Lessons Learned From My First Apartment

Setting Up Home

In the beginning of 2007, my new husband and I moved into a 400-square-foot apartment in Manhattan's Gramercy Park neighborhood. It was on the third floor of a brownstone, had high ceilings, one bedroom, an exposed brick wall, and lots of charm. We ended up staying three years and learned many lessons about setting up shop in a small space. Here's what I'm glad I did, and here's what I wish I'd done differently.

What I don't regret:

Layering the walls with art. Because the space was quite small, taking advantage of the rather tall ceilings was key. Since we were renting, we decided to keep the walls white, so creating salon groupings warmed up the space and added color. What's more, we were really able to enjoy our art and continue to add to the collection. Whatever we liked, we found a spot for on the wall. Some may call it messy, and looking back, I might have refined a bit. But it made the space have character.

Storing all our media in one place. My husband is an audiophile, with an extensive CD and LP collection. I can't help but collect over-sized art and design books. Installing floor-to-ceiling shelves provided a space for all of it to go. We aren't the most neat people, so it could get a bit chaotic on those shelves, but at least it was all in one place!

Keeping it white in the bedroom. There was hardly space to walk around our double bed, that's how small the bedroom was. By keeping the linens, curtains and headboard all white, it felt like a larger, more peaceful room. Again, we used art to add layers, but tried to stick to drawings and paintings in neutral tones.

What I do regret:

Having too much stuff displayed. For a person that enjoys a good tablescape, it's sort of hard to only have three tables to exert your creative juices! But looking back, we just had way too much stuff everywhere. I can't imagine the kind of dust we were putting up with (we were young!?) let alone the mess that inevitably accumulated. I wish I had stored about 75% of the "wares" I used on my tables and kept the surfaces clean/empty.

Using slip-covered, shabby-chic upholstery. This regret mainly exists because my taste has evolved and I currently gravitate towards much more modern, tailored upholstery. I should also note that we couldn't really afford nice furniture at the time; the sofa and club chairs both were gifts. All that aside, I do wish we had gone with a more contemporary sofa and chairs, mainly because they don't take up much space visually and have a cleaner aesthetic. I think in small spaces, having overstuffed, cozy furniture actually doesn't serve the overall look. We had no washer and dryer in the building, so washing the slipcovers wasn't even convenient. Something like this would have been better.

Now it's time for you to share. Looking back on your first place, what lessons have you learned? What would you have done differently? Did you get anything right the first time around?

(Images: Cate West Zahl)

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