This 250-Square-Foot NYC Studio Is Exactly What Apartment Therapy Is All About
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Name: Melissa Chang
Location: Manhattan — New York City, New York
Size: 250 square feet
Type of Home: Studio
Years Lived In: 1 year, renting
After living abroad in Tokyo for a few years, Melissa Chang, a nonprofit fundraising consultant, moved back to New York City four years ago, and has been living in this teeny studio apartment for about a year. “I got lucky and found my studio on StreetEasy right at the start of 2021 — still at the time when everyone was leaving the city because of Covid and rents were down for a very brief spell,” she writes. “I love that my studio has a wall of windows, so even though this place is under 250 square feet, it feels bright and airy.”
“My studio is on a street of old, pre-war walk-up buildings, and on sunny mornings I just love sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee and looking out on the buildings across from me, seeing all their beautiful details and stonework. I saw many apartments all over the city, and some were larger than this studio, but this apartment ticked all the boxes for me: centrally located, plentiful natural light, and an updated bathroom and kitchen, including a dishwasher — amenities that I knew I’d need, especially when we were all working from home full-time because of Covid,” Melissa explains. “It’s a small space, but I knew it had potential if I planned how to lay out my furniture carefully.”
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: I would say my style is cozy, vintage, nostalgic, Asian and American.
Inspiration: Living in Tokyo for three years after college, I had to redefine my tastes because I couldn’t bring that much in my two suitcases when I moved abroad. I got more into minimalism, like having a capsule wardrobe, and I discovered Muji and Marie Kondo, etc.
Before that experience of restarting everything, I think I erred on very safe colors and design choices — like a lot of white and gray, generic IKEA stuff. (Not that IKEA doesn’t design some very handy things!) But when everything is new and basic, it removes all the personality. Moving to Tokyo on a new college grad budget, I relied on “recycle” shops to furnish my place and began to see how patching together complementary but not identical things could be a more thoughtful way to build my home and style. Plus, I think the Asian aesthetic includes more handmade items, natural things like bamboo, which you can see a lot of in my home now. The micro apartments in Tokyo forced me to be more thoughtful about how I consume because space was so limited. Believe it or not, my old apartment in Tokyo was even smaller than this! Now I feel like I can handle living anywhere, and my current studio here in New York feels pretty luxurious compared to my old apartment.
While living in Japan, I also participated in activities like tea ceremony and learned a bit about wabi sabi. It’s a big concept, so I might not be fully capturing it, but I think it influenced me to embrace the way objects can age gracefully, to appreciate natural over manmade things, and to see how each object can live a full life through the hands of many owners. My pieces come from all over, from my family, from my travels, from secondhand shops, and stoop finds around the city. Nothing is super expensive, but together I think they still complement each other.
I think a good example of this is how I built my collection of dishes. I loved the variety of handmade and hand-painted dishes in Japan, and gradually I collected random plates and cups as I traveled — from Japan, to London, to Colorado, and around little shops here in New York. I used to love the look of a full set of matching, pristine dishes, but you break one, and it feels incomplete and sad. Now I think it’s so much more special to have a personal collection of pieces that aren’t all matchy matchy, but still go together like they’re in the same family. I like that every meal is a chance to use something special from my memories. And if something breaks, which sometimes happens, it isn’t catastrophic. I can continue letting my collection live and evolve.
When I travel, I love checking out local artisan shops and antique stores or junk shops to see what I can find. I usually keep a wish list on my phone and really consider before making a purchase; I look at the specs and measure how it would fit into my space. It’s a slow shopping process, but then I know I really will love what I buy. I recently went shopping with my sister at a local antique shop in my neighborhood and she helped me select a tiny, silver cake server — the perfect size for the little cakes I like to bake.
Favorite Element: I always loved that room in the American Museum of Natural History where you see all the shells and butterflies laid out beautifully, and so instead of keeping a jar of shells all piled on top of each other, I made my own little “Natural History Corner” with the seashells I collected since childhood — from family vacations, things my dad would pick up on his dives, a giant conch shell from my grandmother, and some “homes” of old pet hermit crabs. (In my defense, most of these came from before learning more about “take only photos, leave only footprints”!)
I organized my seashells on a vintage Nevco folding stool, which was made in Yugoslavia I think made back in the 1960s. I just love the weird bean-shape. I believe it was meant for children because it sits very low, and the dips are where a little kid’s legs would rest — how cute is that? Something about its roundness just felt cheerful to me, and also more organic than something sleek and new. I stumbled upon it on eBay when I was perusing random vintage things. You never know what treasures you’ll find on the internet!
The other piece I cherish is my bust, a sculpture made from my own body by an artist friend named Carina Hardy, her studio is called Elppin. When I was turning 30, early on in Covid, and going through quite a lot — I had gotten laid off, went through a breakup, and then found out I needed breast surgery to remove a tumor, all in what should have been the prime of my life, but the city was shut down and pretty bleak. It was a stressful and scary time.
A friend suggested I get a bust made to capture myself at 30, before my surgery, and to help come to terms with it all. The experience of having this bust cast made was so empowering. It was a chance to embrace vulnerability and acknowledge all of myself — beauty and flaws. I’m thankful everything worked out, my health is all fine now, I got back on my feet, and I have this incredible work of art that is me. That was a challenging time, but it deepened my well of resilience, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Biggest Challenge: The layout of my studio was particularly challenging because of the old-fashioned heat pole — which was not only an eyesore, but before I added insulation around it, it was so hot that I’d often accidentally burn myself. I’m glad the heat works in this old building, but it happens to occupy space in such a way that I couldn’t fit my furniture in easily. I had to really measure and carefully plan around it. If I didn’t have this heat pole right in the main living area, I might have set up my table and chairs differently, or possibly even fit a bookcase/credenza against the wall. To solve for it, I covered it with insulation so at least I can sit at my desk and not burn myself, and it blends in *slightly* better with the wall now.
Proudest DIY: It’s not really a DIY, but I’m proud of how much I managed to fit into my studio by carefully planning my layout with bird’s-eye view sketch of my apartment drawn to scale with tiny paper cutouts of my furniture, so I could play around with how to set up my space for maximum use.
My parents just retired and offered to give me furniture as they downsize their home, so during my planning, I regularly consulted my dad to ask for measurements of furniture, and I sketched out pieces and tested different layouts. I think sometimes in a small space, people make the mistake of buying smaller than necessary furniture, when really, I think if you measure well, you can still have full-sized, comfy furniture. From this exercise, I knew I could take on a pullout sofa-bed and the old mid-century credenza from my parents’ office.
I also mapped it out in such a way that I created zones: a main living/work/dining area defined by a large rug and my sofa; a sleeping nook made by putting my bed in the corner with the credenza flanking the foot of the bed; and then a little dressing area next to the bathroom and closet.
Biggest Indulgence: My biggest indulgence — my dish collection. Some of my dishes were a bit more expensive because they’re handmade pieces, but I think these make for such good souvenirs because I get to use them and appreciate them every day. It’s a functional work of art.
My other big indulgence would be my plants. I am still working on having a green thumb, and this is probably the third time I’ve tried raising an indoor palm tree. But some of my plants I’ve had for ages, like my “Muller” plant was from the last day of senior year in high school. My AP Bio teacher, Ms. Muller, was retiring and giving away all the plants from her office, so I took home this aloe-like thing. I still don’t know what it’s officially called, but I named it Muller after my teacher. I brought Muller with me to my college dorm freshman year, and when I lived abroad, my parents cared for it, and now it’s back in my little studio. Muller has had many babies and I have given away a lot of clippings over the past decade or so.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? I think for a studio, I have chosen my furniture and laid it out in a versatile way. I used to binge watch tiny house tours, and saw how important multi-use furniture was, so I made sure I could convert my furniture easily to have a home office, dining room, and living room all in one.
I hunted online for ages, trying to find a convertible table because I knew I needed a comfortable, regular height desk to work from home, but I also wanted to be able to host little dinner parties. I landed on this butterfly table. When it’s closed, it is a good-sized home office desk or cafe-sized table for two, and then I can expand the table and seat four or even five people comfortably. Two people can then sit on the sofa and two people can sit across in chairs, and a fifth person can sit on my convertible ottoman.
For a small space, I’m pretty pleased with how I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it.
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why?
- Dog bed as floor cushion: Early on in the pandemic, I found myself getting bored of sitting in the same place all the time, and I bought a dog bed as a floor cushion. It reminded me of sitting seiza in Japan — no chairs, just cushions around a little table to save space. I didn’t know about Pendleton before shopping for dog beds, I just picked one that looked cute, and now a few of my friends have followed suit and gotten dog beds as well! This dog bed fit in my old fire escape, it felt like a little nest in a balcony. I haven’t yet done that here in this studio yet, but I may return to using it there when it warms up more.
- Champ the Lamp: I wanted a portable cordless lamp to add mood lighting wherever I wanted. Originally, I intended to bring it on picnics so I could hang out after the sun sets. I found the cutest little mushroom-shaped papier-mâché lamp on Etsy by a Japanese artist called Kutsurogu. I named him “Champ the Lamp” — champ like champiñón (mushroom in Spanish).
- Collage art by Dorothea Lee at Farthermore: I also have a very special collage created by my sister. She is a designer and her studio is Farthermore. When I was preparing to move into this studio, she asked me about my color palette—green, orange, some blues and gray, and she spent over a year carefully collecting pieces from hundreds of magazines and cutting them out to create a really special work of art just for me. It’s the first real art I have ever gotten professionally framed (which made me feel so grown up!) I love it not only because it came from my sister, but I think she captured my style well. Per her recommendation, I had it framed in double glass layers, and I love the shadow effect of the cut-outs against the wall.
- Wasabi grater as soap dish: In my bathroom, I use a wasabi grating dish as a soap dish. It’s shaped like a little puffer fish, and I just got it at Sunrise Mart here in the city. I’m not grating any wasabi at home, but the little teeth keep my bar soap elevated, plus it’s a handy dish for cleaning makeup brushes because of the texture. And who else is using a wasabi grater as a soap dish? It’s just more fun!
- Cowhide: For a long time, the corner near my bathroom felt like a weird dead zone — darker and closed off because of the credenza and bookcase cornering it off, but once I added a lighter colored cowhide, it became a space of its own. Plus I think the organic shape of a cowhide is a bit more fun than a square or rectangle rug.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: I put off getting a coffee table for ages because I knew I had limited space, and for a while it was doable to just put my cups on the windowsill, but after a few messy spills I finally bit the bullet and decided on a convertible ottoman that could function as a mini coffee table or as an extra seat.
When it’s just me hanging on the couch, I can put my feet up on the cushioned side, or flip the lid to set my drink on the tray table side. When I hosted a little Christmas Eve lunch for my family, I set it up so everyone could sit together. Plus it has storage inside — right now holding all my bags and purses!
The key I think was getting an ottoman that kind of matches my sofa; they’re not an exact match, but the tan fabric color is close enough that it kind of blends in. I think to keep a small space feeling light, it helps to choose a lighter-colored couch and ottoman because otherwise your eye is drawn to this dark heavy thing on the floor.
- I also debated getting a TV, but realized that my second screen from my home office could easily function as a TV, and in my small space, I can just pivot it towards the couch and stream from there.
- I placed a large mirror opposite my window to double the effect of the natural light and make the space feel as large as possible.
- I chose a very lean bedframe with no headboard, just something slim that could fully disappear into the corner and leave space for storing luggage beneath. Actually I have more storage space than I even need; I fit some camping gear down there that I hope to use later this year!
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice?
- Take your time and buy what makes you feel happy and reminds you of things you love. Things don’t have to be expensive or all matching to be beautiful together. Think of your existing objects that you love most and build around those colors. Don’t be afraid of color, just stick to a consistent palette.
- Add more plants! A touch of life feels good. If you don’t have a natural light source or window somewhere, use dried flowers or hang a bunch of cut eucalyptus.
- Create zones — have the main area where you enter feel spacious. The sleeping area can be a cozy nook.
- Make use of height and vertical space. I put some pretty-to-look at but lesser used kitchen items on top of my cabinets, and it draws the eye up so the ceilings feel taller.
- Measure, sketch, and play around with layouts. Don’t make the mistake of buying tinier furniture than you need to.
- Desk to Dining Butterfly Table — Similar Here
- Bamboo Spice Holder — MTC Kitchen
- Marble Mortar & Pestle and Bamboo Cooking Brush — Hung Chong Imports on Bowery St in Chinatown, NYC
- Kutsurogu Mushroom Lamp — Etsy
- Collage art — Farthermore
- Bust Sculpture — Elppin
- Wasabi Grater Dish as a Soap Dish — similar here
- Dried bouquet — River Garden Flower Farm at Union Square Green Market
This submission’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.
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