Before and After: A Dated Queens Co-op’s Stunning Reno Includes Budget Hacks, Custom Built-Ins, and a Divine Dining Nook

Before and After: A Dated Queens Co-op’s Stunning Reno Includes Budget Hacks, Custom Built-Ins, and a Divine Dining Nook

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Name: Meng Ai, Andrew Pelkey, and Max (Boomba), our cat
Location: Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City
Size: Just under 1000sqft
Type of Home: Our apartment is part of a large co-op. The co-op consists of four buildings, with nine floors in each building, and 10 units on each floor.
Years Lived In: 2.5 years
Rent or own: The co-op board would hasten to point out that we do not own this apartment, but rather shares in the corporation that owns the building. We are happy members of this co-op!

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A couple of years ago, while living in Greenpoint, we saw a listing for an incredible, classic pre-war, two-bedroom sublet in Jackson Heights (our favorite neighborhood in Queens). However, after slamming together a 20-page application overnight, we found out another couple got theirs in just minutes before ours and took the apartment. The silver lining was discovering that real estate in Jackson Heights was much more reasonable compared to Brooklyn and we could actually afford to BUY a place. The city even had mortgage assistance programs with some of the larger co-ops that offered below-market 30-year fixed mortgage rates.

Credit: Meng Ai

Unfortunately, every co-op we saw in a pre-war building was still over our budget. We eventually found an unassuming two-bedroom in a post-war building that was just the right price and size for us. The apartment had sat empty for several years after the previous owner passed away. It was covered in dust and had lime green carpet throughout, except for the paths she must have walked everyday, where the carpet fibers had completely worn away. We’ve since learned from the neighbors that our predecessor, Rosalind, bought the apartment with her husband as a young couple before the building was even completed in the mid-1950s. We imagine that all the sharp lines, the boxy aesthetic, the giant square pillar in the middle of the living room, must have looked exciting and new for them. Suddenly the simple post-war architecture started to feel like a blank canvas for us to give the apartment a second beginning, as its second occupants. We aimed to transform the space into a timeless, functional, and comfortable home.

Credit: Meng Ai

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: We are interested in many styles: minimalist, maximalist, modern, classic. There’s a precept in gardening, “right plant, right place,” meaning that you can’t just plop a plant anywhere in your garden because you like the way it looks. We try to follow that same idea with decor,  matching the appropriate style with the functionality and story of the space.

Inspiration: We had Scandinavian mid-century modern in mind when designing this apartment but made sure to infuse it with a little more warmth and life.

Credit: Meng Ai

Favorite Element: There used to be a large square post in the middle of the living room that made it difficult for us to decide how to break up the space. So we connected it with the nearest wall, creating a dining corner on one side, an office nook on the other and a perfect recess for a built-in bookshelf the depth of the post.

Another favorite element of ours is also all of our guests’ favorite: the round dining table tucked into the corner against the curved sectional couch. A friend turned us onto online auctions several years ago and we bought the mid-century modern sectional at an auction before we even knew where we would use it. By a stroke of luck, it ended up fitting perfectly as a banquette. It simultaneously opened the space up and became the anchor point of the whole apartment.

Credit: Meng Ai

Biggest Challenge: This was our first ever gut renovation and we were very wary of our limited budget ballooning out of control. We kept costs down by buying almost all of the furnishings and art second-hand from various online auctions and estate sales. We logged hundreds of miles in our Honda Fit picking up our bargain finds around the tri-state area. 

The tiny kitchen was another major challenge. It was made to feel even more claustrophobic because it was an enclosed room with a door. We decided to knock the wall down to open it up to the living room and made a breakfast counter. To save some money, we used IKEA cabinets dressed up with Semihandmade fronts. We had Benjamin Moore match the cabinet door colors and hand painted $1 wooden knobs. The end result is an extremely functional kitchen where everything is at your fingertips, and you can even fit more than one person in there.

Credit: Meng Ai

There was also the issue of relatively low ceilings and boxy soffits throughout the apartment. We killed two birds with one stone by painting the walls only up to the level of the soffits, leaving a strip at the top that connected with the ceiling. It almost looks like crown molding, and softens the look of the soffits.

Proudest DIY: The bathtub and toilet were so grimy that we thought they were permanently stained. We were ready to replace them until our super suggested trying Bar Keeper’s Friend. With some elbow grease, they came out sparkling new and ended up being the only original fixtures that we kept. The tin of Bar Keeper’s Friend cost $3 and we only used half of it.

Credit: Meng Ai

Biggest Indulgence: Our biggest splurge was replacing the tattered lime-green carpet with herringbone oak floors. Totally worth it. 

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? We didn’t want a TV in the main living space, so we opted to take the smaller of the two rooms as our bedroom and make the larger one a den. When we have overnight guests, we put a comfy Japanese folding mattress right on the rug. When the pandemic hit, we had to add a desk in there to create another workspace, so now it’s a den/guest bedroom/second office.

Credit: Meng Ai

What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? Our best bargain find was a nine-piece set of antique E. Dehillerin copper pots for $300 at auction.

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: We discovered that simple, custom built-ins are much more affordable than we expected, so we squeezed in as many as we can. They completely transformed the apartment, and have given us much needed storage. In an empty spot in the kitchen near the fridge, we added open shelving for larger appliances. Where we connected a pillar to a wall in the office nook, there was space for a built-in bookshelf. And between the kitchen and dining corner, we added a combined unit with open shelving and two closed cabinets. Servingware goes on the open shelves and bathroom supplies are hidden in the cabinets.

Credit: Meng Ai

We also came up with a vertical storage solution in place of a messy tool “drawer.” In our lounge closet, we put up a peg board that you’d find in a suburban garage. It’s so helpful to have everything within reach, and it takes up so little space when it’s all spread out on the wall.

Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Be patient! Don’t try to furnish every room all at once. Start with some of the essentials, then live with it for a while to see what else you can add. You’d be surprised at how much your mind will change from your initial impulse. Also, take a picture if you’re stuck. You’ll get a different perspective of the room.


Credit: Meng Ai


  • We created the color palette with the Semihandmade cabinet fronts (“Desert Grey”) as a starting point. The walls, trim, and built-ins in the main space were all custom matched Benjamin Moore paint.
  • We recently painted the den in Farrow & Ball’s “Green Smoke.”
Credit: Meng Ai


  • Paul McCobb desk — Aptdeco
  • Vintage Walnut Floating Wall Shelf — Chairish
Credit: Meng Ai


Credit: Meng Ai


  • Mid-Century Modern Curved Sectional —
  • Framed vintage lithographs —
  • Vintage Alvar Aalto Stacking Stools —
  • Used Crate & Barrel Dining Table —
Credit: Meng Ai


  • Helen’s stool — deVol
  • Vintage French Confit Jars —
Credit: Meng Ai


Credit: Meng Ai


  • Leo Marelli for Estiluz floor lamp —
  • Mid-century modern silkscreen print —
  • 19th Century Botanical Engravings  — (Framing by General Art Company)
  • 1960s Danish Teak Sofa by Domino Møbler —
  • 1960s Borge Morgensen Teak Cabinet —
  • Turn Tall Side Table — Bludot
Credit: Meng Ai


Credit: Meng Ai


Thanks Meng and Andrew!

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