Small Apartment Design: How Three People Maximized Space in a One-Bedroom

Hardwood floors, beamed ceilings, exposed brick walls, working fireplaces — for many New Yorkers, the elements of a classic rowhouse are as toothsome as a dessert buffet at a wedding.

Yet rowhouses have their downsides. If you’re a couple working from home and planning a family, the frequently narrow widths of these buildings somewhat diminish their appeal. Even a fireplace with a marble mantel becomes an impediment if what you really need is more storage.

Molly Garber and Braden Pierce were one such couple. They bought a duplex in a 1930 brick townhouse in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with the intention of one day “being three,” as Ms. Garber put it.

The 1,000-square-foot co-op was a charmer, with a single bedroom and bathroom upstairs and an all-purpose room with a half bathroom downstairs. The open-plan lower floor was partially below grade, but rather than giving off a dungeon vibe, it had windows on two exposures. It also connected to a small, private garden.

“We looked at apartments with similar upstairs-downstairs layouts,” Ms. Garber recalled. “This was the first in which the downstairs didn’t feel like a basement.”

The couple paid $1.25 million for the duplex in 2019 and settled in for a few years, using it as a workplace during and after the pandemic. (Ms. Garber, now 39, works for a digital marketing company specializing in the arts; Mr. Pierce, 35, is the product manager for a residential solar finance company in South Carolina.) When they had trouble seeing the food they were preparing in the kitchen — the central portions of rowhouses are typically dim — they simply flipped a light switch.

Then came Ms. Garber’s pregnancy and, with it, the reminder that (apart from the bathrooms) only one room, on the upper level, had an interior door. By co-op regulations, there could be no additional bedrooms in the apartment. Putting up a wall to create a quiet refuge for an infant was out of the question. The rules also forbade transforming the half bathroom on the lower floor into a full one.

Maneuvering around these restrictions to meet their needs — did we mention that they also like to entertain? — turned into a game of Twister. Conveniently, they found Ryan Brooke Thomas, a designer who knew the eight-unit building intimately because she lived on the top floor. Renovations began in April 2023, a month before the couple’s daughter, Lillian, was born. They were completed the following August, at a cost of $230 a square foot.

Ms. Thomas, who is the principal of Kalos Eidos, a multidisciplinary design studio, described the unit she first encountered as having “great bones, but a lot layered on top,” including six or seven different wood finishes. She set out to strip back, unify and squeeze functionality from the discordant elements.

The job required working around several stubborn entities — multiple windows, exposed brick, the fireplace with its white marble mantel, an interior staircase — and finding ways of adding storage, which predictably was in short supply.

Ms. Thomas attacked the problem with custom oak millwork and an overarching color palette to create purposeful sections, or “zones.”

Upstairs, the layout glides from Lillian’s room to an open kitchen loosely defined by a new, stone-topped island to a living-and-dining area with a banquette that butts up against the staircase. Closets, shelves and niches are folded into a long bank of new cabinetry that lines a brick wall, bridging multiple zones.

Downstairs, an oak partition with open shelves separates the adult sleeping area from a combined home office and lounge. Here, the ribbon of custom wall units is fitted with a single desk. (Ms. Garber and Mr. Pierce trade off the use of the desk while the other heads off to a co-working space.)

Ms. Thomas pointed out that in small apartments, the size and placement of furniture must be considered so carefully that even free-standing, movable pieces take on the anchored, inevitable feeling of architecture.

The couple’s dining table and banquette, for example, were designed to fit precisely in an exact location at the end of the upper floor so that six people could sit comfortably and bodies could maneuver in the surrounding space.

Oak furnishings and surfaces brought cohesion to the two levels. The upper floor’s planks were refinished, and the lower floor received new boards to match. But to prevent the home from looking overly oaky, Ms. Thomas specified a slate-blue accent color on the cabinetry that is enriched by the natural brick hue behind it. The home’s variegated wood trim was painted a bright, synthesizing white.

One of two small downstairs closets was sacrificed to the powder room’s expansion. The designer reoriented the two allowable fixtures (a toilet and sink) and specified sage-green tile and cabinets.

The couple do not begrudge Lillian in her nursery easy access to the tub. “It’s a little bit annoying, but much better to have the full bath on the baby’s floor,” Mr. Pierce said.

It would be a sorry experience, he added, to carry a damp baby upstairs and downstairs every day.

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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