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New Yorkers have come up with a lot of savvy solutions for their small and quirky spaces. But something most of them still have in common with the rest of the world is a sofa—well, most except 29-year-old Nicole Arruda. “If I were to put a sofa in my apartment, it would be the first thing you saw when you entered the space,” says the Ontario-born owner of Nicole Alexandra Design Studio, who recently moved into a 500-square-foot studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “It would also pretty much be in my kitchen, and that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid.” So Arruda took a hard look at her must-have list and decided she was better off couch-less (and even TV-less!). “My computer gets the job done at the end of the day,” she says with a laugh. 

So what did Arruda prioritize? A place to sleep (a no-brainer), a dining nook where she can entertain small groups of friends, a desk (ever since branching out on her own in 2020 she has been working full-time from home), and a focal point in the form of a faux fireplace.

“I started off by zoning the areas that made the most sense to me,” explains the designer. The area closest to the kitchen would be her dining spot; the fireplace corner would be the lounging area (peep her chic blue armchair); the bit of wall space near the front door would be her foyer, and so on.  “When you look at your space this way, it becomes easier to digest and helps you stay organized in a smaller setting,” she adds. Below, she shares a few tips for living in a teeny space like a pro. 

Buy Less Art and More Picture Moldings 

Courtesy of Nicole Arruda

While the fact that the apartment was freshly renovated was a selling point for Arruda (the kitchen features new cabinets that go all the way up to the ceiling), it meant the designer would have to add doses of old-world character herself. An easy way to achieve charm? Install picture moldings on the walls.

After measuring each surface IRL, Arruda visually played around with the thickness and placement of the trim work in AutoCAD. (Psst: She notes you can do similar testing with blue painter’s tape.) Then she went to Home Depot, bought the cheapest trim she could find, and drilled the thin slabs of wood into the wall before painting everything Simply White by Benjamin Moore. “It gave the walls fresh life and also brought warmth and complemented the rich floors beautifully,” she says. 

Add Your Own Architecture 

Ceiling Medallion, Wayfair; Light, Overstock.

An apartment with an original fireplace wasn’t in Arruda’s budget originally, but when she noticed how this studio had a 5-foot-long protrusion on the main wall, she knew she could create the feature from scratch. She scoured Facebook Marketplace and found a $70 beat-up mantel. A TaskRabbit picked it up from the Hamptons and delivered it straight to her front door. “After a little sanding and a lot of Black Satin by Benjamin Moore in a high-gloss finish, it was a showstopper,” says the designer. The fixture is simply attached to the wall with four screws. 

To finish it off, Arruda devised a fake “hearth” by placing 12-by-24-inch honed statuary marble tile samples left over from another project on the ground. She gathered her favorite books and stacked them inside the niche to give the illusion of depth. 

Lighten Things Up

The existing light fixtures, as Arruda puts it, were “very meh—nothing too bad, but nothing too good either,” she explains. So she called in another TaskRabbit to swap out the one in the main living area for a semi-flush chandelier with a medallion and put a simple milk glass globe in the kitchen area. 

Adding linen curtains on a ceiling track system softened the windows and further accentuated the ceiling height. (The treatments are just enough to provide privacy from the street below, while still allowing the light to come through.) “Curtains can really help shape and frame any space,” she says. 

Throw Out the Furniture Rule Book

Bed and Chair, Wayfair.

Rather than crowd the studio with a ton of furniture, Arruda designates multiple functions to each piece. Her entry table, for instance, is also her dresser and her nightstand; her dining table acts as both cooking prep space and a dining surface. “And beds with open space underneath them are a great way to add hidden storage with simple plastic containers,” she adds. 

Not every single item should have a strong visual presence; Arruda primarily stuck to white and wood tones. “Too many finishes and materials in a smaller space can start to look like a hodgepodge really quickly and make your home appear smaller than it is,” she points out. 

Lay the Groundwork for a Furry Friend

Aesthetically, the almost-black floorboards were a draw for Arruda when she first moved in, but they haven’t proved to be the most functional option with her beagle-mix rescue dog, Jack, around. “There is a misconception that dark floors are forgiving,” she says—Jack’s white hairs are extra-obvious against the rich background. So she opted for a large rug to help minimize the mess. The affordable floor covering is a cotton-jute blend, so it is easy to clean…and when it hasn’t been vacuumed in a minute, you can’t tell.