Architect Haiko Cornelissen proves the grass can be greener in Jackson Heights

Born in the Netherlands, Haiko Cornelissen has worked for such top architects as Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl. Romance brought him to Jackson Heights, Queens, where he created a home for his family and a showcase for his cutting-edge talents.

The Aesthete : How does a nice boy from Amsterdam end up living in Jackson Heights, Queens?

Haiko Cornelissen: The short answer is love. I met my future wife Becky in Boston when we were both studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We later lived together in Paris, then Becky moved to Long Island to do her PhD at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution specializing in molecular biology and genetics, while I finished my Masters in Architecture and started working for Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. Later, I started working for the architect Steven Holl in New York, and Becky and I began searching for a home that was convenient both to my job in Manhattan and hers on Long Island. Jackson Heights was a 45-minute commute to both. We loved the vibrancy and green beauty of the neighborhood.

TA: What drew you to this apartment?

HC: We lived in a rental apartment in Jackson Heights for three years. We were ready to start a family and I wanted to find a fixer-upper so that I could design our dream apartment. Becky found the perfect place: a two-bedroom corner apartment in a 1920 building. A year after we moved in, we learned that we were expecting our first baby. Those nine months became our renovation schedule. The renovation process was not easy. In the end, we missed the deadline. In fact, the baby came so quickly that he was born in a bedroom in the middle of the construction site.

TA: Why do you call your apartment Wall-All? 

HC: The idea was to free up space for the things we like to do most by pushing the less important functions inside the walls. For example, in the living room with the open kitchen, we compressed most of the kitchen functions into one wall. Another wall contains books and audio equipment. The television is hidden behind the upside-down door. And the back wall of the apartment has an office behind a sliding door.

Haiko Cornelissen's home
Haiko Cornelissen's home
Haiko Cornelissen's home
Haiko Cornelissen's home
Haiko Cornelissen's home

TA: What was your budget on this renovation? 

HC:That is a tricky question since we got a good discount on the architect’s fee. If you included the architect’s fee, this renovation would have cost about $190,000.

TA: How did the Guggenheim Museum find your apartment for it’s recent neighborhood tour of Jackson Heights? 

HC: David van der Leer, an architecture curator at the Guggenheim, is a longtime friend. Late last year he came over for dinner and saw the renovated apartment. Then So-Il, the architecture firm that curated the Guggenheim show in Jackson Heights, selected our place for the exhibition/tour.

TA: You’ve worked for two of the world’s leading architects: Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl. What did you learn from each?

HC: Rem taught me how to experiment; Steven showed me how to get things done. �With Rem, everything is up for discussion and can be questioned. He operates as an editor of the design process. Steven has a very clear vision from concept to construction. Both encouraged me to be bold and brave about executing my ideas. They make it look easy, but it takes a lot of courage to be as visionary as they both are.

TA: What other projects are you working on these days? 

HC: A villa in Panama, a library in Helsinki, and I’ll soon be starting the design for an apartment building in Manhattan.

TA: Is that real grass on your dining table?

HC: Yes. When Becky and I lived in Paris, our apartment was so small that when friends came for dinner we had to head outdoors to some nearby grass fields where we would picnic with our guests. We really enjoyed that experience, which was the inspiration for my picNYC table. It’s an aluminum table with a four-inch-deep tabletop filled with sod, soil and stones for drainage. I’m now selling the table through Voos Furniture in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. People have been filling it with white stones to imitate a Zen garden (which is a lot less maintenance then grass), or even using it to grow herbs or even wheatgrass. But we grow regular grass and enjoy picnicking three times a day.