Rent Like You Mean It

A One-Bedroom Brooklyn Rental Gets a Space-Saving Transformation

Customize a rental without a single upgrade? Totally possible.

July  9, 2021
Photo by Biz Jones

Rent Like You Mean It is a series all about giving our rental spaces a new lease. We’ve rounded up a whole host of refreshing spruce-ups (and cover-ups), impactful DIYs (plus how to get them back to square one when you leave), and peeks at real-life rental transformations. Because a lease should never stop you from having a space that feels like yours—even if it’s only for a year.

Annie was my friend before she was my client.

A newly minted doctor, she unwittingly rented an apartment down the street from the home her grandmother lived in 70 years prior. One of the few possessions that survived her protracted and dorm-heavy academic journey into the medical profession was a wooden dresser inherited from that grandmother, which made its homecoming to Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street in the back of Annie’s station wagon. Apart from her clothes, her books, her bike, and a few personal effects, Annie moved in with almost exclusively antique wooden pieces, passed down through generations.

Occupying the third floor of a brownstone, the apartment’s architectural features—exposed brick walls, cast iron radiators, original hardwood floors, large arched windows—appealed instantly to Annie’s sensibilities, and suggested a fitting home for these family heirlooms. But once the lease was signed, the charm and light belied a space that was challenging to furnish.

Photo by StreetEasy
Photo by StreetEasy

Sensing that navigating these challenges might be hard with her hospital schedule, she hired my design firm Common Bond Design. The necessary intimacies of residential design (I’d need another hand to count the number of times I’ve asked a relative stranger how many children they intend to have; or on what side of the bed they sleep) could be skipped—I knew the habits of Annie’s daily living, and her aspirations for the future, as well as I knew my own.

More to the point, Annie is my aesthetic twin. She is the woman I text for a recommendation whenever I need a haircut, a sweater, a pair of hiking shoes—a decade plus of friendship has slid the Venn diagrams of our respective wardrobes into a nearly overlapping circle. I could decorate her home as though it were mine and know that my choices would suit her.

Like me, Annie likes a restrained and modern interior. Yet, also like me, she was committed to incorporating her heirlooms, both to save money and to introduce a sense of personal history and character to the space. I understood that blending the two cohesively would be key.

That left only the space’s peculiarities to wrestle with...

Where does the bedroom go?

Photo by StreetEasy

Problem: The bedroom was twice the size of the shared living, dining and kitchen space. Though the kitchen was simply and thoughtfully renovated with easy-to-maintain high-gloss Ikea cabinets, those cabinets were limited in size and number. Counter space for food prep was even more scarce than storage.

Solution: We considered treating the large bedroom as both a public and private space, with a sofa and chairs arranged opposite the bed. The idea was to dedicate the other room, a significantly smaller space with a kitchen, to cooking and eating only. But Annie was adamant that the bedroom remain a private refuge from 80-hour work weeks. (As simpatico as we are, I did occasionally run my ideas by her. She occasionally pushed back.) Annie also wanted to be able to offer friends their privacy when they crashed on her couch.

Photo by Biz Jones
Photo by Biz Jones
Biz Jones

Her decision meant that the smaller room would need to multi-task with expert level efficiency. We found a vintage farmhouse table petite enough to sidle up against the radiator adjacent to the kitchen, where it supplemented counter space. When she hosted dinner parties, the table slid in front of the sofa to become a dining table. Her heirloom bench— typically a coffee table—could be re-tasked as a dining bench. Occasional chairs were commandeered as dining chairs, including the ladder back chair that alternatively served as an apron hook and grocery bag rest. We sourced the sofa, a one-armed number from DWR’s Bantam Collection, specifically for sleeping. In addition to accommodating tall overnight guests, the single arm sofa created the feeling of a more open space.

Photo by Biz Jones

Since the kitchen cabinets could accommodate either dishware or pantry goods, it was an easy choice to display her enviable pottery collection, much of it vintage, the rest of it sourced from Chilmark Pottery in Martha’s Vineyard. To balance old and new, we sourced a bright white bookshelf from IKEA that also incorporated drawers for flatware and napkins. Attractive and economical cardboard boxes on the lowest shelf store office supplies.

Photo by Biz Jones

An entryway where there was none

Problem: A spacious foyer gobbled square footage, but offered no storage.

Photo by Biz Jones

Solution: To convert the foyer into a functional entry—more akin to a mudroom—we rimmed the walls of the entry with inexpensive hook racks from Home Depot. A handyman mitered the racks that met in the corner to imitate a custom look. Annie’s heirloom trunk became a utility closet, storing her vacuum cleaner and space-efficient cleaning supplies, like a collapsible Swiffer. We left one wall clear, so Annie had a spot to stash her bike.

Closet woes

Problem: The apartment’s only closet was narrow and deep—the inverse of a closet’s ideal proportions.

Solution: A trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. First, we added an additional hanging rack to the closet, mounted parallel to the first, but behind it. (Peeling back the first row of most often worn clothes reveals the second, off season or less frequently worn clothes.) Next, we sourced a canvas hanging organizer for sweaters. Finally, we introduced simple wooden shoe racks.

Photo by Biz Jones

Even augmented with interior organizers, the closet wasn’t large enough to hold clothing and linens. Again, we turned to Annie’s family heirlooms to do double duty, assigning a dry chest the role of linen closet, and placing it beside the bed for convenient sheet changing. (The top lifts up to reveal a storage compartment.) An Eames side table on the opposite side of the bed is a modern counterweight.


Problem: Although a few interior walls allowed for nail holes, many of the old building’s party walls were masonry. As a renter, Annie wasn’t allowed to drill holes into the masonry, limiting our options for artwork.

Photo by Biz Jones

Solution: To skirt the restrictions on drilling into the masonry, we used washi tape to display lightweight photographs and paper goods, including two vintage anatomy charts. Echoing the approach we took with her collection of vintage dishware in the living room, I encouraged Annie to treat her beauty products as objet d’art in the bathroom, displaying the more attractively packaged items. Where a party wall prevented us from hanging a photo over the toilet, we leaned it, using command strips designed to adhere to bathroom tile to keep it from tipping forward.

Photo by Biz Jones

The final furniture layout

Photo by Alex Kalita

What's the one thing you wish you could change about your rental? Tell us below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ghainskom
  • Vivian
  • emily
  • Alex Kalita
    Alex Kalita
Alex Kalita

Written by: Alex Kalita


ghainskom July 17, 2021
That lamp is tdf!
Vivian July 16, 2021
I too would like more photos. Also, just a thought, I can’t image sleeping so close to the huge vase with the artificial flowers/plants. I would knock it down each night. 🤣
Alex K. July 19, 2021
Lol. Styling liberties may have been taken. My pal's sweaters are not always so artfully folded either ;-)
emily July 9, 2021
These pieces could really benefit from a final furniture plan - photos of the various vignettes look nice but it's hard to see how the spaces relate to one another or the dimensions used for various elements. I love the mix of heirlooms and contemporary pieces, and I'm super jealous of that trio of windows!!!
Alex K. July 19, 2021
Hey Emily. This is a really thoughtful idea. Annie has since moved from the apartment, so we didn't have the opportunity to go back to take wider shots -- all I had were the photos I took for my portfolio a few years ago. My editor and I were wondering how to convey a broader sense of the space, but neither of us struck on this elegant solution. Thank you for suggesting it! Stay tuned for an updated floor plan, with furnishings this time, within the next couple days :-)