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Six Fixes

Manhattan’s top architects and designers offer inventive (and inexpensive!) solutions to the problems that most plague the New York City rental apartment.


New York apartments come with more than a few design obstacles—a lack of closets, vistas of brick walls, floors covered in circa-1975 linoleum. Other than dumping cash into renovation projects that will ultimately benefit not you but your landlord, what’s a renter to do? Well, it seems that some of the city’s top architects and designers know the trouble we’ve seen, and here they bestow upon us some wonderfully creative and affordable tricks of their trade.

Problem 1

• “First, you have to be very disciplined—throw it all out!” jokes S. Russell Groves, who has designed retail spaces from Takashimaya’s TeaBox to Armani showrooms to Coach stores. “But if you can’t, places like Crate & Barrel (, Room & Board (, and Ikea ( have great storage solutions. My favorite is Muji, which means ‘generic’ in Japanese. They don’t have a store in New York, but you can order online at”

• “A great piece of furniture, like a French armoire or a Japanese tansu, can provide the same amount of storage as a built-in closet—with the added bonus of visually enhancing the room,” advises Jeffrey Bilhuber, who designed New York’s City Club Hotel and whose new book, Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics, is just out.

• “Avoid solving a storage problem with too many different types of isolated and small-scale solutions,” says Glenn Gissler, who has designed for Michael Kors as well as top art dealers and collectors. “Instead, think in large and dramatic moves—floor-to-ceiling shelves on an entire wall, or a very long, low cabinet will help clarify and organize things much better than a small bookcase, a CD tower, a bureau, and a picture ledge . . . too much visual chaos!”

• “I like the idea of organizing your things on open shelves,” says Alison Spear, whose sleek style made a client out of Francis Ford Coppola. “You can make a beautiful vignette of objects—all your red sweaters, all your green sweaters, your plates. You can also use beautiful boxes or baskets. Or even metal pails—kind of cute.”

• “Metro shelving has become a storage classic,” says DD Allen, who is favored by the younger Hollywood set (Gwyneth, Matt, and Ben) for her keen mixing of luxury with simplicity. “There are so many great storage systems around: Kartell ( has rolling carts; West Elm (866-937-8356) has a rolling storage unit with a vast selection of cool storage boxes; Design Within Reach ( has a storage unit for stashing under the bed as well as great-looking metal storage cabinets; Restoration Hardware ( and Ikea have lockers in many sizes and lots of colors; and Ikea also has great shelving systems. Finally, the Magis catalogue ( has the best plastic bins—perfect for toys.”

• “Adding storage to a small apartment sadly makes it look even smaller,” says Steven Sclaroff, whose eponymous downtown home-design store (212-691-7814) has attracted the likes of Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, and Stella McCartney. “Instead, try to tuck storage into dead, useless space—like under a bed or inside a trunk used as a coffee table. Hang a small cabinet or shelf above the toilet, which is typically unused space. There’s a cool mirrored one at Pottery Barn ( and one with a glass door at Ikea.”

Problem 2

Jamie Drake, who decorated Mayor Bloomberg’s East 79th Street townhouse, advises, “Mask an ugly view with transparent fabric; a flat Roman shade in any of Pollack’s sheers is my favorite.”

• “Go for simple scrims: sheer blinds or sheer roller shades,” says Groves. “They cut the view, yet allow light and air. Smith + Noble (800-560-0027) has great stuff.”

• “Elaborate curtains in velvet or a colorful pattern will help draw your eye away from the bad outdoor visual,” say Alysa Weinstein and Bella Zakarian, of the popular design firm Ruby. “We also like Roman shades kept half-mast, and a window box of nice greenery to cover an ugly view. We have an obsession with Target—they carry a really great Levolor line of affordable curtains ( You can’t go wrong with their design simplicity.”

• “It’s all about layering,” says Gissler. “For the foreground: Place a lamp on a tabletop in front of the window; this will illuminate an attractive objet d’art or two. For the background: Consider painted or stained-wood Venetian blinds Janovic/Plaza; along with curtain panels to the floor (Restoration Hardware) to soften and frame the window.”

• “I like brushed stainless Venetian blinds,” says Sclaroff. “The surface is reflective and lets in a lot of light, but they can be closed for privacy. They offer a slick eighties look, à la Helmut Newton, and can be ordered from Smith + Noble.”

• “I look out on a brick wall in an air shaft,” says Allen. “So I have created faux landscapes by projecting images from a slide projector on my windowsill—the desert, rolling surf, the Woolworth building. A little gimmicky, but fun.”

Bilhuber says, “Try to develop a furniture plan that draws attention away from the offending view—a sofa or pair of chairs with their backs to the window instantly solves the problem.”

Problem 3

• “ A cleverly placed mirror can increase the amount of daylight. But even that trick will only go so far,” says David Mann, whose clean, simple designs grace Takashimaya. “Another idea is to use shiny, light-colored surfaces, which reflect light, natural or otherwise.”

• “Paint, paint, paint,” says Carey Maloney of M(Group), an uptown design firm beloved for its sleek yet practical arrangements. “Pick a couple of walls, and wash them in subtle or extremely different colors.”

• “Sam Flax (212-620-3038) and A.I. Friedman (212-337-8600) sell the light boxes that photographers use to view slides. They come in various sizes; hang a few on a wall and you’ll have a fun wall sculpture that provides great light,” says Christopher Coleman, known for his miracles with kids’ rooms. “Also, Design Within Reach has these terrific light cubes—little end tables that plug into the wall and light up.”

• “Think about adding an illuminated wall panel, like Snowlab’s Thérapie Lighting,” says Sclaroff ( “It offers a warm, soothing glow, and could almost stand in place of a window.”

Groves adds, “Hidden light sources, like a small light behind a sofa that bounces off a wall, add a level of warmth. Also, lamps with natural-paper shades, like an Akari lamp by Noguchi (Design Within Reach), provide a warm glow.”

• “One of the greatest decorative innovations of the twentieth century is the uplight,” says Bilhuber. “A small, five-by-five-by-ten-inch can (available at most lighting centers) throws beautiful light into a dark room without the obstacle course of lamps and shades.”

• “Put dimmers on every light, including those in bathrooms. It’s the absolute cheapest path to creating ambience,” says Gissler. “Next, remove any fluorescent lighting. Now add light; a combination of lamps and ceiling fixtures works best.”

• “Get halogen floor lights to wash the ceiling (Lighting by Gregory; 212-226-1276),” says Stephen Cassell, who’s designed numerous museum spaces. “Go as bright as 150 watts. To create the same effect get low-tech construction lights on little tripodlike stands from Home Depot ( They also heat your apartment, which could be good or bad.”

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