The Small/Cool Contest’s Cleverness Winner DIYed a Murphy Bed (and More)

published Jul 27, 2023
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"Paint makes a huge impact in my design," Mestenhauser wrote in her entry. "The apartment-sized couch from Joybird is a crucial base for the color-blocking effect in this corner. I love to layer textures and patterns in fabric and decor. Each bold color is repeated around the apartment to give a vibrant and cohesive overall impression."

Anyone who lives in a small space knows that it takes a large amount of creativity to make such a small footprint work for sleeping, cooking, hosting, and everything else. And if you intend to host a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game night and even potentially a Thanksgiving meal? You’re going to need to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

And that’s essentially what Helena Mestenhauser, the Cleverness Category Winner of the 2023 Small/Cool Contest, did in her 550-square-foot New York apartment!

For our 2023 Small/Cool Contest, we brought together a judging panel including Apartment Therapy Media’s founder and CEO, Maxwell Ryan; Emmy-nominated TV host and design expert Bobby Berk, of “Queer Eye” fame, whose debut book, “Right at Home: How Good Design Is Good for the Mind,” releases Sept. 12, 2023; and therapist-turned-interior-designer Anita Yokota, author of the best-selling book, “HOME THERAPY,” who uses her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy (LMFT) as inspiration for her work in Southern California. We asked them to pick four winners in the categories of Vibe, Cleverness, and Creativity, and Functionality. Each of the category winners will take home $250.

"I chose to build a custom fold-away Murphy bed for this space," Mestenhauser wrote. "The cabinets hide a set of folding chairs that I place around a custom folding table in that spot when I host. The bookshelves are backed with a vintage, hand-painted wallpaper, which was salvaged from the trash of a theater company."

In the Cleverness category, our judges looked for the space with ridiculously cool and unique small-space solutions.

During the judges’ deliberation, Yokota was impressed by the DIY Murphy bed, which she said she’s installing in “practically every other project” right now. “The DIY Murphy bed is a definite game-changer as far as living in a small space.” Berk agreed, and specifically called out the banquette Mestenhauser crafted herself, calling it “a really great use of space in a small space because you can pack way more people in seating than you could if you just put four chairs around it.”

Mestenhauser’s square footage is definitely on the smaller side, and Ryan called out the paint choice (which Mestenhauser says was inspired by both Pinterest and a friend’s wedding photos) as clever “in the way that it breaks up the space, it creates energy in the space, it makes it a very personal space and a unique, authentic space,” he said. “It has lots of little clever touches that add up. [Mestenhauser] really worked it to make it fabulous.”

"I built the banquette seating for the corner of my kitchen using fabric saved from a film set," Mestenhauser explained in her entry. "I've always wanted to garden, so I brought the garden indoors with the herbs in the window and the plant shelves above the dining nook. The bright green paint color makes me smile every time I see it!"

Mestenhauser, who’s lived in her apartment for a year, knows a thing or two about magic: She’s a props fabricator and designer for theater and film, so she’s used to creating something fit for the big screen with a little elbow grease and imagination.

It’s a large part of why Mestenhauser was able to DIY the Murphy bed in a month (“the worst and hardest part,” she says), bookshelves, a folding table which she mounts on a wall for storage, and a kitchen banquette seating. The Murphy bed’s foldaway nature is part of what makes Mestenhauser’s space so clever and versatile.

"The curved kitchen cabinets and countertops were in this kitchen when I moved in," Mestenhauser wrote. "I wanted to honor the bold retro design of the cabinets while giving the kitchen more updated colors and patterns to fit my maximalist style. An extra special touch is the blue rug that was woven for me by my mother."

“I can put away the bed for any number of reasons: VR gaming to connect with faraway family, indoor picnics when it rains on the 4th of July, and of course my weekly DND game night,” she says. “We pull my folding table off the wall and set it up — the cabinets next to the bed hold eight folding chairs. And at the end of the night the bed can come back down in seconds and I’m ready to sleep.”

For all of her apartment’s cleverness, she’s not done crafting. “I am working on an idea for a small bench with a drawer to sit next to my kitchen banquette,” Mestenhauser says. And her projects live comfortably alongside custom rugs by her mom, and wallpaper and embroideries done by a friend.

"There's a little nook in the back corner of the apartment that was perfect for a small office and crafting area," Mestenhauser wrote in her entry. "The desk is a vintage sewing table I got at a moving sale from a local dealer. A dear friend designed the wallpaper, and I brought in some more color blocking with the floating shelves."

Mestenhauser, who says she screamed when she saw that she won the Cleverness category, has advice for anyone taking on cool home projects like she has: “Anything you made can be fixed.” She also swears by her flathead screwdriver, and passes along advice she learned from a friend. “If you’re thinking about buying a tool, buy the cheap version and if you use it enough that it breaks, you’ll know you’d use it enough to be worth buying the good version.”

This year, our readers also voted for one grand prize winner — who will win $1,000 — out of 71 entries that made it to a public voting round. Want to see who it is? Check out the grand prize winner’s home here.

"I mounted the large folding table for my weekly D&D game to the wall in the hallway; while it is hanging there, it serves as a large art piece with a vintage poster hanging on the underside," Mestenhauser wrote. "The Murphy bed folds away, and eight people can comfortably sit around the table for a meal or a game."

Congrats to Helena and all of our winners!