And the Grand-Prize Winner of the Small/Cool Contest 2022 Is…
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Over the past few months, Apartment Therapy has been hosting our annual Small/Cool Contest — the search for the smallest, coolest home in the world. This year we found it in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s right, the grand prize winner of the 2022 Small/Cool Contest is Emily Sermons for her 610-square-foot sophisticated, secondhand space.
For 2022, hundreds of people entered their homes into the contest. Our team of editors (painfully!) narrowed that group down to the top 50. Then our audience voted tens of thousands of times to bring that crop down to the top 20, and, finally, the top 3. At that point, we introduced each finalist (Elisabeth, Emily, and Cat) in a short video, and Apartment Therapy readers ultimately voted again to pick our winner, which we’re announcing today, along with eight contest superlative winners.
“It’s always been a goal to design a home that I loved,” Sermons tells Apartment Therapy, “and the fact that other people loved it and were inspired by it too is icing on the cake.”
Pre-pandemic, Emily and her partner, Jay, lived in New York City full-time. They spent the first months of quarantine near family in Charleston, where Jay is from, and decided they wanted to make a more permanent commitment to the city. Their dream-place checklist included finding something small with a good outdoor space that was near downtown. They found this unit on the third floor of a converted hotel building from the 1920s. “It just had beautiful, homey elements that were really classic… It checked all of our boxes,” she says. “This is the one, if we are going to do it, we should do it now.”
So they bought the condo, with the plan to split their time in half between NYC and Charleston. Sermons spent the next two years transforming it into a home that reflected her personal style and love for secondhand finds, all rooted in a strong sense of place.
Sermons, a product manager at a startup, says she focused their first year or so in the home on trying to understand what the space needed when it came to design, while also getting to know Charleston — learning how the city’s culture and style intersects with her own culture and style. “Charleston is a city of very old meets new,” she says. “You see a lot of that in my home.”
The ultimate vision? A “very traditional, layered sophistication” mixed with funky accent pieces and bright colors. “It’s beautiful and elegant, but has this sense of playfulness,” she says. “It doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
It was also important to Sermons that the space incorporate “a ton” of secondhand items. “I love the warmth and depth they bring to a space,” she says. “They’re super well-made and come with a story.” She frequented thrift and antique stores, like local standbys Warehouse 61 and Terrace Oaks, as well as Facebook Marketplace.
One favorite find was a pie chest, typically used in the 1800s to cool and store food before ice boxes became a staple, that she now repurposes as a home bar in her entryway. “It’s such a beautiful piece and it’s cool to see how a single piece can have so many different functions throughout history,” she says. “Now it gets to have a completely new life as a bar in my 21st-century home.”
Another secondhand gem is the decorative mantel she sourced through Mantel House DC, which sits under her TV. “It serves no purpose other than I love it and I think it’s beautiful,” she says. “I think even when you have small homes, there should be pieces that you love and that bring you joy.”
One standout feature in the home is the perfectly rectangular gallery wall that sits atop her 62-inch boucle Article sofa (one of a handful of items she purchased new for the space). Sermons says she spent months sourcing art and vintage frames, and then laying everything out on the floor trying to get it right. She also wanted to include a 3D element into the design — the inspiration came locally for that, as well. She added a vintage brass door knocker in the shape of a hand, after noticing the antique door knockers affixed to so many Charleston doors. “It really came together into something really beautiful,” she says.
Of course, having just over 600 square feet to work with meant looking for smart small-space solutions, too. One of her favorites? Most of the living room seating swivels, which means it can serve multiple purposes — she can work from home at the kitchen counter, for instance, or use the rust chair to watch TV. But they can also turn inward to create an atmosphere that works well for entertaining and conversation.
When it comes to storage, Sermons says she stashes everything from out-of-season clothes to hair products into baskets that are tucked under furniture or displayed on the bedroom built-in. But ultimately, her best advice is to try storing less stuff, in the first place: “My biggest storage tip is to just constantly be auditing the things in your space, really evaluating, ‘Do I need this? Am I using this?’” Their household rule is that everything has to either be super-functional or something that they truly love.
Two years into making her home, Sermons says the space has “really settled into its character over the past few months,” even though she guesses she’ll never totally be finished decorating. “I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like it’s quite done,” she says. But what the home has become is a small, cool reflection of the people who live inside. “For me, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a very old soul and I’ve always been really interested in history,” Sermons says. “I think that really is reflected in my home.”