This 500-Square-Foot Studio Apartment Is Sunny and Stunning
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Name: Olivia Burnett
Location: Old Town Alexandria, Virginia
Size: 500 square feet
Type of Home: Studio apartment
Years Lived In: 4 years, renting
“When I was in the process of signing the lease for this apartment, nervous about renting on my own for the first time, I came across a song called ‘House History’ by Layup. It talks about a house that is old and falling apart but is nonetheless a home and how when you live somewhere, not only does that home become a part of you and your story, you become a part of that building’s story, as well,” begins Olivia Burnett, who has been renting this 500-square-foot studio apartment in Virginia for four years.
Olivia continues: “The building I live in is more than 120 years old. It has a ton of original character — huge, south-facing windows that flood the space with natural light, high ceilings, arches and curved corners, original fireplace mantel, and tilework, and best of all — a porch accessed by a walk-through window. I fell in love with this apartment for its natural light, tall ceilings, warm wood floors that help the whole place glow during golden hour, and an open floor plan that lends itself well to creating separate living areas despite this being a studio.”
“But with all of that charm also comes the realities of living in an old rental building. The window panes move when I clean them. Plaster is bubbling up from leaks that happened when I first moved in. The porch gets a little squishy when it rains a lot. The wood floors will give you splinters in some areas. And the bathroom is a hodgepodge of styles, complete with a blue toilet and marble floor tiles that are falling apart,” Olivia writes.
“For better or for worse though, this place is a home, my home. Cracks and dust and all. It’s brought a lot of joy (and frustration) to take care of it, fill it with pieces and memories I love, some created by people I love, and decorate it in a way that allows the apartment to shine for what it is — an old, original, beautiful space.”
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: My style used to be completely mid-century modern. When I first moved into the apartment, I had a very mid-century couch — think gray upholstery with wood-paneled sides level of mid-century. About two years ago though, I fell for the trending Article Abisko sofa, and, though I had every intention of keeping my first couch (the first big furniture purchase I ever made) for many more years, I decided to go for it.
Changing the sofa from a dark tone with hard lines to one with white fabric, a low back, and softer lines opened up the space significantly. I instantly felt more inspired by this space, and already two years in at that point, that change made me feel like I could live here indefinitely. While I still love the mid-century look (hence my West Elm armchair), shifting my style some really brought so much more life and light into this space.
Now, I would like to say my style is cozy minimalist with a boho flair — simple, functional pieces with mostly natural tones, collected over time, balanced with pops of color, unique elements, vintage, handmade, etc. At the end of the day, regardless of aesthetic or favorite current trend, my goal is that this space will feel welcoming and peaceful for anyone who walks through the door.
I intentionally keep the apartment very neutral to allow the character of the space itself to stand out, especially through the seasons — I layer on more color and textures during the colder months, and I keep things light and airy when it’s warm.
Favorite Element: The south-facing windows that bring in tons of natural light, the open layout, and especially the arched walk-through window that leads to the porch. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I love being able to look out through these windows, through the changing seasons, while cooking for loved ones or even while washing an endless number of dishes from the last party I hosted.
Proudest DIY: I have to credit my brother-in-law for my proudest DIY. I was on the hunt for a new coffee table, and I knew I wanted to buy second-hand and that I wanted it to be unique. After scouring Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, I eventually came across this beautiful Honduran coffee table with incredible hand-carved detail that had been in the owner’s family for 40+ years — a boho/vintage lover’s dream!
The original shape of the coffee table was square, which didn’t work very well for the living area. So, with the help of my talented brother-in-law, we reshaped the coffee table into a rectangle then sanded and painted it a modern matte black. Sanding revealed a rich natural wood, but it would have been too difficult to remove the stain from the carvings, so while one day I might try to refinish this piece properly, for now, I absolutely love how it turned out. It’s the perfect combination of a vintage, cherished, handmade piece of furniture with a modern twist.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? Something I was most excited about when I first started living here — the first time living completely on my own — was being able to host friends whenever I wanted, and the open floor plan of this space lends itself well to that.
I have hosted several Friendsgivings. Some just involved a brunch buffet and extra folding chairs around the living area, but most have involved squeezing in a table to seat 6-10, full table settings, multi-course meals — the works. The most recent dinner was when I realized I use this studio as an event space. This dinner was an Italian-themed meal for 10 that increased my knowledge of Italian cooking tenfold, even with my mom’s family being Italian.
Last year, I fit nearly as many people seated between the bed and living areas (with the couch moved under the windows), but it was tight.
This year, I upped the stakes, bought an expandable IKEA table from Facebook Marketplace, vintage plates, and gold flatware from eBay, way too many lemons for the Italian coast-inspired decor, and proceeded to move all of the furniture in my apartment, along with cooking a 3+ course meal in my half-sized oven. This involved breaking down the bed, moving the mattress into the hallway, moving the couch over to the windows, and so on. If I had a dollar for every time I told myself I was silly for doing this much work for a dinner… But it turned out beautifully, and, most importantly, it brought so much joy to cook a meal for people I love, all seated around a table in a space I love.
I’ve also hosted a holiday party each year I’ve lived here (except for 2020), partially to see how many people could fit in this apartment. The highest count (pre-COVID) was around 24, with “plenty” of room to spare.
The only other thing I’ve always wanted to host here is a small concert, a house show. Food and music are my driving passions, both bringing people together and teaching us so much about each other and the world. To share this space in that way with my community would be such a dream come true — just need to find an artist who wants to do this and then I’ll move the mattress back into the hallway!
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: Organization, living with the space long enough to see what works, being intentional in what I bring into my home, and thinking outside of the box (even just a little) have all made this fairly small space very functional, without feeling like I’ve had to go full “minimalist.”
I have continued to perfect my organization skills over the time I’ve been here — whether purely downsizing or just becoming exceptionally good at packing. There are two closets in my studio with shelves that go up to the ceiling. One is mainly used as a pantry, and the other holds my clothes (and fits a dresser).
Because it’s just me in this apartment (and I don’t have a dishwasher), I keep just two plates, two bowls, and a reasonable number of utensils accessible for daily use — and I store them in one of the kitchen drawers because they don’t fit in the kitchen cabinet that’s easiest to reach. I have extras of everything in a closet, easy to grab when I have company. (I do, however, always have 20+ handmade ceramic and vintage mugs within arm’s reach of my espresso machine… priorities.)
I invested in magnetic spice jars that can be kept on the refrigerator door or the side of the microwave when I realized I wasn’t using as many spices in my cooking as I usually would because grabbing them from the pantry wasn’t convenient when mid-sauté. I don’t necessarily love the look of this, but it’s super practical for my space.
When I realized I could free up pantry space by storing wine in the fireplace, that was a bit of a gamer change from a storage perspective, but I think it’s also a more interesting way to decorate a non-working fireplace. Add some fairy lights in the winter, and the cozy factor increases.
Furniture that folds, expands, breaks down, or is multi-purpose is a must — I have folding chairs stored under my bed, along with a surprisingly sturdy folding desk I’ll sometimes place by the windows when I get tired of sitting at the kitchen table while working from home.
When I first moved in, I had a much smaller kitchen table, so I would keep the weekly basket of produce on the coffee table instead — functional decor.
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Live with the space and slowly add to it! And if you buy (or create) items you truly love (or ask friends to create items you’ll love!), they’ll stand the test of time from space to space.
One of the first apartments I lived in that had a brand-new lease (not multiple roommates coming and going over many years), I had the opportunity to decorate it exactly as I wanted from scratch. I hate to say it, but I basically bought out HomeGoods within a very short amount of time and ended up with a bunch of stuff I didn’t care about.
As I’ve lived in multiple spaces since, including my current home, my values around making mindful purchases have strengthened — whether it’s buying ethically or sustainably sourced, handmade, second-hand, or even simply an item I know I will for years. I now have a home that is highly curated to my taste, filled with things of value to me, but also incredibly functional — because I’ve taken the time to add to it slowly and reevaluate both décor and organization as needed.
- Rattan and Wood Folding Chair — Zara Home
- Magnetic Spice Jars — Gneiss Spice
- Daisy Wine Cup — Nikkie Stutts Ceramics
- Bali Fonte Pepper Mill (3”, Cast Iron, Orange/Peach) — Peugeot
- Paris Antique Salt Mill (7″, Beech/Aged Wood) — Peugeot
- Kitchen Table — Thrifted
- Citrus Watercolor — Painted by my friend, Marty Kahsar
- Bohemian Platform Bed (Brown) — Urban Outfitters
- Lumbar Pillow (Rust Velvet) — Etsy
- Signature Sateen Pillow Case Set (Almond) — Ettitude
- Percale Duvet Cover Set (White) — Parachute
- European Linen Sheet Set (Sand) — Quince
- Elephant Painting — Created by my sister, Maggie Templeton; This piece has been with me through many apartments at this point. I love the whimsy it brings, while the colors and textures still present a depth to the work. Nearly every time I FaceTime my 2-year-old niece, she asks to see “Ellie” the elephant. I love that she recognizes this painting and knows her mom, my sister, painted it.
- Allover Fruits Patterned Shower Curtain — Urban Outfitters (oldie but a goodie)
- Bathmat — World Market (discontinued)
This tour’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.
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