Mary Helen and Graeme's Compact, Composed Mix on the Upper East Side

Mary Helen and Graeme's Compact, Composed Mix on the Upper East Side

Eleanor Büsing
Sep 19, 2012

Name: Mary Helen, Graeme and Lou (their cat)
Location: Upper East Side, New York City, New York
Size: 300 square feet (yes, really)
Years lived in: 5.5 years (Mary Helen), 2 years (Graeme); rented

She is a style-conscious handbag designer for Juicy Couture, with a penchant for feminine design, Paris, large cups of coffee, and cats. He is a Junior Architect at WASA/Studio A, a lover of design both modern and rustic, an occasional furniture-maker and (as luck would have it) also a cat person. Home for this pair is a bijoux studio apartment on New York's Upper East Side, a mere 300 sqft in size.

(In the interest of keeping it real, I'll admit right off the bat that both Mary Helen and Graeme are very old, very dear friends of mine, and I know firsthand the kind of comfortable, welcoming home that this woman can create.)

For these two designers, combining their styles in a small space has been an exercise in compromise, perseverance, and fastidious neatness. Both Canadian transplants to NYC, Mary Helen and Graeme have shared their home for two years (Mary Helen lived here solo previously). Last year, rescue cat Lou made three.

Though their studio is a rental, Mary Helen and Graeme have no qualms about investing money and elbow grease to create their ideal space, and installing shelves, painting, and buying storage cabinets is just the tip of the iceberg. Add re-tiling the kitchen floor (MH), custom designing a coffee table and building Lou a cat perch in the window (both G) to the list of home improvement tasks these two have tackled in the name of easier living.

Paramount to making this pocket-sized pad work is clever storage. A generous (and meticulously organized) closet closet helps with this, as do the shelves Graeme has installed over the hallway and bathroom doors. As a guest, I notice that the phrase "a place for everything, and everything in its place" rings true in this home, from the all-white linens carefully folded on the hallway bookshelf, to the basket of cat toys by the bedside table. As Mary Helen puts it, "Being a little type-A helps in a space like this."

Earlier this year, Mary Helen and Graeme had the chance to move to a one-bedroom in the same building, an opportunity they eventually turned down. "Sure, it had a separate bedroom, but the closet was smaller, and the windows faced another building so it was a lot darker," Mary Helen explains. "For the time being, we're happy here."

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: MH: It's definitely a mix. I lean toward a more traditional, feminine and slightly glamorous style, while Graeme brings a more modern-rustic, masculine vibe. Together we've tried to give our home a contemporary feeling with rustic touches.

Inspiration: MH: The Fancy, Apartment Therapy, AnOther Mag, The Coveteur, Cupcakes and Cashmere, and many other assorted fashion and style blogs.

G: Dezeen, Architzer, Archdaily, Apartment Therapy.

Favorite Element: MH: The high ceilings and big windows. Both keep an otherwise teeny space from feeling stifling.

G: Lou.

Biggest Challenge: MH: The biggest challenge is definitely the size of the apartment. There's really only one layout of furniture that works the best to (more or less) delineate separate areas, keep the flow, let light in, etc. So despite wanting to change things up now and again, we have to stick with the furniture arrangement as-is.

What Friends Say: "I can't believe you guys can live in such a small space… and that you haven't killed each other yet!"

Biggest Embarrassment: MH: When I first moved in, the kitchen floors were a really hideous mustard linoleum. You can guess how beautifully these went with the red and black kitchen. A few Home Depot tiles later and I could live with it.

Actually, the kitchen in general is a bit of an embarrassment. I generally cannot stand the color combination of red and black, so having to live with that has been an adjustment. I've grown to like it in its own quirky way, though.

Proudest DIY: G: The seat for the chair at the desk. Mary Helen inherited that piece from her grandmother and when she got it the frame was great but the seat was an old piece of plywood covered in some decaying upholstery foam and fabric. I made a new seat from scraps of pine, walnut and oak in a compressed butcher-block construction and surprised her with it.

Biggest Indulgence: MH: Probably the biggest indulgence was hiring a moving truck to move my vintage furniture from Canada. It would have been easier to start over with new Ikea-type stuff, but I love it all so much I couldn't bear to live without it.

Best Advice: MH: Don't be afraid to live in a small space. I think we all have more than we need and with a small space you learn to live a little more simply and really edit your "stuff." It's nice to surround yourself with things you really love and not just keep a lot of random junk.

Also don't underestimate the power of fresh flowers and plants! They make any space feel special and luxurious.

Dream Sources: MH: ABC Carpet & Home, West Elm, Brimfield Antique Fair, Crate & Barrel, vintage shops

G: Design Within Reach, Restoration Hardware, CB2, West Elm, vintage shops

Resources of Note:


    •Walls: Benjamin Moore "White Dove"
    •Trim: Benjamin Moore "White"
    •Feature wall: Benjamin Moore "Old Pickup Blue"


    •Sofa: Ikea
    •Coffee Table: Designed by Graeme (steel legs custom made, top refinished from reclaimed wood)
    •Bed, Bedside table, Roll-top desk, Chest of drawers, Bookcase (in hallway): Inherited from Mary Helen's grandmother
    •Desk Chair: Frame is vintage, inherited. Seat is "butcher-block" constructed by Graeme
    •Shelves (in main room and hallway): Built/stained by Graeme, brackets from the Container Store


    In Living Area:
    •Rug: Ikea
    •Lampshade: Gracious Home
    •Frames: Ikea
    •Photos: Ours, plus The Paris Print Shop
    •"Bamboo" Vase on shelf: CB2
    •White "Tear Drop" vase: Kathleen Murphy, Vancouver Artist, found on the Vancouver Cultural Crawl
    •Ceramic turtle on shelf: Jonathan Adler
    •Flower arrangements: Custom design by Brooklyn florist Nichole Green

    In Office Area:
    •Fox mug/pencil-holder: Designer Ange-line Tetrault, bought in Hong Kong (but made in Canada!)
    •Blue vase on shelf: Ikea
    •Blue dish on shelf: handmade in Greece, gift
    •Small painting on shelf: gift, from Spain
    •Cardboard storage: Ikea
    •White pots on window shelf: Ikea
    •Bench: Ikea "hack" (shortened, sanded and stained by Graeme)

    In Bed Area:
    •Pillowcases: Custom embroidered by Mary Helen's mother
    •Bedside lamp/shade: Urban Outfitters/ Gracious Home
    •Bedside vases: Fishs Eddy, CB2
    •Bedside dish: Charlie Harper x Todd Oldham at Fishs Eddy
    •Art between windows: Michael J Austin prints
    •Mirror above bed: Ikea
    •Curtains: Bed, Bath & Beyond, curtain rods are Ikea

    In Hallway:
    •Rug: Authentic Persian rug, gifted from family
    •Bar components: CB2 ice bucket, Container Store Lucite tray, Crate & Barrel accessories, Fishs Eddy straws

    In Kitchen:
    • Vegetable Print above stove: Paris street vendor

    In Bathroom:
    •Cabinet: Bed, Bath & Beyond
    •Tissue Cover: Crate & Barrel
    •Lucite Tray: Container Store
    •Waffle Shower curtain: Bed, Bath & Beyond
    • Bud flower arrangement: Custom design by Brooklyn florist Nichole Green

Thanks, Mary Helen and Graeme!

(Images: Eleanor Busing)

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