By Dawn Davis

Published on November 16, 2016

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Photography by SWEETEN

When Maria and Eric decided to renovate their tiny NYC apartment, they turned to designer Vida Chang to execute their vision. It soon became clear they’d also need a contractor, so Chang posted the project on Sweeten, a free renovation matchmaker, and they were quickly matched with a team who understood their needs.

We caught up with the homeowners, the designer, and Jean Brownhill Lauer, the founder and CEO of Sweeten, to learn more about the project. It’s inspiring on many levels, and it’s the perfect example of a renovation gone very right.

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Tell us a bit about this project. What were your primary goals for the space?

Vida Chang: “For Eric and Maria’s first home, we focused on creating an open kitchen and living space and reworking the layout for a functional second bedroom/home office. Everything was gutted, and like most old spaces, it required a lot to rework the bones of the place. We limited our work to the existing structural and plumbing layout to tackle time and cost constraints. The space is also fully equipped with dropped beams, where ceilings aren’t especially lofty to begin with, that really partition the spaces off. And, it had the tiniest bathroom.”

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What overall aesthetic were you trying to achieve?

Eric and Maria: “We wanted an open, bright space with clean lines. Our style leans toward Scandinavian with some Mid-Century Modern touches.”

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What challenges did you face with the kitchen renovation?

Vida Chang: “The existing kitchen lent itself to a galley layout. It was important that the kitchen not feel sectioned off in its own corner, to give Eric and Maria the open feeling they wanted. I treated the two walls distinctly—the “work bench” stayed low, wrapped in a rich walnut finish and storage around to transition into the living space. Removing upper cabinets here was strategic to keep things feeling lofty while cooking in a tight space, and to allow light to flood into the living room. The opposite wall was maximized with full height storage kept matte white.”

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How did you make a tiny bathroom feel larger?

Vida Chang: “To keep the bathroom from feeling cluttered and small, it was pared down to the simplest of palettes, but with a subtle chevron textured floor tile, a frameless full-width mirror and bold, and matte black fixtures for visual impact.”

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What is the first step Sweeten takes when taking on a new project?

Jean Brownhill Lauer: “The matching process begins when a homeowner—or their architect or designer —posts a project on Sweeten.com. We evaluate the budget, scope and timeline, then connect them with general contractors we feel would be great for the job. After site visits and estimates, the renovator chooses who to work with. Sweeten checks in along the way to make sure everything is on track. We’re free to the consumer, so it’s an extra layer of security, plus we’re bringing talented contractors to the table who we’ve thoroughly checked. We tend to get clients who want a real transformation rather than a repair.”

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How did Sweeten help you get this project done?

Vida Chang: “Sweeten gave us peace of mind and accountability in finding a reliable general contractor, which helped me focus on the design solutions.”

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What component of this design are you most excited about?

Maria and Eric: “The custom pocket door is our favorite design detail. It’s stunning and brings warmth to the apartment. We found an unexpected structural beam, which could have prevented our floor-to-ceiling pocket door. Vida’s idea to encase the beam in walnut was a brilliant and beautiful solution. We love it! We also decided to splurge on the bathroom floor tiles. We absolutely love the black matte tiles laid out in a chevron pattern. We also really like the white vs. walnut in the kitchen—it’s a design choice we would never have thought of but really appreciate seeing every day.”

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Are there any tips or practices that readers should know about in planning a project of their own?

Jean Brownhill Lauer: “Sweeten was born after I tried to renovate my Brooklyn townhouse. Even though I was an architect by training, the process was overwhelming. We’ve had more than 4,000 projects posted, and know that with renovation, being organized is essential. First, itemize your scope of work, writing down what you’d like to accomplish starting with the floor and working your way up. Research costs to set a realistic budget (Sweeten produces pricing guides) and understand that moving a gas line or plumbing requires extra permits and more specialized labor. Finally, find a general contractor that not only has the requisite licenses and insurance, but comes with solid references for a similar type of project you’re doing, a high standard and no attitude!”

Once a renovation is underway, what are the keys to success?

Vida Chang: “It’s all about balance. Keeping priorities and overall project goals in mind are key, down to the smallest decision. Successful renovations where budgets and move-in dates are at the forefront will inevitably require decisions negotiating cost, quality and lead times. Be smart about where to keep things simple and cost-friendly and which features and moments in your space will have the most impact to invest in and enjoy.”