The elevator door to Brenda Cullerton’s home opens to reveal a kaleidoscopically colourful apartment, with more than a splash of theatricality in its arrangement. ‘A home doesn’t just tell a story, it tells a truth. It should be somewhere you feel safe enough to take risks,’ says Brenda, who is a writer and stand-up comic, and clearly a woman of her word. ‘I detest beige,’ she continues, explaining her attraction to vibrant hues, strong pattern, the beautiful and the unexpected. ‘Some people look and ask, “How did you dare?” and I always laugh because picking a colour isn’t like falling in love. If it doesn’t work out, changing it isn’t a major drama.’

Brenda and her husband bought their second-floor loft apartment some 34 years ago. It’s two blocks from Union Square, with its busy market, in a lively part of downtown Manhattan that she has always loved. She thinks the block started out as a piano factory and her apartment was once the showroom. When the couple moved in, their loft had already been converted to basic accommodation by two artists. ‘We didn’t do a huge renovation or build lots of walls. We left it ‘old school’, so the bare bones of the building remain, because we loved the high barrel-vaulted ceiling and the open feel of the space.’

But with two small children, there had to be some semblance of privacy. The front became the adult area, and they divided the back in a way Brenda describes as ‘sort of theatrical’. It’s a small separate living space with three cell-like bedrooms, entered through glazed, curtained doors, so the light filters in. These days the large open area at the front has white walls and a white painted floor, ‘which is heaven, but it does require an awful lot of mopping and scrubbing’.

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Within this frame are an eclectic assortment of unusual and opulently colourful furnishings that Brenda has bought from local dealers and flea markets, at antiques fairs and while on her travels. ‘The colours reflect the wild side of me. I suppose they make people think I’m utterly fearless, although, to be absolutely honest, there was no great plan, they are just the colours I love, and the space, above all, is animated by the people living in it,’ she says.

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She started with the Caucasian carpet in the centre of the living room. ‘Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay called The Philosophy of Furniture in which he says the carpet is the soul of the apartment, and I think that’s so true.’ The rug came from an Armenian dealer she had befriended in downtown 5th Avenue. ‘In those days the area was full of carpet dealers who had settled in the US in the 1920s. His shop was a magical place and I often used to talk about history with him.’ The rug’s colourful patterns, all knotted from naturally dyed wool, still fill her with joy. ‘It was one of the mistakes I didn’t make. An impulse purchase. I saw it, loved it and had to have it.’

Dominating the room are three tall windows that punctuate one wall and flood the room with light. ‘The way they pivot across and open up reminds me of an ocean liner. When they’re open there’s a perspective of New York that most city apartments don’t have,’ says Brenda. She has decked them in vividly striped silk blinds. The fabric was an extravagance, but one she’s never regretted. ‘I’m obsessed with stripes and polka dots, and I read an article about silk from Lyon. There is something that is so alive and rich and flamboyant about these stripes; they set the tone for everything.’

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Brenda’s love of travel and fascination for the world around her echoes in many of the objects on display. ‘I think it’s important to live in as wide a world as you can make it, and a lot of the apartment reflects that.’ In front of the central window hangs a multicoloured glass lantern from Aleppo, which the couple visited in the 90s, and she remembers as one of the most extraordinary places she’s ever seen. She bought an intricate glass mosaic panel at the same time. ‘It’s part of a ceiling in an interior courtyard. This is just a small piece; imagine how glorious that would have been.’

In unexpected contrast to the light openness of the living area, her bedroom at the back is painted a colour she dubs ‘Prince Purple’ and a shade of heather. This is an intimate, cocoon-like space, with darker stripes painted on the window recesses, inspired by those she saw in Russian Orthodox churches. ‘I love the feeling of being enclosed,’ she says. The bathroom is similarly quirky. ‘There’s no jacuzzi. It’s not a bathroom with a lot of real-estate value, but I love the look of lacquer, so I painted the floor glossy black and the ceiling fire-engine red.’

One of Brenda’s most treasured possessions is the model carousel that stands in a corner of the living room. ‘I bought it in the days when they used to have antiques fairs on the docks whenever ships came in. It was the end of the day, and a dealer from Montana didn’t want to take it home with him. For years, when the children still lived here, it used to have fairy lights around the top, which twinkled as it turned. I have no idea what its original purpose was but, to me, it’s a whimsical reminder that life is like a carousel.’

Photographs Marco Bertolini/Living Inside