Before + After

This 500-Square-Foot Manhattan Apartment Has a Small Yet Splashy Kitchen

It was all about creating a “room” within a living area in this Upper East Side home
The sofa and chair are from Castlery while the sideboard is from West Elm. The art prints were found at the Poster Club...
The sofa and chair are from Castlery, while the sideboard is from West Elm. The art prints were found at the Poster Club; the coffee tables are from CB2.

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In a small space, every square foot counts. When Fanny Abbes, the creative director of the New Design Project signed on to help a thirtysomething nurse transform her home, she knew there were only 500 of them to consider. It was tight—really tight—and the building also came with the added challenge of being a historic landmark. 

“The apartment is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on a village-esque block,” Fanny says. “I was drawn to this project because it’s in a beautiful building, filled with stunning period features.”

BEFORE: The living space had an old chandelier and stained walls, but once the wall was opened, it revealed bricks and metal framing in good condition. 

AFTER: When Fanny and her team found the brick wall and metal framing behind the living room wall, they decided to incorporate it into the design by painting it a neutral shade. 

Aside from its covetable wood floors and large windows, the 500 square feet that made up this blank canvas had clearly mattered over the years, simply because it was worn down. There was a tarnished chandelier and stains on the walls, alongside bathroom hardware caked in limescale and grout that hadn’t been a uniform shade of white in some time. Nevertheless, the owner and Fanny recognized potential: It was just a matter of highlighting the past in a way that didn’t showcase how hard every square inch had already worked. 

“I wanted to create a modern Scandinavian retreat that would not be afraid of colors,” Fanny continues. “It would offer a sanctuary and [happiness] after coming home from a rather stressful job.”

At the same time, Fanny hoped to preserve as much as she could, folding those long-held details into this fresh perspective. During construction, for instance, a wall was opened in the living area that revealed a brick wall and metal framing in good condition. She decided to embrace this opportunity as the most eye-catching aspect of the room, but painted them in a neutral shade so that they would still blend in. The bathroom was updated with a vintage sink and colorful bath tiles, in order to mix new in with the old and tired fixtures. 

AFTER: The custom cabinets were the biggest splurge of the project, but they allow for the small kitchen to feel like a room. The backsplash is from Amethyst Artisan.

Will Ellis

Perhaps the biggest transformation occurred in the kitchen, which is connected to the living area as an enclave against one wall. Fanny aimed to make a statement with this spot, especially considering that the living area was destined to be more low-key, and opted to bring in custom cabinetry painted in a bright robin’s egg blue. A geometric backsplash with that same shade at its center ties everything together, giving the kitchen a clear personality and adding a definite edge to the apartment’s overall look. 

“Because the kitchen is very small and open to the living area, this contrasting color allows it to stand out,” Fanny says. “It becomes its own room, in a way.”

BEFORE: The bathroom didn’t have any historic charm, unless you count years of use.

AFTER: “The idea was to add an element of surprise when opening the bathroom door, so we went for bright colors and fun details,” Fanny explains. The vintage sink is from Build It Green.

Photo: Will Ellis

As part of the finishing touches, Fanny focused on paring the design down to the essentials. It was important for the home to feel cozy, without seeming overstuffed. “There are only so many accents you can add in a small space without it looking cluttered,” she says. Every piece of furniture has clean lines, and there’s enough storage for one person to tuck their things away. Fanny also looked at the apartment holistically, so the same light-meets-dark palette moves from the private to the public spaces, cultivating a sense of relaxation. “Shapes and textures helped a lot here—like the bricks and the exposed metal framing. We complemented that with the trio of capsule mirrors and the fluted sideboard,” she says.

It took about five months for this renovation to wrap up, which was mostly due to the time it took to fabricate the custom cabinets. Now the apartment can complement the time-capsule character of its building, while giving off a few modern touches of its own. “It’s a small apartment, but it’s extremely charming,” Fanny says. “Its size was the biggest challenge, but now it stands out.”

BEFORE: The bedroom had a floor-to-ceiling window, which is part of the building’s historic charm.

AFTER: “In the bedroom, we used a calm color palette as a continuation of the living space,” Fanny says. Parachute bedding and a Tala table lamp encompass that relaxing theme.

Photo: Will Ellis

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