A Compact San Francisco Condo Shows How to Optimize Space Beautifully
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Name: Laura, Pan, and Radar (the dog)
Location: San Francisco, California
Type of Home: Condo in a 1909 Victorian building
Size: 1000 sq. ft
Years lived in: 1 year, owned
A friend once described perfection beautifully for me: that it might not always come out the best option across all possible stack-ranked permutations, but that when you do encounter it, even if you know there are objectively “better” things out there, you’re done looking. Or, sure, you can look, but you don’t covet. That’s when you know what you have is perfect.
When we discovered our place, you could say things fell together by happy coincidence — we happened to know the buyer’s agent personally from a previous chance encounter, we knew the zip code well from having done many projects around the area — but most of all, when we saw it, we were filled with an emotion that might be best summed up as “coming home.”
Our home occupies the top floor of a 1909 Victorian building. We love the south-facing light in the bay windows, the view of the San Francisco city skyline out of our bedroom window, and the fact that it’s the perfect size for a small family starting out; cozy but still spacious, and not too much work to clean. We love the neighborhood for its diverse, come-as-you-are community, the parks, and the European-inspired public square (one of very, very few in the city) where you can throw back a coffee and linger in the sun.
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: Anti-farmhouse (just joking). Contrast that’s clean but not cold. Contemporary history you can live in, but more gallery than museum.
Inspiration: “Une Fille Une Style” series from Vogue Paris — I love their attention to small, practical city apartments full of sunlight, loved objects, and little dinner parties.
Favorite Element: Our south-facing open kitchen with its bay window dining nook. There used to be a peninsula; we opted to demo this, converting the storage into more available volume, to open up the two rooms. I like getting focused work done at the island with a cup of tea at 4 p.m., using the countertops as a window perch like a cat, or hosting friends.
Biggest Challenge: The bathroom and living room are basically caves with skylights because the walls have no windows. You’d think light falling from the sky is the best, direct from the source, but because the skylights have no pitch and long sun tunnels, this can make for darker, more shadowy rooms. Great for Halloween, less great for our hearth.
How we overcame this: In the living room, we splashed the room in terracotta pink limewash paint from baseboards to ceiling, to neutralize the shadows cast on the ceiling (pink canceling out gray on the color wheel), and to create more texture and dimension (lime-wash paint has great movement) that could disguise the residual shadow. And in the bathroom, we did the opposite, with high-contrast graphic black and white to make everything pop (hard contrast is also pretty good at canceling out soft shadow).
Proudest DIY: We turned the dog crate into a little table top, or what I call an “accessory altar” — equal parts altar (things I come to for peace, or a sense of groundedness) and diorama (a show and tell that is alive and interactable as much as it is statically on display).
Dog crates are an important part of an apartment pup’s training and well-being. They’re practical and strong. Problem: They’re also pretty bulky, and ugly. To fix this, we purchased an IKEA solid wood countertop and got a TaskRabbit’s help to laser-cut and sand it down to size. Then, we leaned a vintage brass-gilded mirror on the top, secured to the crown molding with eyelet hooks and cable ties, safely out of sight, and staged loved objects amid the dog equipment and treats. This is just one of the things we did to dog-proof the house without compromising on spaciousness or aesthetics. And now we have an extra table/dog station/surface on which to forget we left our phones.
Biggest Indulgence: Our marble-top kitchen island from Anthropologie. It was worth it, a thousand times over. The veining is beautiful, the texture of natural stone is unbeatable, and it’ll be cold enough for epic baking adventures (like achieving lamination on croissants!). As far as islands go, I think it was a solid investment; the kitchen is a hub for activity and we wanted an island that would stand up to everything we put it through.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? Instead of furnishing the second bedroom into a guest bedroom or a study, we use the second bedroom as a yoga/fitness studio. This is a bold move in that it might seem like we’re not making the most of our not-a-lot-of-square-footage by keeping a whole room basically empty, but I feel the opposite; empty means multi-purpose. So when guests come, they have a place to stay, and when it’s just the three of us, it’s where I can escape my dog and my office.
Having space to move is important to me. I used to teach yoga actively (completed my 200-hour training in 2014) and regularly do a dance-based workout to flush and decompress after work. The studio is more than a multi-purpose room; it’s a palate cleanser. Now that we’re working from home, I don’t just need different rooms to do things in; I need sanctuaries to reset and context switch.
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? I love our Poster Club print set from Jaron Su, a Taiwanese painter. I paired two of his paintings — one more whimsical, and the other more thoughtful — in our entryway, as a reminder of Asia, where much of our family still lives.
I also love our curvy vintage chairs — we have an Alvar Aalto and a Herman Miller, both handed down through Facebook Marketplace with authenticity stamps. I know how quickly used furniture depreciates; these are classics we invested in that I think will hold their value better (or maybe even increase in value), and that double up as a little art collection while we get to own them.
My absolute favorite things, the things that really ground and lift our house, are not the ones I bought. They include the first ever letter a friend sent from her new house (she purchased right after us), a birthday drawing from our former neighbors’ 8-year old, a graduation photo set from a very dear college friend’s sister, two (well-meaning) attempts at ceramic teapots from another friend’s pottery class that remain unbroken through all my apartments, a Christmas card from Norway where one of my partner’s sisters lives, a family recipe I’ve framed against the kitchen backsplash. Moving into our first home away from friends and family was made easier with these sentimental, very treasured objects I can’t buy.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have:
- Follow the Coco Chanel rule of taking away one thing once you think you’re ready. Less visual clutter means your place will look 2x bigger — for free. That can even include removing labels and stickers that have distracting color or text.
- Levels of lighting offer the perfect balance of light and shadow, and can add visual square footage you wouldn’t have with a single ceiling bulb.
- If you’re a homeowner, it’s a cool idea to wall mount whatever you can. Having things off the floor makes a huge difference.
- Shelves are cool, but they stick out from the walls into the available volume of your space. Know what’s really cool? Stealing space from walls that aren’t load bearing, by drywall-ing out built-in shelf cutouts. It’s like cheating the floor plan for extra square feet.
- Don’t blindly aspire after showrooms. You have stuff. Showrooms don’t have stuff. A really lived-in home will never look like a showroom and that’s OK. So, open kitchen / bathroom shelving is great, but unless everything is coordinated and always impeccably neat, you might want to think again.
- That said, when you ARE ready to show the world your stuff, remember you can use ordinary, functional objects as decor. We balance all our cups and glasses on some Victorian plaster crown molding. My rose petal tea sits in a butter dish that I actually scoop from.
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Here’s a controversial principle that I live by: A great interior is never one-dimensional, so if you can fit your entire “interior design style” into a single textbook label like “mid-century modern” or “Art Deco” — sure, you may have a beautiful space, but it may not be interesting. Interesting is a dance, it’s tension, it’s playful, and fresh, and usually unique. It’s what makes a space really yours.
So my best decorating advice is: interesting, not pretty. Turns out, the end result is usually prettier, too.
- Special thanks to Ophelia Ding, my photographer, who did an amazing job catching the light. We both work in product roles at San Francisco companies, and she has a knack for photography and a passion for exploring the nooks and crannies of interior design. Check out her interior design newsletter at stayhere.substack.com.
PAINT & COLORS
- Bedrooms — Color Atelier lime paint, shade “Chevre”
- Living room — Color Atelier lime paint, shade “Native”
- Entryway — Sherwin-Williams “Greek Villa”/”High Reflective White”
- Dining room — Sherwin-Williams “Greek Villa”
- Kitchen — Sherwin-Williams “High Reflective White” (walls),
- Utility room — Sherwin-Williams “High Reflective White”
- Bathroom — Sherwin-Williams “High Reflective White”, “Kelly Moore Stiletto”
- Folded Shelves — Muuto
- Wall sconces — Etsy
- Charly Custom Sleeper Sofa — Interior Define
- Batten Wall Panels — Crate and Barrel
- Nelson Bench — Herman Miller
- Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair Wood Base LCW — Herman Miller
- Golden Ivory Rug, 6 foot — Ruggable
- Composed Vanity II — Dims
- Fayette Bar Cabinet — Crate and Barrel
- Ravarror Bench on Castors — IKEA
- Altwork Flex with Upper / Lower Mount — Altwork
- Artwork — Jaron Su
- Unfold Pendant Lamp — Knoll
- Sconces — Etsy
- Decorative tile samples — Heath Ceramics
- Oversized art — Lavazza advertisement. “Victoria Arduino”
- Studio mirrors — Wayfair
- Mirror home gym — Mirror / Lululemon
Thanks Laura and Pan!
This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.
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