How a Designer Maximized Space in His Sister's 850-Square-Foot Apartment

·7 min read
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen


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The moment artist Elle McGrath walked into the landmark Art Deco building in New York City's original suburb, Brooklyn Heights, she knew she was home. Like all things worth having, securing the goods wasn't without its challenges; "I came home so distraught because we had less than two weeks until move out and I couldn't find an affordable apartment in a decent location that was also dog-friendly," she recalls. Elle and I were roommates at the time, and after a few years, we finally had to accept that we'd grown out of our windowless, deeply sloped, impossibly loud apartment, and so our respective searches began. She had just adopted Nala the AussieDoodle and was commuting to Manhattan more frequently because of her work with a luxury jewelry brand, both of which factored into the search.

Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen

After touring countless apartments, each one more exasperating than the last (one had a shower situated so close to the stove you could cook dinner while you bathed), she reached out to a contact I had from a building I'd toured just for fun a while back. Complete with decorative brick, tiered terraces, and elaborate motifs, it also happened to be one subway stop from Manhattan—yet seemingly a world away, thanks to the canopy of trees and 18th-century brownstones lining the street. Even better? It was one of the few dog-friendly options in the area. There was a corner unit opening up a month later, so after a bit of waiting and a competitive application process, the keys to the proverbial castle were finally hers. That's when Elle's brother, Patrick, of Patrick McGrath Design, stepped in to help transform it into a real home.

"Patrick has helped me decorate every rental I've lived in since I moved to New York City for school as an 18-year-old," says Elle—so it's safe to say that he goes the extra mile to make her feel at home in style. "I'm drawn to organic and nature-inspired pieces. And my priority is always function and comfort, so everything I pick tends to be extra comfy, and cozy," she says. Speaking about his own style, Patrick adds, "while I definitely don't take myself very seriously as a person, I do take interiors seriously." He's drawn to clean lines and favors classical touches over trendy ones. So what happens when they join forces? "Patrick comes in to give it a sleeker edge," Elle laughs, and the two concoct a magical combination of easygoing elegance that nods at both traditional design and cutting-edge accents.

Photo credit: House Beautiful
Photo credit: House Beautiful

This time around, he wanted to furnish the 850-square-foot apartment in a way that would feel timeless and be easy to dress up and down over time and in different environments, so he decided to source almost all the big-ticket items from West Elm. He then incorporated Farrow & Ball paint colors, antique accents, and special items from family friend and designer Michael Bargo. Altogether, it's a magical, cozy blend.

One of the major perks of the apartment is all the wall space. "I have a lot more room to display art than I have in the past," says Elle. "So I wanted to take advantage of all the wall space by recycling older pieces as well as introducing new ones. Patrick saw the most opportunity for this in the spacious entryway. He transformed it into a gallery since it doesn't have any windows and because there wasn't as much floor space for furniture, so utilizing the walls was of utmost importance in the entry."

Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen

Due to the apartment's small size, the dining table is visible right when you walk in. So Patrick repurposed a Ruemmler lampshade into a pendant to spotlight and separate the dining area while also creating visual interest upon entrance at the end of the hall. He had it wired so it could be on a dimmer and plug right into the wall because he's a big believer in the superiority of ambient mood lighting.

In the living room, Patrick landed on a layout that would make it feel like there were "many rooms within the room." The use of unique paint colors is also worth noting. "You can see there's that faint molding, so we just followed those lines and then painted over the beams while the flat and horizontal surfaces were left white to play up the moldings," Patrick says. In the living room, he chose Pinour by Farrow & Ball because he always wanted to try the neutral purple and Elle was up for the adventure. Best yet, one of the sofas is also cleverly disguised as a pull-out bed, which is ideal for such a tight-knit family who regularly visits each other.

Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen

Because she loves blue and green so much, Patrick also made sure to incorporate it in the other rooms, like in the halls and kitchen. "We used the same color for the kitchen and the hallways to create continuity" but then opted for something unique and special in the bedroom and living spaces. The open plan also helps to signify that they're visually and functionally separate. At the same time, the shades he chose are subtle enough to ease the eye into the transition moments.

Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen

Aside from repainting all the cabinets and adding new hardware, Patrick transformed the kitchen by adding a kitchen island that doubled the surface space. They chose one from West Elm that had a lower shelf, allowed for stools to enhance the look but also give Elle a more casual area to eat, and work, and decided to put it against the parameter instead of floating it so that the walkway was clear. There was also a white marble option, but he chose something simpler and more organic. as to not fight with the fun wall color and artwork. "It was also important to me to bring back that organic look and I feel so "there's a lot more wood in this apartment than she has had in previous ones and everything is super functional," Elle shares.

Photo credit: Nicole Franzen
Photo credit: Nicole Franzen

Patrick also used green in the bedroom, and this time, he chose the deeper shade of Green, Mizzle, that he says was inspired by Carrie Bradshaw's apartment (not the fancy one, he emphasizes, but rather the one from "the early Sex & the City days"), and reminds Elle of the countryside. "It's so calming. I don't think I'll ever have a bedroom another color again, even though I never would have thought that before. Patrick suggested we use color," she tells us.

Photo credit: House Beautiful
Photo credit: House Beautiful

Color schemes and general style aside, getting the scale right is of utmost importance, especially in small city dwellings where it can be a challenge to find items that aren't overly bulky and were likely designed with a suburban home in mind. If you want to get the proportions right, Patrick strongly suggests taking careful measurements of both the space and the item in question and then mapping it out. Either draw it up in an app or map just use painter's tape to block it. When you eliminate all the guesswork, you're much more likely to be happy with the finished product. In the bedroom, this meant practicing restraint, since it wasn't as spacious as the main living area, and just highlighting her most special items. West Elm staples flirt with antique collector's items, like Jackie O.'s childhood side chair.

Photo credit: House Beautiful
Photo credit: House Beautiful

Though the siblings' trendsetting tendencies—for example, she and Patrick agree that "leopard print is a neutral"—can easily steal the show, it's the layers of sentimental pieces throughout every room that really set her space apart. Keepsakes from her dad and brothers, art from her grandparents, beloved photos of her mom, handwritten letters from friends who became family, and healing crystals are sprinkled like hidden treasures around every corner. These items, though decorative, become grounding staples in a sometimes chaotic city.

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