This Travel Writer’s 450-Square-Foot Studio Apartment Is a Cabinet of Curiosities
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Name: Alexandra Charitan
Location: Capitol Hill — Washington, D.C.
Size: 450 square feet
Type of Home: Studio apartment
Years Lived In: 2 years, renting
Travel writer, editor, photographer, designer, and self-proclaimed bookworm, Alexandra Charitan’s DC apartment is a patchwork of all of the lives she’s lived and the people and places she has loved. After spending years living in NYC, with a short stint back in her childhood home in Ohio during the early days of the pandemic, she says her DC studio of two years is actually the first home where she’s had nearly all of her possessions in one place. The artifacts she chooses to keep and display almost always have a story or a memory attached. And while she gravitates towards vintage items, she’s not particularly married to any interior style or genre, “if something moves me, I’ll keep it forever,” she writes.
She’s been told by many that her “apartment has a museum or cabinet of curiosities vibe,” and it’s easy to see why. From lava lamps to one-of-a-kind folk art she’s picked up on her various road trips, one might think they stumbled into a roadside flea market. “I love finding interesting things, but I love organizing, curating, and sharing them even more.” In fact, if you look closely, her bookshelves are like mini-exhibits — loosely reflecting different themes on each shelf. “My brain finds comfort in making connections and grouping objects, and I’m constantly moving things around; no space is safe from my endless tinkering,” she explains. “It might take a while to find the perfect combination of form and function, but the hunt is all part of the fun of building an intentionally joyful life out of seemingly disparate discarded treasures.”
In New York, I could barely afford to live alone in a civilized space, and although I still only have a studio, it feels palatial compared to past apartments. My landlord lives around the corner and is always willing to help, coaching me how to fix a tripped breaker, bringing in my newspaper, or giving everyone in the building champagne and fruit cake around the holidays. Capitol Hill feels like a small town in a way that’s more comforting than confining, and since I work from home and spend so much time alone, the sense of community here has been a lifesaver.
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: Since I live in a studio, I try to create distinct nooks with decor; the colors in the bed ”room” are muted and calm (for me), while the common areas are more vibrant and joyful. I live on a quiet street so I love the big windows — I don’t get much direct sunlight which is totally fine for me because I prefer string lights and lava lamps. I look at decorating any space as a work in constant progress. I spend a lot of time here, mostly alone, and get bored easily so I add and subtract things or rearrange art and knick-knacks almost every day.
Inspiration: This apartment is a patchwork of all of the lives I’ve lived and the people and places I’ve loved over the past 37 years. This is the first time I’ve had almost all of my possessions in one place and almost everything I choose to keep and display has a story or memory attached to it. A lot of the stuff I gravitate towards is vintage, but I’m not married to any particular style or decade; if something moves me, I’ll keep it forever.
I’ve always loved anything that someone clearly spent time on: crocheted items, embroidery, paint-by-number paintings, block prints, and other one-of-a-kind folk art pieces. I find endless inspiration in crafts traditionally made by housewives, grandmothers, and other historically undervalued women; you can learn a lot about the unrealistic expectations heaped on women over the centuries by paying attention to the objects that were supposedly made for them, including recipe books, dishware, and other domestic gadgets.
Favorite Element: My bookshelves. Built-ins are my dream, but I found these cheap at Target, they fit perfectly, and I don’t have to be precious with them. A lot of people have told me that my apartment has a museum or cabinet of curiosities vibe, and that’s a huge compliment. I love finding interesting things, but I love organizing, curating, and sharing them even more.
I recently took everything out of the bookshelves and reorganized it all, which was time consuming and a little overwhelming, but ultimately satisfying. I found books I forgot I had, and tried to create mini-exhibits loosely based on a theme for each shelf. My brain finds comfort in making connections and grouping objects, and I’m constantly moving things around; no space is safe from my endless tinkering.
Biggest Challenge: There’s never enough space. I suspect I might be one of those fish who grows to fill whatever bowl they’re put in, but I don’t want to spread out necessarily, I just want more space so I can justify collecting more stuff. I would also love to be able to entertain but I can’t currently host more than a few people at one time. I’m getting pretty good at playing Tetris with my trash treasures, but it would be nice to have a larger canvas — and a separate bedroom, bathroom(s), and proper dining room for guests.
I recognize my own constraints more than any outsider, but still, my least favorite question to be asked is, “Where are you going to put that?” Because — sometimes shocking even to me — I almost always find a space. It helps that I’ve broadened the definition of “wall space” to include doors, windows, and cabinet fronts (partially inspired by Julia Child’s Cambridge kitchen preserved in the National Museum of American History). When I found the perfect paint-by-number of DaVinci’s Last Supper at Goodwill, I hung it vertically on a door I never use because it fits best that way, but now it feels normal to me. If I ever have the space to hang it horizontally, I think I have to keep “Jesus on the Side” (as one friend called it).
Proudest DIY: When I was first arranging my largest gallery wall, I had a large blank space that needed a piece of art (blank walls make me nervous!). I quickly painted leftover cardboard with words from John Lewis’ last New York Times op-ed, and I still read it every day: “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
I also took an IKEA moon lamp (a free curb find) and turned it into a banana with a little paint, modeling clay, and googly eyes. I hung it in the kitchen above the bowl where I keep my real bananas — and the dishwasher, where I keep my fake ones. It cost me nothing but a few minutes of time proved my theory that almost anything can be instantly improved with a good pair of googly eyes.
Biggest Indulgence: When I moved from New York City, I left all of my IKEA furniture behind, so I owned almost nothing when I arrived in D.C. My first (and largest) purchases were my couch and bed (both from Floyd). A friend of mine had both — along with dining room chairs from Article — so I was a lazy shopper and just copied her, with a different color scheme.
I also splurged on a Casper mattress because they come in a smallish box, vacuum sealed in a space bag-type thing and I had to pick it up and carry it into my apartment alone — and because I am brainwashed from years of seeing their ads on the subway. I’m still annoyed at how expensive it all was, but I’ve never regretted either; I spend most of my time laying or sitting on both, and having quality furniture makes me feel like a (somewhat successful) adult. I don’t trust myself to leave my light mint green couch uncovered (I eat too many Cheetos), but thankfully I also collect granny square blankets and colorful linens, which I can swap to make it feel like a brand new couch.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? I use my dishwasher for storage: currently it’s full of red hots, fake fruit, and special holiday items I don’t use very often, like a recently-acquired Tom and Jerry milkglass punch bowl set. I don’t have many clothes or shoes, so I use my large walk-in closet as an office and a vintage dentist cabinet for overflow bathroom and linen storage. Despite being just steps from my bed (a bonus because I am not a morning person), having a dedicated work space helps me focus and separate my professional and personal lives.
At night, I turn on my string lights and novelty lamps, open my kitchen window, sit in an old office chair (also a free curb find) and write. With my industrial trash can, Coca-Cola menu board, and Kit-Cat Klocks, I feel as if I’m in my own personal after-hours diner or speakeasy. I think having so many distinct spaces has helped me not completely lose my mind spending so much time (and several stretches of Covid quarantine) in just 450 square feet. Sometimes I joke that I have an “eight-room studio apartment,” but I’ve set it up to more or less function that way with an entryway, dining room, living room, diner, bar, bedroom, office, and bathroom.
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? If I was sponsored by two companies it would be Swiffer and Command hooks. Another question people ask frequently is “How do you dust everything?” There is less street grime here than in New York, but I’m still in a constant battle with dust. I love Mrs. Meyer’s seasonal scents (Apple Cider dish soap in the fall and Iowa Pine in the winter) and my favorite multi-surface cleaner is the Snowdrop scent. For anyone into thrifting, Goo Gone, Magic Erasers, and old toothbrushes are a must; researching, cleaning, and maintaining my treasures is all part of the fun of being a collector.
I obviously don’t have a problem putting nail holes in the walls of my rentals, but I try not to be too destructive. Command hooks (and the velcro poster strips for light items, like embroidery or framed art without glass) are the hidden heroes of my apartment: Tiny light clips make stringing lights around windows and shelves super easy, and they’ve doubled my “wall” space by allowing me to hang more art on doors, cabinet fronts, and ceramic tile without damaging them.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: My first free curb find in D.C. was a small bookshelf, which fits perfectly in my entryway; I use it to hold shoes. On top, a metal trash can (featuring the U.S. Presidents up until Nixon) holds face masks and umbrellas, and I put my mail in a napkin holder. I have very little in-bathroom storage, but I keep extra towels and most of my toiletries in the dental cabinet in the walk-in closet.
A pile of protest signs lives under my bed and my radiator makes a perfect plant shelf (I have central heat, so they’re always turned off). The two shelves above my desk hold my archives: stationery, old photos, and scrapbooks. I also love collecting interesting containers — my beloved Borders (RIP) shopping basket, a metal file box with printed wood grain, or mid-century kitchen canister sets — which help me hide any mess.
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? I think Marie Kondo was obviously onto something when she wrote that things in your home should bring you joy. A lot of people interpreted that to mean minimalism, which I think is misleading: I know some people may see me as nothing but a pack rat, but I’m actually very intentional about what I bring into my apartment. Almost nothing I own is strictly utilitarian; I have lamps shaped like a dinosaur, a globe, and a mannequin bust, chairs that are both beautiful and comfortable, and vintage dishware that I use daily. It might take a while to find the perfect combination of form and function, but the hunt is all part of the fun of building an intentionally joyful life out of seemingly disparate discarded treasures.
- Richmond, Virginia and “Don’t Tread on Trans Kids” prints — Studio Two Three
- Bookcase/shoe rack — Free curb find
- Tiny school chair — Free curb find
- Union Station Street Sign — Free curb find
- Divine screen-printed poster — Etsy
- Sofa in Mist — Floyd
- Went Nowhere print — Mikey Burton
- Pee-wee snakes print — Little Friends of Printmaking
- Collage w/boobs — LindsFrances
- Mannequin Heads prints — Johnny Sampson
- Ghost painting — Francesca Bouchot
- Striped blanket — Chimayo Throw, Pendleton
- String of sausages — Yummy World
- Heart pillow — I Heart Guts
- Wink face pillow — Urban Outfitters
- TV stand — Amazon
- Record Player — Audio-Technica
- Torso lamp — Urban Outfitters
- Bookshelves — Target
- Green metal cabinet — Free curb find
- String lights — Amazon
- Rug — Urban Outfitters
- We Are Happy to Serve You print — StrawberryLuna
- Kit-Cat Klock
- Ice Cream Cone planter — Urban Outfitters
- New York Manhole Cover rug — Tenement Museum Shop
- Runner — Urban Outfitters
- Platform Bed Frame in Walnut — Floyd
- Mattress — Casper
- Quilt — Pendelton
- Halloween and Prosthetic Leg prints — Madame Talbot
- Dresser — Free curb find with new drawer pulls from Amazon
- Black cat print — Francesca Bouchot
- Subway poster — New York Transit Museum
- Rug — Target
- Papaya bath mat — Urban Outfitters
- Striped shower curtain — IKEA
- Wigs print — Johnny Sampson
- Skeleton cyanotype — Kim Lavery
- Towels — Target
- Muffler Man and Waffle House prints — Eddy’s Minimart
- Frankenstein prints — FriendPrices
- Mutter Museum and Poison prints — Madame Talbot
- Bisley filing cabinet in orange — Amazon
- Dinosaur lamp — Target
- Desk — IKEA
This tour’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity. Share Your Style: House Tour & House Call Submission Form