Designer Susan Alexandra Completely Changed Her Rental Kitchen for Only $600
Many beaded creations are involved, of course.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:10 AM
Last Thanksgiving, Susan Alexandra’s Susan Korn, best known for her beaded bags and jewelry, received an unwanted email: The apartment the accessories designer was renting had been sold, and she had a month to vacate.
In a rush, she signed a lease for the first and only place she saw, a two-bedroom on New York City’s Lower East Side. Won over by the open-plan living room and kitchen, ample storage, and in-unit washer-dryer (“A New York holy grail,” says Korn), the space, she notes, is a “COVID miracle apartment. I’ve lived in the city since 2009, and this is the first place that feels like a real home.”
Like her creations, Korn wanted her space to be colorful, whimsical, and even a little kitschy. To offset the parquet floors and standard white walls, she zeroed in on statement-making decor. In the living room a custom yellow Wiggle Room table (one of the only pieces saved from her last apartment) is surrounded by mismatched chairs: two tomato red ones from Dims; a carved green antique daisy seat that, she says, “looks like a sculpture but is really uncomfortable”; and one she found on the street and painted in a colorful camouflage-style motif. Neon lights Korn designed in collaboration with British brand Yellowpop hang on the walls, including a very ’90s abstract piece that, she explains, “reminds me of a Kandinsky painting.” There’s also a butterfly that’s a “riff on a little beaded hair clip that I made” and the Hebrew phrase mazel tov, meaning “good fortune,” a nod to her Jewish heritage.
Though Korn was hesitant to invest too much in a rental, she realized during lockdown just how much her surroundings impact her mood. She adopted a new philosophy in order to make her place her own: Don’t ask for permission; ask for forgiveness. “I love decorating—I love the challenge and the thoughtfulness that go into it. And I said, I’m just going to lean into this,” she says. That meant more than sourcing furniture—it also involved getting crafty, starting in the kitchen.
“It’s the soul of the house,” explains Korn. “I wanted it to be really special.” The lacquered, slate gray IKEA cabinets, however, were not cutting it. With renter-friendly removable contact paper, she transformed them into a Technicolor dream—each door is a different punchy hue. Deep, rich shades sit next to brighter, lighter ones. “It’s the same color layering I consider when designing bags and jewelry,” she says. “I love colors that fight at first and then find harmony.” Though Korn tried to do them herself, “it is an art form,” she says. “It requires absolute perfection and precision.” After getting in touch with a series of professional wallpaper companies, which all quoted her upwards of $3,000, Korn took to Instagram. “I found a lovely woman who went to art school and worked with contact paper there,” she notes. Altogether the total cost was about $600, a relative steal.
Above the peninsula, which separates the kitchen from the living room, was another eyesore: basic pendant lights from IKEA. Korn couldn’t stand them, but finding the perfect replacement was a daunting task. “I didn’t have the patience,” she admits. Again, craft supplies were the answer. She used CelluClay, also known as instant papier-mâché, to cover the lights’ rope cords, then painted them—one lavender, one bright pink, one turquoise. “They’re like sculptures now,” she says. “They’re these weird, prehistoric light fixtures.”
In the living room Korn had to be dissuaded from installing custom built-ins. Her friend artist Ohad Meromi quickly talked her out of it. “He said to me: ‘You don’t own this place. Do you really want to spend so much time, energy, and money building something here that you can’t take with you if you move?’” Instead he suggested a wood shelving unit that only looks like it’s attached to the wall. In reality it’s made of different independent pieces that can be packed up easily.
“We worked together to design shelves that had idiosyncratic nooks and crannies for my collection of bags, books, and tchotchkes,” says Korn. “It’s almost like a retail experience. It holds all the things I love. I get so many ideas from it—it’s my inspiration treasure chest.” The entire project took Meromi about a month and a half to build by hand, then it was installed in one day.
While mulling over other ways she could elevate her space with little upgrades, Korn had a lightbulb moment: “We were making bags that could be used as planters, and I thought, Why don’t we just actually make planters?” She started experimenting with crafting her own accents. In the kitchen she replaced the existing flush mount with a clear beaded globe covered in butterflies. In her bedroom there’s a Tiffany-style tulip lampshade. Both are part of her new decor line for Susan Alexandra, which debuts today.
Beyond lighting and planters, the collection also includes tableware, tissue boxes, placemats, napkins, and vases (the full range will be available June 1st). “A couple years ago, a friend of mine who’s really fabulous invited me over for dinner, and she just had the most wonderful things,” Korn shares of her inspiration. “I remember thinking: This is a real woman. She had these gorgeous Venetian glasses and plates and serving spoons, and I was just dazzled.” Now she hopes her bead-embroidered linens and flower-embellished glassware have the same effect.
“I had never entertained before this year, and now it’s something I want to do,” she continues. “As I get older, my brand is evolving with me. The brand is becoming a woman.”