is like living in a church,” Naiman says. To create a luxurious space where the whole family feels comfortable and interacts, she recovered a sofa with olivine velvet and paired it with a mix of chairs to serve different purposes. “All chairs are not created equal,” she says of the mix of high backed chairs, stools, and day bed under the window.

With her husband, Mike Smith, and their twins, Naiman decided to relocate to Garrison, where the family began the gut renovation and total reimagining of a 1973 ranch home. Meanwhile, they rented a circa-1980s prefab A-frame enveloped in woods and grounded by two giant boulders sitting like serene, prehistoric sentries on the front lawn.

The coming year saw her premonition manifest globally when the pandemic put the world on lockdown. But "that something big" also manifested very personally when the change of surroundings led her to reassess her career and reconsider her family life. "When I moved up here and the pandemic happened, a lot of things fell into place," she explains. "People were ready for the deeper conversations—and those deeper conversations correlated with the changes I was going through."

click to enlarge A-Frame Alchemy
Winona Barton-Ballentine
Naiman designed the primary bedroom to enhance her relationship with her husband, despite their contrasting personalities. “I’m a pattern girl, but he’s simpler,” she says. Naiman wove both their natures into the room’s symmetrical blend of textures and patterns. “Patterns are symbolic,” Naiman says of the vintage Rosewood chest paired with the jagged bedspread pattern, the geometric chairs, and carpet. “Some patterns make you think of animal totems, florals, or the steadiness of stripes.” Naiman designed the matching triangle vases and Smith had them fabricated out of bronze and copper. An abstract work by Colleen Herman hangs above the chest.

The pandemic also slowed the ranch home's reinvention to a very, very (very) slow crawl. The temporary A-frame would become the family's now-going-on three-years address. However, Naiman has come to embrace their transitional home as a kind-of personal laboratory where she's manifested her aspirations and her design therapy practice, Spatial Alchemy.

Psychology of Good Design

Naiman's distinctive cross-take on psychology and design began in her childhood. She was raised outside Boston, the daughter of two psychiatrists in a home where asking the deeper questions was part of daily life. "I grew up very aware of my psyche and how my perception of reality influenced it," she explains. Naiman was fascinated by her parents' psychological world view and at the same time was drawn to the world of design.
click to enlarge A-Frame Alchemy
Winona Barton-Ballentine
Naiman set up a meditation altar in sight of her work desk to keep her spiritual practice central to her daily life. To strengthen her meditation practice, she filled the altar with objects that inspire her and regularly changes aspects. “It’s very important to note what effect your stuff has on you,” she says. “By being mindful of the things you surround yourself with, you can use your stuff to grow and evolve.” Hanging over the altar is the artist Mitch Paster’s dual works Untitled (Salvation) and Untitled (Genesis).

"Every day after school I pored over design magazines and books at the local library for hours and hours," she remembers. For Naiman's 15th birthday, her parents gave her a small budget to redesign her room. She was thrilled, and loved the process so much she began to slowly redesign the entire family home. "I noticed how after I did that my life shifted: My self-worth increased, so did my grades, and my social life," she says. "It was the beginning of Spatial Alchemy but I didn't know it then."

Naiman studied clinical psychology at Tufts University but then decided to take a U-turn. "Much to the dismay of my family, I got a job in the design world," she says, of her first gig assisting at House Beautiful magazine. Five years later, House Beautiful chose one of her room designs for the cover. This led to editorial work, and a fruitful career styling and designing interiors. It was a valuable experience that taught her versatility, but for the next 20 years her dual passions for psychology and design were separate. It took one pandemic, and a change of address, to bridge the gap.

Future Self Now

Naiman was attracted to the Hudson Valley's natural beauty and the open-minded, spiritual atmosphere, but what really caught her was the abundance of great design. "I love how stylish the Hudson Valley is," she says. "It keeps my aesthetic side very satisfied." That 2019 move to her Garrison A-frame triggered a redesign, first of her interiors, then her entire life.

"My identity was so wrapped up in my city life," she explains "But I needed to dissolve the parts that weren't serving me." She began by examining her Brooklyn furniture, with an eye towards dysfunction. "We had these mismatched lamps and rickety nightstands in our bedroom with no drawers," she says. "They looked great, but they weren't functional or reinforcing the stability and unity in our relationship. "She realized what had once energized her about city life had come to leave her frazzled and disconnected. So she threw out furniture and art that reinforced flighty feelings.

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Winona Barton-Ballentine
Naiman elevates dinner time by lighting candles and filling the space with flowers. “To change your life, look at the things you use on a daily basis and make sure those things are deliberately chosen,” she says.

The few pieces she kept, she intended to recover when the family moved to their permanent home. But then she reconsidered. "I thought 'Why am I waiting?' I wanted to pull my future self into my present moment," she says. "I'd made Pinterest boards and vision boards of my aspirations, but I don't live online or on a wall." Interior design, she realized, was an ideal way to bring her aspirations into the third dimension. By seeing her aspirational self in her environment every day, she'd more easily upgrade her life habits into what she wanted. "You have to create it now," she explains. "Live in the present moment and live beautifully. Don't live in the waiting room of life."

Family Cathedral

Designing the A-frame's three separate levels became a way for Naiman to evolve her own and her family's lives in three different spheres. To do this, she began to draw from her parents' example and her training as a clinical psychologist. "I wanted to translate an expanded self-worth and self-awareness that everyone looks for in therapy into the home," she explains. "It's one thing to have an a-ha moment in the therapist's office but we have to bring those moments into our daily lives for real change."
click to enlarge A-Frame Alchemy
Winona Barton-Ballentine
Naiman's office space.

Naiman started with the A-frame's living room, a two-story space washed in light from giant windows looking out onto the woods. "My style is warm and inviting," Naiman says. "But underneath that, every choice is very deliberate." To create a space where her family could really connect, Naiman arranged a variety of chairs in a circle, tying them together with two large matching rugs. The chairs were chosen for a variety of purposes—a straight-backed chair for guests, an enveloping "emotional regulation" chair in a corner, and a couch for togetherness.

Naiman also added a daybed along the window for sky gazing. All the furniture is arranged to amplify family engagement (the television is tucked away along a wall and overshadowed by a much larger artwork) and edged by what Naiman calls secular altars. The alters are decorated with a variety of power objects representing the qualities Naiman and her family want to merge with. "Everything in the room is designed to look up at the trees outside, while also remaining very grounded through the statuary, books, and grounding ceramics and terracotta on shelves."

Upstairs, Naiman and her husband codesigned the primary bedroom together. They began with a custom bed made of rich orange velvet to represent the body's second chakra. Then Naiman added linen sheets in a mix of playful prints. "I love pattern on pattern, but the bedroom is meant to be a passive space where the nervous system can down-regulate, so I kept the color palette soft and constrained."

The couple played with the symmetry of the room to reflect their opposites-attract personalities. She chose solid matching nightstands (with drawers) to ground their relationship, and the two codesigned matching vases to create energetic resonance. On either side of the room, Naiman placed power objects to inspire her and her husband when they wake up. "I have a soft fabric that lets light in and a piece of art I love," she says. "My husband has two strong, angular crystals because he's renovating our new house."

Naiman designed her first-floor office for her design therapy practice and to write her new design book, Spatial Alchemy. By adding sturdy legs to her former dining table, she created a solid workspace for herself. The backdrop behind her is designed with symmetrical, footed vases to reflect success and two asymmetrical wallpaper panels representing heaven and Earth.

"My practice is right between both those things," she explains. Nearby, Naiman has her altar for daily meditation and a view to the surrounding woods. "What you see every day is what you will become," she says. "For me it's peace, depth, and self-awareness. A vision board on a flat wall is powerful—but it's more powerful to bring that vision board into your environment and let your body marinate in the experience."