Before & After: How This Tiny, Dark Apartment Transformed into 2020’s Small/Cool Grand Prize Winner

published Jul 15, 2020
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"This is the view of our current bedroom," Michelle explains. "We took out the wall framing and door, the current bed platform is where the shag carpet is, and the non-bed part of our bedroom is where the old kitchen used to be—hence the linoleum."

Name: Michelle Spetner and her partner, Antonio
Location: Temescal — Oakland, California
Size: 590 square feet
Years lived in: 6 years, renting from Michelle’s mother, who owns the building

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Landscape designer Michelle Spetner knew instantly that this small, 590-square-foot 1920s “commuter” apartment was the design project she wanted to take on. Her partner Antonio, however, thought the space—highlights of which included dirty shag carpeting and missing walls—looked more like a nightmarish horror movie. In the end, their small but incredibly organized home is more like a fairy tale… a grand prize winning one! Their rental apartment was crowned this year’s grand prize winner of Apartment Therapy’s Small/Cool contest.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Michelle and Antonio’s home embodies everything Apartment Therapy believes in: It’s aesthetically beautiful, but it’s also a home they’ve worked hard to design to function just the way they need it. It’s small—but you’d never know by looking at it: Natural light floods the space, and the whole home feels airy and open. The couple designed a space that complements the character of the 100-year-old building, but they weren’t afraid to make changes that make sense for today.

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“Bringing our story of the space to life was a cocktail of creativity: vintage, with a dash of scrappy and a modern twist,” Michelle wrote in her Small/Cool contest submission.

And they had a lot of help! Michelle’s mom, Katherine Spetner, is an architect and artist who bought this building in 2014. At the time of the purchase, the space that is now their apartment was basically just studs and dirt; there were no interior doors or even a bathroom. “[My mom] called me the quote-unquote ‘client’ since I made decisions and pushed the design, but she financially backed it,” Michelle explains in an interview we did with her earlier this year. “There really was no way that I could have had the creative freedom otherwise.”

“The open layout makes our 590-square-foot apartment feel spacious,” Michelle wrote in her submission.”The original layout had the old kitchen where the current bedroom is, with a breakfast nook where the bed sits. We turned the Murphy bed alcove in the old living room into the current fridge area in our new kitchen/dining space.”

Perhaps one of the largest changes they made to the home was the layout. In the tour video above, Michelle says the original apartment’s kitchen and breakfast nook were tucked into the tiny corner that houses their bedroom now. The rest of the space was dedicated to a big living room and dining room, and the “bedroom” was a Murphy bed! They turned the old kitchen into a perfect little nook of a bedroom, tucked the new fridge in the hole where the Murphy bed once was, and installed a kitchen that spans a large length of the home, opening up the space and making it functional and beautiful.

"Everything has its place in our kitchen and pantry,” Michelle says. “The staggered and uniquely spaced shelving help us keep organized. I love the large drawer set under our stove. We use it to keep cast-iron pans, trays, a griddle, tupperware, baking supplies, and lots of utensils— it’s our kitchen storage work horse.”

While the entire home features smart small space ideas (hello, drop-down projector instead of a space-wasting television set), the pantry is a particularly inspired sight for those who love organizing. Tucked in a small closet to the side of the kitchen, Michelle says they measured the height of nearly everything that would need to go into the pantry—from cans of food to appliances to even Michelle’s favorite olive oil bottle—to make sure the shelves they installed would maximize every inch.

Thanks Michelle and Antonio!

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