See How a Stager Used “Existing Stuff” to Transform a Dated Apartment

published Nov 17, 2023
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Red painted wall in apartment living room before renovation.

New York City apartments contain years and years of stories, and this Gramercy Park apartment is no exception. It was the home of a woman who’d lived there for decades, hanging on to her crème de la crème location — key to the private Gramercy Park included. When she passed away, her family was tasked with selling the unit (and they weren’t local). 

Jason Saft, founder of Staged To Sell Home, was brought in to turn this dated postwar co-op into a jewel box, honoring its original identity while getting it ready for the next generation of city dwellers. Saft imagined a youngish, single professional looking for a doorman building and an iconic location moving into the space.

Staging an estate listing can be heavier than when an owner is living and available to weigh in. But Saft comes in as a helper. “They were dealing with so much and it felt good to be able to take the weight of the space off their shoulders,” he explains.

This particular home hadn’t seen a renovation since 1956, with the exception of one bathroom. Its spaces had character, but it felt dark and stale. With under 800 square feet to work with, Saft knew lightening up the space would be first on the list.

The drop ceilings were an immediate offender in making the space feel dark and cold. “Oy. A drop ceiling is an immediate asset depreciator. I knew if it stayed it would take forever for the apartment to sell … if it sells,” says Saft. At his meeting with the family, he tried to move a panel to check out the condition — and the entire group of panels came crashing down. Saft was uninjured and the blunder helped lighten the mood in an emotionally draining situation. The rest of the ceiling was removed in a more intentional manner, revealing a ceiling in good condition that just needed smoothing and painting.  

Next, he looked down. The owner had a soft spot for cats and, after many years of feline residents, it was clear that the carpets immediately had to come up. “We pulled up a small piece of the carpet to check and thankfully there was parquet flooring underneath,” says Saft. While there was a combination of new and older flooring, it was all sanded down and color matched, creating a cohesive space. One of the tricks of Saft’s staging is keeping it cosmetic. “With 90% of my work we are only doing cosmetic things that do not require permits and board approval. This moves quickly,” remarks Saft.

While the built-in bookshelves looked dingy, it only took a simple refresh to make them a focal point in the room. He gave them a fresh double coat of Farrow & Ball’s Strong White in Full Gloss. Saft says of the choice, “The paint quality is exceptional and its gloss finish added a lot of shine and space for light to reflect. This is a low-floor rear-facing apartment so I used every trick I have to make it feel fresh and bright. Full gloss on trim and doors really helps.”

Often in staging, you’ll see minimal decor on the shelves, but Saft embraced styling in a way that pushed the boundaries a bit on what’s seen as agreeable enough for buyers. Not only did he use stuff, but he also used existing stuff. “I love layers, and I love spaces that truly look and feel authentic. I do a lot of estate work and over the years I learned many people just throw out the books left behind by the deceased. I always ask if I can keep them, reuse them, and give them a new life to keep them out of a landfill.”

His take on styling the bookcases reinterpreted the former owner’s items to show others a well-lived-in home, filled with culture, literature, art, and life experience. Saft says, “I like to think in some small abstract way that the work I do in these homes teaches others how they can embrace objects and collections of their life.”

But, of course, it’s still a staged home, not a home that’s lived in, and that means clutter must be at a minimum. “Imagine the perfect city skyline on your shelves,” says Saft. He leaves the upper and lower shelves empty to create breathing room around the shelves that are filled. It’s a trial-and-error process, but he aims for grouping of items of various heights that create a landscape, without looking overstuffed.

When he turned to the furniture, Saft looked for curvy furniture to contrast the boxy floor plan of the postwar unit. He explains that you don’t want to walk into a box that’s filled with boxes. The furniture needs to have movement, life, and pattern. He notes, “The overwhelming majority of the pieces were neutral and there was a lack of pattern, hence the decision to bring in the two very heavily patterned chairs.” 

From the styling of the shelves to the furniture, it’s all a balancing act. Saft wants to create a space that people can see themselves living in, but he doesn’t want it to be a safe space that no one remembers. “I want a pair of chairs or piece of art to spark a conversation, that in turn gets them to sit down on the couch and feel out the space from the perspective of living there. That leads to a stronger memory and association of the space, which very often leads to a quick sale. 

Listed with Lynne Lerner, a Real Estate Broker with Compass, this co-op went from dated to sold in just 34 days, which Saft explains is unusual for units where nothing beyond quick cosmetic fixes has been updated.