New Yorkers get creative when it comes to making their apartments work. Ovens serve as storage for sweaters. Bathtubs live alongside kitchen sinks. Dishwashers hold entire libraries. Living in New York City means learning how to make tight spaces work in the most improbable of situations.
And while everyone has a story about that first tiny New York apartment, most bachelors and bachelorettes put up with their miniscule digs until a baby comes along. Then they quickly dump those pocket-sized apartments for massive pads.
This was not the case for Maxwell and Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, the couple behind the website Apartment Therapy (www.apartmenttherapy.com), the design blog that shows how small spaces can be made to feel stylish and spacious. The two decided to put their “small is cool” philosophy to the test last year when they learned they were expecting a baby. Instead of moving into a larger apartment or out to the suburbs, they stayed put in their 265-square-foot one-bedroom, $780 per month rent-controlled West Village gem on Bedford Street. After a course of renovation, including new storage, a new kitchen and an overhaul of the bedroom during Sara Kate’s pregnancy, baby Ursula and family came home to an incredibly warm and inviting home. Fortunately for everyone involved, Sara Kate delivered 10 days after her due date, leaving just enough time for contractors to finish installing the kitchen.
What the couple has managed to do with the diminutive space should make owners of sprawling lofts and brownstones sit up and take notice. Maxwell and Sara Kate have proven that quality matters more than quantity, and they have managed to bring every square foot of their first-floor apartment to life. The two have made an enviable parent- and baby-friendly haven in a space that would amount to little more than a closet for most suburban families.
“At this point we’re continually surprised at how long we can stay in this space,” Maxwell said. “It is small, but it’s really perfect.”
This is not to say the Gillingham-Ryans did not have the initial instinct to spread out and fill up more space. When they found out that baby Ursula Bayes was on her way, the hunt for a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan began. But after a deal fell through for what Maxwell called an “amazing 1,400-square-foot raw space in the East Village,” the disheartened pair decided to make due with what they already had.
“We got blown out of the water,” Maxwell said. “So instead of looking for another place, we decided to stay. People often overestimate what their needs are, mostly because they overestimate their stuff. We knew we could make this work.”
The Gillingham-Ryans call their style “modern organic.” Natural fabrics meet clean lines and structure. There is absolutely no clutter to be found. Maxwell and Sara Kate share a closet designed by Astech Closets that shines from within through the linen curtains that replaced the closet doors. Similarly, the bedroom and bathroom doors were replaced with white one-inch felt fabric panels and brown suede hand-stitched handles.
The bedroom comprises a platform bed surrounded by his-and-her custom-made compartments for clothing and personal items. When Ursula first came home, she slept in a Moses basket near the head of the bed. She now has a portable crib in an area dedicated to her clothing, changing pad, and copies of bedtime books, including “Goodnight Moon.”
Maxwell is used to figuring out how to live smart and stylishly. His book, “Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure” is chock full of tips and hints for living fashionably in a small space, something he and Sara Kate did long before their baby came along. And although they are parents for the first time, Maxwell said that many of the lessons he learned stemmed from working for private clients as an apartment therapist.
The biggest lesson learned from clients with families? Do not dedicate the entire apartment to the children. Rockers, toys, high chairs and seemingly millions of child accoutrements can occupy every corner of the home and take out any evidence of adults living in the space. Maxwell said parents need to weed out what is truly needed and then designate an area for a baby’s things. “It’s really important for both the parents and the children to ensure that the children have their own space,” he said, adding, “but the rest of the apartment needs to retain its space as an adult space and you need to have that sort of boundary between the two.”
The Gillingham-Ryans are conscious about deciding what they need well before an item crosses their doorway. This means thinking hard before buying anything and editing out objects that do not fit into their idea of the home. “We’ve given away a lot of stuff, written thank you notes, and made donations to Goodwill,” Maxwell said of baby gifts they received when Ursula was born. “We decided to send it away to other people who could really use it instead of holding onto it in our home,” he explained.
Both Maxwell and Sara Kate are not big proponents of storing large amounts of paper towels, toilet paper and random house supplies. Maxwell said that although Americans are taught to always be prepared and that “there is something demoralizing about forgetting something,” the culture loses out on the idea of ingenuity and making due with what you have. “You have to count on being a genius, you have to listen and be present, not just rely on what you’ve stockpiled in your home,” he said.
Maxwell pointed out that editing belongings is not restricted to toys and clothing; it also means not feeling like you have to hold on to every piece of art or trinket that comes into contact with your child. A former Waldorf school teacher, Maxwell said he learned that kids live much more in the moment than parents typically do. “When a child does a drawing, his or her pleasure and enjoyment is in making it, not keeping it,” he said. “As they get older that changes, but a day later most kids don’t even remember what they drew the day before.”
Sara Kate said that this type of rigorous editing will probably sound harder to do than it really is, at least for them. She said that although Maxwell has been living this way longer than she has, she was never a real pack rat. Before the couple got married, she had lived with roommates in large Upper West Side apartments and on her own in a studio spanning less than 200 square feet. Sara Kate noted that she is not a clotheshorse or a big shoe collector, and only keeps beauty and health products she uses from week to week.
“I think that a lot of clutter is made up of things like that,” she said. “People hold onto to too many bottles and containers. It adds up.”
The same goes for the kitchen. A food writer herself and author of the newly released “Greyston Bakery Cookbook: 75 Recipes to Inspire the Way You Cook and Live,” Sara Kate said that her domain is truly the kitchen. She enjoys whipping up meals in the couple’s Lilliputian custom-fit kitchen by Henrybuilt, an eco-friendly company located in Soho. The culinary workspace fits cozily into the entrance of their apartment, welcoming guests with its to-the-ceiling bamboo cabinets and sunburst yellow wall paint. Counters made of Durat, a material made from recycled plastics, are narrow at the apartment door and grow wider as one walks into the living area. A built-in wine rack reminds guests that this is an adult domain, and the 24-inch under-the-counter refrigerator has enough space for baby’s needs and delicious grown-up treats.
“Even with three mouths to feed, the refrigerator gives us more than enough space,” Sara Kate said. “I only buy what I need, so I don’t have a microwave. We cook holistically; we cook basic, whole foods. We don’t zap things. I’m in the food biz, but I don’t have a KitchenAid. I stir by hand if I bake.”
Maxwell said that although most people would think their life choice a bit extreme, the family would probably not live too differently even if their square footage doubled or tripled. “Nothing would change if we had a bigger space,” Maxwell said. “It would be nice to have more room, be able to go into another room and close the door and have some quiet. But we wouldn’t change the amount of our belongings that dramatically at all.”
Sara Kate also removes items she does buy from their plastic wrapping and stores things in glass jars stacked in those high-reaching cabinets. Kitchens look neater, and it’s easier to cook when you can just reach for a transparent jar of sugar, rice or nuts, she said.
Living in a small space also makes getting outside easier, Maxwell and Sara Kate said. With the constant cropping up of gourmet shops in the area, going outside for dinner supplies has become an event. Sara Kate said that needing to go out every few days for food supplies actually helped her keep sane during the first few months after having Ursula. “Having a baby can be an isolating and depressing event,” she said. “Living here helped me get outside, whereas if I was in a bigger space I probably would have gone down the rabbit hole.”
Staying in the Bedford Street apartment has allowed the Gillingham-Ryans more luxuries in life. “When you live small, there is more room, financially, for splurges,” she said, noting the absence of a large, looming mortgage over their heads.
The family uses the Apartment Therapy office to let Ursula crawl to her heart’s content and enjoys outdoor time in their tight-knit community. But for all of the benefits of living in close quarters, both know that it is inevitable that they will need to move at some point, probably by the end of this year.
“We’re taking it day by day,” Sara Kate said.
“Inevitably, we have our year,” Maxwell also noted. “The clock is definitely ticking.”
Breakthroughs In (Apartment) Therapy
After baby Ursula Bayes joined Maxwell and Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, the couple decided to blog about the lessons in baby rearing and happy homemaking they’ve learned in the past six months, and The Nursery is one of seven Apartment Therapy sections devoted to home domains. But the question remains, of all the great innovations they’ve gotten to know and test, which items and ideas made it past their front door and earned a space in their 265-square-foot apartment?
• A bouncy chair. Several parents told the Gillingham-Ryans that they would need a vibrating chair to keep the baby happily occupied while seated. But the Oeuf Baby Bouncer Seat has been keeping Ursula busy all day long. “She just loves that seat,” Sara Kate said. “There’s no buzzing, no songs, it just looks good. The thing bounces like crazy. She’s all over the place with it.”
• Not having to use a crib right away. While other parents are prepared with enough baby gear to last until college, Sara Kate and Maxwell decided to bring items in as they found they were needed. Baby Ursula slept in a Moses basket at the head of their bed for the first few months. The basket was unobtrusive. Ursula slept as sound as, well, a baby. And the couple saved some space for those first few awkward moments of learning the ropes as parents.
• Rocking chair. The couple chose the Nurseryworks Sleepytime rocker in off-white ultra-suede with the natural wood legs for their main piece of furniture in their tiny living room. “You don’t need any other mechanism for putting a child to sleep,” Maxwell said. With the wide seat and broad armrests, the couple cozies up regularly, enjoying some quality family time.
• Diapers. The new parents can’t say enough about gDiapers. Cloth diapers in a small space presented too much of a hassle and the thought of using commercial diapers that wind up spending eons in a landfill didn’t sit right with the couple. So they turned to gDiapers and never had any regrets. Each diaper has a colorful cotton outer cover with Velcro tabs and a waterproof liner that snaps inside. The insert is made of biodegradable material and can be flushed down the toilet. “They’re great for her and they’re super cute,” Sara Kate said. “They cost a tiny bit more than regular diapers, but if you factor in the environmental cost, it’s worth it.”
• Pacifiers. The hardest thing for Sara Kate and Maxwell to work around? Cartoon-emblazoned pacifiers. After some research, they were able to find clear pacifiers that don’t have any words. “When you live in 265 square feet,” Sara Kate said, “you don’t want Disney all over everything.”