Cochineal Creates Resonant Simple Interiors, Simply

December 17, 2019
Photography by Emma Tannenbaum

Cochineal Design, in Kew’s building at 1133 Broadway, is bringing modern simplicity to commercial and residential spaces. Sarah Mendel founded the firm in 2015 and has since amassed a portfolio of high-profile projects in New York, New Jersey, and California.

We sat down recently with Sarah to discuss the quick rise of her interior design firm, the driving principle of her work, and how Cochineal fits into the Kew community. After spending time with Sarah, we recommend you drop by and engage with her—she’s bright, enthusiastic, and fun, with an informing design vision that comes straight from her personality.

Cochineal’s guiding principle is simplicity, and its streamlined and modern interior designs bring a richness of elements, materials, and colors into a focused whole. When we asked about her style, Sarah says simplicity isn’t so much style as an extension of who she is. It is obvious when you meet her that she has a rich life, but her focus and organization are evident in her behavior, dress, and manner. It is easy to understand how Cochineal’s simplicity isn’t evident just in the final design results, but in the efficient and effective execution of every aspect of the company’s workflow, project process, presentation, and problem solving.

Photography by Emma Tannenbaum

A Quick and Unusual Route to Interior Design Success

Sarah, founder and principal designer of Cochineal, interned in real estate development while working toward her undergraduate degree at Colgate.  It made her realize that she was drawn to the design and architectural aspects of the real estate development process.  Upon graduation from Colgate, this interest led her to a position at ICRAVE, an uber-creative firm that reimagines built and digital environments for brands. Because she wasn’t a designer, most of her work with president Lionel Ohayon was on the problem solving side, but she learned an important lesson: creative success is not just doing great design but doing it in the face of demanding practical considerations.

Knowing that there was still a lot for her to learn, she decided to attend Parsons at night for two and a half years while continuing to work in real estate development.  She was on her way, but realized she needed have more hands-on knowledge before striking out on her own.  Upon graduating from Parsons in 2014, she freelanced for a decorator, to learn tricks of the trade and become familiar with the vocabulary of an interior designer—resource centers such as the D&D Building, millwork, fabrics, textures, lighting, and furnishings.

Prepared, she launched Cochineal in 2015, recruiting her former real estate development contacts as her first clients.  Cochineal quickly built a following through referrals and a host of repeat clients. Sarah noted she was fortunate to have had a background in real estate development, as it not only led to fruitful partnerships with former colleagues when building her business but also gave her valuable insights into how the “other side” of the design industry thinks.  This knowledge made it easier to succeed with her first projects and gave her successes to build on from the outset. And what better place to grow than in development. As Sarah said, that is what developers do—they develop one project after another, so there is an opportunity for a good deal of repeat work.

Now, with her business established and growing, Sarah has taken an office in Suite 1125 at 1133 Broadway with her director Risa Pally, whom she first met at Parsons, and they have decorated it beautifully, of course.

Cochineal’s Design Aesthetic and Process

As for Cochineal’s design process, Sarah said it “starts with context … We design with respect to what has gone before.” As the design vocabulary evolves to encompass more time periods, regions in the world, and material applications, the firm selects from the wealth of options with a central goal of avoiding clutter.

Typically, Cochineal’s room compositions feature a light, medium and dark element, with varying textures of “softer” pieces such as fabric or art, “middle” ones such as leather and wood, or “harder” surfaces like metal fixtures. As such, the firm’s spaces are “minimalist-leaning,” because each element is carefully selected to complement the main focus of a given room. Sarah points out that the focus is often a work of art, but may be something quite different, such as exquisite millwork. These principles are evident in the resulting designs.

A Developer’s Office—A real estate developer, who is the source of many of Cochineal’s referrals, paid the firm the splendid compliment of asking it to design his personal office. His criteria were minimal: the design should reflect his development company’s breadth of portfolio and the innovative, high quality of its brand. This could be elusive, as the firm’s brand is not so much a limited set of colors, shapes, and other branding elements, but more a philosophy of an approach to development—creative, responsible, and secure.

Sarah crafted a space that says all of this in a calming and invigorating way that is both timeless and alive. The final office features high-quality materials, artwork, and furniture. Soft tones of blue (his favorite color) reflect a custom ceiling mural based on abstraction of the developer’s signature in shades of blue. Middle warm tones are introduced in wood cabinets  and terracotta-colored leather on the walls.  Harder dark elements that balance the softness are introduced in the black Jean Prouve chairs and the oil rubbed bronze of the desk.

Photography by Emma Tannenbaum

The Half—On the residential side of its portfolio, Cochineal received much acclaim for its Seaport District Townhouse, a staggering achievement given the 12’-0” width of the site. To meet the challenge, Sarah sought to create a soft interior that did not feel cramped, balancing richness and meticulous detail with simplicity and order. Her solutions were brilliant.

  • A simple material palette was used to achieve the feeling of fine design without the “busyness” of traditional luxury materials. Ash wood runs throughout, complemented by light-grey concrete for countertops and backsplashes (referencing the Seaport’s cobblestone streets), and all anchored by oil-rubbed bronze fixtures and hardware.
  • Sarah gained inspiration from art galleries, selecting large works to enliven and organize the space and avoid visual clutter.
  • With such limited space, no elements were allowed to protrude from the wall. Base molding, door trims, backsplashes, outlet receptacles, etc. are all flush. A one-quarter inch reveal made with a reglet runs throughout the house, defining trim details, window casings, room thresholds, etc. Rather than adding carpeting, rotations in wood flooring suggest new thresholds and 98” pocket doors serve as dividers articulating smaller spaces when desired, but allowing the floor to be opened up and flow through like a large gallery space.

Photography by Emma Tannenbaum

The Future

The team typically focuses on one residential project at a time, in conjunction with four to five commercial projects, allowing the company to provide optimal customer service and attention to detail. “I welcome the balance and the different challenges they represent,” Sarah shared, and she is planning to keep it that way. Because Sarah mentioned that Cochineal had completed a retail store for Swoonery jewelry in the fall of 2017, we asked about future retail projects. Sarah told us if it was a good fit, she’d love to do more. Recently she was asked to design a ground floor showroom for one of her vendors. That’s certainly a real testament to the confidence people have in the firm—so projects like this will be welcomed. What she is really looking forward to is restaurant design projects.

Cochineal Finds the Location Has Real Benefits and Enhances its Brand

When Sarah was looking for an office, she focused on NoMad because of the numerous showrooms within easy walking distance and plentiful options for sourcing in the area. What she says she didn’t realize is that there were opportunities right in 1133 at firms such as Mitchell Denburg, kinderMODERN, ArtStar, and others.

“Being in the building with so many accomplished architects and interior designers also gives us a cache of being associated with them as peers. It’s as if our firm reached a new level merely by association with such a well-respected community of designers. Vendors come knocking on our door after they visit other well-known firms to show us their products, and we are immediately in a different realm. Everyone knows ‘1123’ and ’1133;’ we don’t even need a full address. The numbers say fine interior design and architectural center.”

“We didn’t expect it—the biggest true benefit of being in this building—yes, it is a beautiful building, love the lobby, and you guys are great managers—is the spontaneity and frequency with which people just stop at the door and introduce themselves.”

Photography by Emma Tannenbaum

Cochineal Design, LLC
1133 Broadway, Suite 1125
New York, NY. 10010
212 404 6941