finally arrived at home
In 1996, former Wall Streeter Steve Symonds returned to New York from Tortola, British Virgin Islands, where he had owned a restaurant for several years. Without a job in the United States, he had trouble finding anyone willing to lease him an apartment.
But then he heard about this rent-stabilized studio on the Upper East Side. The apartment was small (about 465 square feet), the building was undistinguished, “and the landlord demanded a double deposit because I was unemployed,” Symonds recalls. “But I was just glad to have an apartment. I figured that as soon as I got reestablished, I’d move someplace bigger anyway.”
Despite the good position he landed at an investment firm, however, Symonds remained in the apartment. In 2003, he realized that this temporary dwelling had, in fact, become his permanent residence—and that it was finally time to make the place feel more like home. Ready, at last, to replace his mismatched flea market finds with “grown-up” furniture, Symonds contacted interior designer Marshall Watson, whom he had met several years earlier through a mutual friend.
“I actually hired the firm just to draw up a floor plan,” recalls Symonds. “But when [Watson’s colleague] Wendy Monette showed me all the different ways we might lay out the apartment, along with examples of the different kinds of fabrics we might use, we were really off to the races. I decided to hire them to do everything.”
Like any tiny studio, this apartment’s 12-by-22-foot main room posed plenty of challenges. But rather than dwell on those, the designers decided to accentuate the positive. A long, narrow entry hallway opens up to the main room, where soaring ceilings lend an almost loftlike feeling to the space. “That’s very characteristic of classic architecture,” says Watson, “the way you move from a confined space to an expansive one.”
To enhance that effect, the designers placed a long, striped runner in the hallway to make it look even narrower and employed several clever tricks to create the illusion of more space in the main room.
“We used only furniture that’s up on legs,” says Monette. “Although we normally mix shapes and styles, lifting everything here makes the floor appear more continuous, so that it looks larger than it is. And using a glass-topped table rather than wood,” she points out, “avoids creating a large, dark visual hole in the small space.” Choosing one large area rug rather than lots of little carpets also adds to the illusion of grandeur, notes Watson, as do a neutral palette and the trick of hanging a few large paintings rather than several small ones.
To emphasize the room’s height, Watson and Monette painted the ceiling Benjamin Moore’s White Dove and hung curtains from the very top of the walls down to the floor in front of the windows and the closet. A tall mirror between two slim, vertical dressers pulls the eye up and away from the apartment’s shortcomings, seemingly doubling the room’s width and reflecting light around the interior.
“It’s tricky in these small apartments where the windows are only on one side,” says Watson. “But when people complain about dark apartments, there’s actually a very obvious solution: Add more light!”
Illuminating the space was tougher here than it might have been in another apartment; the lease forbids installing recessed lights. So instead, the designers chose Gamma Luce wall sconces from the Lighting Center and pairs of lamps from Jonathan Adler and Crate & Barrel, and hung a 1970s chrome chandelier that Symonds found in an antiques store.
Bland and boxy as the apartment was, it’s now distinctive and inviting. “It has a very sophisticated, New York City feel,” says Monette, “but it’s also very comfortable.” In other words, it’s the kind of place one could enjoy indefinitely.
A lot of the studio’s longevity has to do with the textures of the fabric, Watson explains: “Although Steve said he wanted the place to have the look of a high-end boutique hotel, the truth is that the fabrics and finishes in a hotel don’t have to hold your interest for very long. But here,” says Watson, “everything has layers and layers of texture, so that your eyes never grow bored.” The dressers have a Macassar ebony finish, the dining chairs have that quilted fabric, and the draperies are tricolored, like Neapolitan ice cream. “It’s those kinds of details,” he says, “that make even a small space feel like a home.”