Drum Roll, Please! The 2020 Small/Cool Contest Grand Prize Winner Is…

updated Oct 14, 2022
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Credit: Apartment Therapy

This spring, we brought back our Small/Cool contest for the first time since 2016. As with our previous contest years, we wanted to see the smallest (1,000 feet or fewer), coolest homes around the world and have our audience vote on their favorites. And as it turned out, the idea of loving where you live, of having your own space (no matter how small it is), proved more relevant than we could have ever anticipated when we drew up the plans. 

We received hundreds of entries from people across the United States and the world. Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and the United Kingdom are just *some* of the countries from which people submitted their spaces in four brackets: Small (751-1,000 square feet), Smaller (501-750 square feet), Tiny (251-500 square feet), and Teeny Tiny (250 square feet or fewer). 

After we opened up public voting for a new bracket every Monday in May, you chose your favorites: Manuel Librandi’s 860-square-foot industrial and loft-style condo in Buenos Aires (the Small finalist); Michelle Spetner’s 590-square-foot modern-eclectic apartment in Oakland, California (the Smaller finalist); KC Cibran’s 280-square-foot boho, tropical, and Cuban-influenced studio in New York City (the Tiny finalist); and Monique Villiger’s 248-square-foot minimal and handcrafted tiny home in Croydon, Victoria, Australia (the Teeny Tiny finalist). All four bracket winners won $1,000.

But there was one last step: choosing the ultimate grand-prize winner out of those four finalists. And now we have one more update, and it’s a big one. Last week, our expert judging panel—consisting of Maxwell Ryan, Apartment Therapy’s Founder and CEO, Mallory Fletchall, the content creator and product stylist behind Reserve Home, Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr Paint Company—met (virtually, of course) to decide the grand prize winner, who would win an additional $3,000. Without further ado, we’re so excited to announce that…

Michelle Spetner is the grand prize winner of the 2020 Small/Cool contest!

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"Bringing our story of the space to life was a cocktail of creativity: vintage, with a dash of scrappy and a modern twist," Michelle wrote in her Small/Cool contest submission.

All three judges loved her home’s conscientiously chosen details and nature-evoking color scheme. 

“The paint color choices made this space a winner in my book!” says Mallory Fletchall, the content creator and product stylist behind Reserve Home. “The warm neutral palette is not only soothing, but it also allows the historic details to shine.” 

Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr Paint Company (which sponsored the contest) was especially drawn to the apartment’s natural light and openness, as well as the thoughtfulness behind its design, from the continuity of its earthy green color scheme to that gem of a bathroom. “This home was selected as the winner because it is a small space that truly lives large,” she says. “It was easy to see how each material, fixture, furniture element, and decor piece was selected and placed with care. Every piece is unique but related.” 

Picking the champion wasn’t easy, assures Maxwell Ryan, Apartment Therapy’s founder and CEO. “This was, from my perspective, the toughest year I’ve ever seen in our Small/Cool contest history,” he says. “It was a tribute to how strong the small cool movement has become over the past 10 years, and the number of truly small and beautiful homes was off the charts.”

Maxwell says that, in earlier iterations of this contest, any of this year’s four bracket winners would have won the grand prize. But what it came down to this year is that Michelle’s apartment “was so strong all around,” he explains. “It has a beautiful layout with great flow from front to back. It has a heartwarming cubby of a bedroom. It has plants and lovely light on three sides. It has a kitchen/dining area that you can imagine spending many hours over dinner in. But the coup de grace was the stunning use of soft, green color throughout that pulls it all together in one unified statement. It’s not the biggest or the smallest, but it’s just right.”

Michelle and her mom found the kitchen cabinets used at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and added IKEA pulls and paint.

Michelle is a landscape designer in California who shares her winning apartment with her partner, Antonio. 

The couple rents from Michelle’s mom, Katherine Spetner, an architect and artist who owns their building. When Michelle’s mom first purchased the building in 2014, what’s now Michelle and Antonio’s apartment had been stripped down to the studs, with no interior doors or bathroom. And that’s how Michelle ended up with a pretty sweet deal on a gut reno: “[My mom] called me the quote-unquote ‘client’ since I made decisions and pushed the design, but she financially backed it,” Michelle explains. “There really was no way that I could have had the creative freedom otherwise.”

"Our cozy bed nook with panoramic windows reminds us of when we met in college, living in the UC Santa Cruz Student Trailer Park," Michelle wrote in her contest submission. "The bed platform has drawers for clothes, with additional storage hatches for camping gear. The southern exposure allows for a dark, calming, mossy green paint palette."

Over the course of several months, Michelle worked with her mom to rethink the home’s layout and envision a new and open vibe that also evoked the original 1926 commuter apartment. “A huge part of our remodel was that we wanted it to feel like it was the same home that would have been here, but be completely modernized and comfortable and have a lot of utility,” Michelle explains. 

One of the main ways they achieved this (and kept costs down), she says, is by mostly opting for reused materials, often from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. For example, that built-in bar in the living room was in the home, but minus any doors, so they repurposed kitchen cabinet doors from a ReStore to give it a vintage look. And that stunning French door passageway they devised for between the living room and what’s now the bedroom? Those three 10-lite doors call back to the 1920s and come from a building recycling store, “but we installed them in a way that would have never been installed in a 1920s apartment—there wouldn’t have been a big, open connection between the bedroom and the living room.” 

The now-kitchen had been closed off and used as a bedroom (and the kitchen had been in the now-bedroom), so Michelle and her mom decided to have those living-area-separating columns built, matching them to the columns in a different apartment in the building.

The balcony, one of Michelle’s two outdoor spaces.

Today, every area of the home is used to its full potential in a way that works best for Michelle and Antonio: A former Murphy bed area now houses the refrigerator. A closet became a pantry. A narrow couch fits on the balcony, expanding the living area. 

“I actually thought that we had 650 square feet until I measured for the contest and was like, ‘Oh my god, we have 590? That’s even smaller than I thought,’” Michelle says. “But it just feels like a full-size home in a way, even though it’s so small.”

The paint colors—which AT’s Instagram followers especially love—are also simultaneously classic and unexpected. Michelle’s mom mixed the shades, ending up with neutral-esque gray-greens that complement both the apartment’s decor and the lush greens outside its windows. 

"The bathroom is hands-down one of our favorite spaces in the apartment—especially when flooded with brilliant afternoon light," Michelle wrote in her submission. "We love the high contrast and clean feel of the bright whites alongside natural wood accents and lush plants."

Michelle says she’s thrilled and honored to have won the contest. “We designed the spaces of the apartment for us,” she says, “so I had never actually considered there would be public interest in our apartment! It was actually my best friend Beth that happened to see the Small/Cool contest and said we should enter!” 

One of Michelle’s biggest pieces of advice for people who want to emulate her Small/Cool style is that “not everything has to match and be from the same style or era, even, to make it look good and right.” As an example, she points to her coffee table, made of a letterpress typeface drawer with a glass cover atop hairpin legs, which she uses to store her tchotchke collection. “It’s very eclectic,” she says. “It just fits, because it’s me.”

Congratulations, Michelle, and thank you to everyone who entered and voted!

Check out the homes of the other three 2020 Small/Cool contest bracket winners here:

Credit: Manuel Librandi
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Manuel Librandi, Small bracket winner: "General view of our place. Living room + dining room + kitchen. Behind the sliding doors we have our laundry and pantry area."