How Moving (and Redecorating!) Changed My Life

Original Post:

by Mary Kate Frank, Posted Mar 22nd 2011 12:00PM

After breaking up with her boyfriend, one writer moves into a 225-square-foot studio and finds happiness in jewel tones.

It began, as so many great New York love stories do, with an ad on Craigslist. I wasn’t seeking a man, but an apartment, and this one sounded ideal: A charming studio in a former carriage house located in the heart of Chelsea. And then, two words that can stop any city girl’s heart: Courtyard garden.

change my lifePhoto: Mary Kate Frank

“It’s like living in Europe,” the ad promised.

I clicked on the photos and swooned at the sight of exposed brick and hardwood floors. After e-mailing the realtor, I announced to my friends with great solemnity. “I found the place where I am going to live.”

The last time I’d had that feeling was when I glimpsed my old apartment, a roomy one-bedroom in Astoria, Queens. I saw sweet black-and-white checkered kitchen tile, six large windows, abundant sunlight. “This is it,” I said and it was, for a while.

Over the next few years, I worked almost obsessively on crafting the perfect space. (Or, at least, the perfect space for me at the time.) And then, approximately 15 minutes after the apartment felt mostly done, I thought: It might be time to move.

change my lifeA view of the writer’s new apartment before it got painted and rearranged. Photo: Mary Kate Frank
By that point, most of my neighborhood friends, lured by dropping rents in Manhattan, had moved out of Astoria. My location, a healthy 20-minute walk from the subway, started to feel isolated. Even the generous space was less welcome; a boyfriend and I had just broken up and I suddenly found myself alone a lot, rattling around in all that square footage.

Despite wanting a change, I shuddered, like most people do, at the thought of moving: The cost, the craziness of the real estate rodeo, the daunting prospect of starting from scratch in a new space. Leaving the familiar, even the familiar irritations — my impossible-to-reach super, for example — frightened me.

By the time my lease was up, I hadn’t even picked out a new neighborhood, much less an apartment. So I put my stuff in storage, stayed with my sister in New Jersey, and continued the hunt. I looked at places, but nothing seemed right until the Chelsea listing.

When I visited the apartment, the renter still lived there and the place smelled of her gardenia candles. She worked as a fashion designer and I found myself charmed by her dress forms, sketches and giant drafting desk. At the same time, I grew giddy thinking of what I would do to transform the space. I signed the lease a few days later.

change my lifePhoto: The writer’s new apartment, after it got the Nick Olsen treatment.
“Downsizing will be good for me,” I told my friends about my imminent transition from a 1,000 square-foot-pad into a space smaller than my NYU dorm room had been. I talked of purging and living simpler. And then I would mention the courtyard garden.

“It will be kind of like living in Europe,” I said.

But when moving day arrived, so did reality. Gone were the flickering candles and the dress forms. I noticed, for the first time, cracked floors, an ancient refrigerator with a tiny icebox — an icebox! — and the chipped tub in the bathroom. And there were the contents of my previous apartment, among them a large pink club chair, an unwieldy bookcase, eight boxes of magazines, and hundreds of books, stacked perilously.

My excitement turned to terror. I would have crumpled to the floor but there was no room for me on the floor. Really.

Now, I’ve written plenty of articles about moving and decorating. And I know an oft-repeated piece of advice is to live in a space for a while before starting to decorate.

change my lifeA shot of the bookshelf when she moved in (left) and after it got a makeover (right). Photo: Mary Kate Frank
But I am here to tell you, that advice goes out the window when you’re standing in 225-square-feet of pure chaos. I needed to fix the new place up-fast — for my own sanity and wanted help doing it. In my previous apartment, I’d made a bunch of mistakes, some of them pricey (example: I painted the kitchen four times looking for the right shade) and I also had no idea how to tackle a space this tiny.

Luckily, I knew who to call. Nick Olsen, interior decorator, former “Deal Hunter” blogger for Domino and a man who won my heart when he wallpapered his refrigerator. One of Nick’s many talents is helping people like me — who find themselves paralyzed when facing a new space or redo — get started. We made plans to meet at my apartment.

“I’ll wear comfy shoes and am prepared to push all your furniture around if you’ll let me,” Nick wrote to me in an e-mail. I felt instantly calmed.

He visited a week later. Seeing him try to pick his way around my clutter to find a space to sit amongst garbage bags? Mortifying. But then he started taking notes and measurements and asking questions. In my old apartment, I told him, I’d played it safe with neutrals. This time, I envisioned green walls and a jewel tone palette.

change my lifePhoto: Mary Kate Frank

“I want a big-girl apartment,” I said. We sat on the floor and flipped through a fan deck. That perked me up considerably. Is there anything more fun than a fan deck? All those colors! All that possibility!

The single brick wall gave the apartment a cozy, lodge-like feeling and I wondered how I might incorporate that into my décor.

Nick considered. “Mod lodge chic?”

“Exactly.” I replied.

Hope swelled. After all, Nick wasn’t horrified at the sight of my new digs (well, anyway, he told me he wasn’t). He saw potential in my $20 dining table (which I’d planned to toss) and in my old brown couch (which I’d thought curb-worthy). At the same time, he had suggestions for things to sell or donate: the pink club chair, the bookcase, two table lamps.

When he returned a few weeks later with a complete decorating roadmap, I couldn’t wait to get started. First up: Painting the walls, which were the saddest of all colors, rental not-quite-white. Nick suggested creating eight-inch wide vertical stripes using hunter green and Kelly green shades.

I loved the idea, but also knew I couldn’t pull off such a project on my own. Instead I called a painter named Rene that Nick had recommended. Rene did an expert job with the stripes, as well as painting my doors a glossy chocolate brown (people: Paint your doors! It changes everything!), and my bathroom aqua.

When it was done, my apartment looked like a cute little boutique. “It reminds me of wrapping paper,” a friend remarked of my striped walls (yes, she meant this as a compliment).

I sold my bookcase and put up shelves. Housing Works got my club chair, along with several boxes of books. I purchased a rug and a desk. And I discovered the main joy of living in a small space — there’s less to clean.

At the same time, I met my neighbors and found my local haunts: 9th Street Espresso for coffee, Entwine for drinks, the 14th Street Y for Pilates classes. I all but retired my MetroCard and walked everywhere, to visit friends, to work (two blocks!), to shop.

And all of this change — it energized me. Routines, however comfortable, are anesthetizing. Moving, and then working on the new space, woke me up.

My apartment, like any long-term relationship, is still a work in progress. I plan to reupholster two chairs, buy a headboard, and hang art. Plus, I have a lot more clutter to clear. And, to be honest, living here is really nothing at all like living in Europe. That’s okay. After love at first sight ends, the real work begins — and that’s the fun part.

Want more Nick Olsen? Check out the great coffee table makeover he did for us!

For more great ShelterPop stories, don’t miss:
Lucky Home Mag: Sniffing Out a Sneak Peek
Are You an Organizing Extremist?
Home Office Org: 7 Tips


About Coldwell Banker Action Realty
Coldwell Banker Action Realty is a full-service real estate firm focusing on Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties in the Tampa Bay area. We stress professionalism, integrity, and excellence in customer service. We would be pleased to assist you with purchasing or selling a property, renting a home, or marketing and managing your investment property.

One Response to How Moving (and Redecorating!) Changed My Life

  1. thefadedroseltd says:

    I love this post! I just moved into a new apartment and have been daydreaming about painting it. I’m totally going to paint my doors! Thanks for the ideas!

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