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“My primary goal for this space was for it to be a sanctuary in the middle of an often-chaotic New York City,” says documentary filmmaker Sarena, of the intention behind collaborating with interior designer Alex Kalita for her new Manhattan home. After spending four years producing and researching documentaries in LA and a stint of bicoastal living (marked by many a red-eye flight), Sarena took the leap of renting her Venice Beach bungalow and making New York City her full-time home.

This lifestyle change posed the intriguing question of what her interior style would look like as a newly minted New Yorker. “I grew up surrounded by antiques and art but didn’t take a stab at exploring my creativity through design until this apartment,” says Sarena. In order to transition her style cross-country and adapt it to the limited space of an early-1900s apartment in the West Village, she turned to Kalita, founder of New York–based design firm Common Bond Design. Kalita’s “modern, utility-driven” approach to design is especially suited for disentangling the spatial dilemmas of the urban renter.


Kalita’s challenge was to synthesize the aesthetic inspiration of Sarena’s California-hued art collection (including a growing number of geodes and crystals), penchant for beachy silhouettes (see the low-slung, slouchy sofa), and preexisting furniture acquisitions (like a substantial dresser). Meanwhile, Sarena’s lifestyle requirements included a viewing area for documentaries and adherence to her landlord’s “stringent” rental regulations.

“I immediately feel at ease and relaxed when I get home,” Sarena professes, so it’s fair to call the visually rich yet soothing space an NYC success story. Read on for the six best design lessons we learned for rentals and beyond.

Landlord limitations are design opportunities


While many landlords allow for tenants to drill into the walls, Sarena’s lease barred her from mounting a bookshelf. Kalita knew that vertical storage would make the most of the apartment’s tall ceilings but was concerned that a tall bookcase would prove both bulky and dangerous due to the antique building’s sloped floors. These limitations catalyzed an “immensely rewarding” solution in the form of two gracefully contemporary leaning bookshelves from Hem.

Let your art pick your palette

Vintage painting, Nicky Kehoe, Aurora Vase, Hawkins NY, Tabletop mirror, STUDIOPEPE for Menu, Lounge Chair, Clic Gallery, Dresser, Restoration Hardware PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

Alex started with Sarena’s compelling collection of vintage art to guide the overall color story. These pieces all shared a consistent palette that gave Kalita a map to the combination of hues that her client would find most visually gratifying and liveable. “It gave us a palette that was calming and earthy yet quite distinct from the beachy palette of her Venice bungalow,” remarks Kalita.

Want to try this at home? View your favorite pieces of art collectively, notice the three most consistent colors, and then stick to these throughout your space when selecting furnishings. For Sarena and Kalita, these were soft mossy greens (which, as Sarena’s favorite, were selected for the expansive sofa and bed cushions), vibrant terra-cottas and ochres (emphasized in the woven leather lounge chair, a lively velvet throw pillow, and guest room bedding), and a tranquil sky blue (which informed the dining room rug). Keep your palette complex by exploring ranges of hues within your three main color buckets rather than forcing all your accents to match.

Build bridges (in between your spaces)

Oil paintings, Vintage, Abrazo Blanket, The Citizenry, Wastebin, Schoolhouse Electric, Candlestick holders, Ted Muehling, Natural Linen “Aspettami” Sofa, Home Stories, Hase BL Floor Lamp, The Future Perfect, Crush velvet pillow, Maison de Vacances, Vase, Hawkins NY, Cruet Set, Humble Ceramics PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

Although Kalita is typically an advocate for open, free-flowing floor plans, the limitations of Sarena’s space forced her to break this rule, dividing the main room into two adjacent zones for living and dining. As a documentary filmmaker, Sarena needed a large screen and seating area for viewing and sharing films but didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the previous tenant, who had placed the TV against the wall left of the fireplace, directly opposite the front door. While placing the screen along the shorter alcove wall made it much less obtrusive upon entering the space, it dictated that the sofa would bisect the room.

To maintain a sense of flow between the two zones, Kalita unified them by adding a low-backed sofa (which keeps sight lines unobstructed) and repurposing Sarena’s vintage Paul McCobb coffee table as a side table–cum–music center to form a “visual and functional bridge” between the two spaces.

When in doubt, “complement and contrast”

Noguchi Prismatic Table, Design Within Reach PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

One of the most striking moments design moments in the apartment is the juxtaposition of shapes found in the living room. The softly stuffed lines of the legless Gervasoni sofa (recommended by Sarena’s meet the sharp angles of a Noguchi Prismatic table, while the slender lines of a contemporary floor lamp converse with the thick, ornately gilded frame of a pastoral painting.

The reason these seemingly disparate silhouettes can all play nice is due to a strategy Kalita calls “complement and contrast.” The pieces all complement one another due to a shared color palette (derived from the artwork and bolstered with neutrals like the heathered taupe rug, natural lampshade, and black table) and an absence of loud patterns or graphics. This foundation allows Kalita to play with contrast within another formal element (shape, in this case), which induces the visual tension necessary to render the scene engaging.

Bar carts can be kitchen surfaces too

Vintage Print, Chairish, Custom Walnut Bar Cart, Chris Earl, Alchemy Decanter, Hawkins NY PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

One struggle that most New Yorkers know well is the lack of kitchen surfaces and storage. Given the aforementioned ban on installing additional shelving, Kalita enlisted a handsomely handcrafted bar cart by designer Chris Earl to provide additional surface space (the cart’s transparent glass surfaces keep it visually light). Sarena can use the cart for storing attractive glassware or keeping plenty of spring water at hand (“I like the teetotaler bar cart moment,” quips Kalita).

Even nooks can have storage

Pillow, Block Shop Textiles, Jenni Kayne Bedding, Parachute, Mohair Throw, Hawkins NY, Brass Wall Lamp, Workstead, Wall Pocket Organizer, Normann Copenhagen PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

Hand Cut Mirror, Clic Gallery, Herman Stool, Ferm Living, Lamp, Norm Architects for Menu, Custom Ash Vanity, Aaron Black Design PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON BENGOCHEA

Sarena small extra bedroom needed to both serve as wardrobe storage and accommodate a full-size bed for out-of-town guests. Kalita managed to squeeze in a low-slung, light-wood Modernica bed and dressed it with bright bedding to keep the corner placement from feeling cramped but knew there would be scant room for a bedside table and lamp. The solution here was to look up. By placing a unobtrusively chic “pocket organizer” from Normann Copenhagen and a charming plug-in sconce from Workstead, Sarena’s guests now have a reading light and cell phone storage with a touch of playful quirk.

Meanwhile, across the room, a floating desk fills out the remaining wall space next to a pair of IKEA wardrobes. Sarena uses the surface as a makeup table, but it easily transforms into a desk space for guests when needed. To perfectly match the width between the wardrobe and the wall and coordinate with the light wood tone of the guest bed, Kalita commissioned Ridgewood-based furniture maker Aaron Black to craft the ideal piece.

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