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How a Professional Designer Crafted His Ideal Space in a 375-Square-Foot Rental Studio

How a Professional Designer Crafted His Ideal Space in a 375-Square-Foot Rental Studio

As an interior designer at Dorothy Draper & Company Inc., the design firm founded by none other than America’s most famous design doyenne (and now helmed by her protégé, Carleton Varney), Rudy Saunders has had plenty of experience working in exquisite homes. But he had his work cut out for him at the pre-war studio apartment on the Upper East Side where he lives: The space is tiny—only about 375 square feet—and it’s a rental, meaning major renovations were out of the question.

“The most important thing in a small space is just keeping it as tidy as possible.” —Rudy Saunders

Instead, Saunders had to get creative with small design interventions that would maximize the functionality of the small space. Here, he explains how he created his own little refuge—full of personal touches and everything he loves—in the city.


Kitchen + Dining

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I painted the cabinets white for a fresh clean look, so that they would disappear along with the white counters and stove. I covered the fridge with contact paper in a tennis green and white stripe. It adds interest and looks intentional rather than sticking out. Above the cabinets, I used white crates from the Container Store to house table linens, party supplies, gift wrapping supplies, and my needlepoint ornaments.

The starting point in the dining room was a set of four McGuire rattan dining chairs I found on the sidewalk across the street from J.G. Melon just before moving in. I covered them in Carleton V Ltd. Ripple—not only do I love it but also the spotted nature of the fabric acts as camouflage for spills! A classic Saarinen Tulip Table in white is a fun juxtaposition.

In the adjacent dining area, a collage of art pieces makes an interesting gallery wall. It’s filled with all sorts of unique things that just make me happy, including vintage Dorothy Draper ephemera, a needlepoint skier my grandmother stitched, family photos, things from my time at Lilly Pulitzer, artwork done by friends, a Christopher Spitzmiller marble plate, and a Jonathan Adler menorah.


Living Area

turquoise and blue living room

Saunders, an avid needlepointer, stitched many of the sofa pillows.

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It’s a studio, but I tried to give the spaces definition without making them feel too choppy. I can pull out the table if hosting a dinner party or move the bar cart into the dining area, depending on the occasion. Above the sofa is a vintage mirror I found antiquing in northern Michigan and finished with wood tassels from Samuel & Sons for some added flair. The brass reading lamp was my grandmother’s; she was an incredibly talented needlepointer so it’s fun to stitch under the same lamp.

Opposite the sofa and next to the bed are two Ikea Billy Bookcases. I’ve have had these shelves in just about everywhere I’ve lived. They’re great for holding lots of books as well as clothing.


Bed Area

bed area

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The bed is a vintage Kindel bed I got at auction. It was a pickled blonde wood that I didn’t really care for, but I loved the classic lines. I lacquered it navy for my last apartment and the color ended up being perfect for this one. The bedside table was another vintage find that is scaled nicely for this spot. I purchased the Mary McDonald lamp at my first design internship, at Quince & Quinn in Cincinnati, and I still love it today!


Bathroom

bathroom

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The tub in this rental apartment is a seafoam color, so I decided to make it look purposeful. I made the shower curtain using Carleton V Ltd. High Garden fabric, then I pulled a blue from the fabric to add the ticking stripe to the edges for interest. Artwork includes a framed Slim Aarons photo, some Chinoiserie plates, and a piece of coral on a bracket. I think adding art to a bathroom is important and makes the room special.


Q&A

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

Colorful traditional with a twist. I take a lot of inspiration from Dorothy Draper and Carleton Varney through my work for the firm, and because I love the look so much. I always want to incorporate that look into my spaces.

I also love a classic, preppy vibe, and I feel this apartment is a marriage of both. I use a lot of wicker and rattan—things that bring a summer cottage to my mind. Summer is my favorite time of year, so I wanted to celebrate this and create my own little cottage-like retreat here in Manhattan.

How did you approach your own space differently than that of another client?

I usually take more chances when I’m doing things for myself. (Also, I can do just about anything with a hot glue gun and spray paint.) Like many designers, I see my space as a testing site for ideas. I like to do things quickly to see the ideas come to life. With clients, I’d rather have things done professionally for long-lasting quality.

blue and white kitchen

Above the entry door is a plaster wall mounted-urn Saunders scored at the Lord & Taylor closing sale. “It adds a bit of Draper Baroque to the space,” he says.

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Talk about how you came up with the apartment’s color scheme.

Because it’s such a small space, I wanted it to all be connected and cohesive. The jumping-off point was the Carleton V Ltd. Puff fabric that I used on the window pagoda cornices. I used blues, greens, and navies with lots of white. The walls throughout the main room are Fine Paints of Europe Jefferson Blue from the Dorothy Draper paint collection. It’s a vibrant happy blue while not being too overwhelming.

What were your non-negotiables?

Creating a space that felt comfortable and made me happy; having all my things (I’m definitely a collector, not a hoarder!) in it without being too overwhelming; and a bed canopy. It feels so much more special to sleep under a canopy, and certainly, for a studio, it helps designate spaces.

How did you make pre-existing pieces work with the new direction?

Some items from my past spaces worked as-is: The bed is Kindel and was a vintage auction find that I had lacquered navy for my last apartment. It was able to go right in. A lot of spray paint was used for other pieces to give them a fresh look. Also, I think switching things to new areas always helps. The rug under the dining table and chairs used to be in my bedroom.

Tell us more about how you maximized space.

The entry nook wasn’t super usable, and I turned it into a space to drop keys and so on. Just to the right of the front door, I have a mahogany side table that I found on the curb and painted celery green. Underneath is a wicker elephant I found while interning for Dorothy Draper in Palm Beach, which has been painted just about every color under the sun depending on what space it has been in.

“I can do just about anything with a hot glue gun and spray paint.”

What are some of the best DIYs in the space?

I made the pagoda window cornices. I didn’t want to do drapery panels since the bed canopy goes right up against one window. Cornices with roller shades underneath was the more practical route. I played with the pagoda shape in paper to make sure the scale was right. I then traced it onto and cut it out of a quarter-inch foam core. Then I wrapped it in batting, and the fabric is affixed to the back with hot glue and duct tape to finish it off. Across the top is Samuel & Sons Cambridge Strie Braid, a small detail to add a clean line.

There was no crown molding in the apartment, so I used grosgrain ribbon around the top perimeter in navy. This gives a finished edge to the walls and draws the eye up, heightening the ceiling in the process. The trim was just hot glued for an easy, rental-friendly look. I also made my bed canopy using seersucker fabric from the garment district and PVC piping to create a frame at the top, which then screwed into the ceiling. The valance is applied with Velcro! In the bathroom, I made the utilitarian wall-mount sink more appealing by adding a simple boxpleat skirt in Carleton V Ltd. Tetris, which also added some much-needed additional storage.

What mood do the interiors exude?

The space makes me smile and makes me happy. I’ve surrounded myself with things that I love, so it’s created a sort of refuge for me. I joke that the amount of wicker and rattan is better suited for Palm Beach than Manhattan, but—along with the seersucker and bright colors—they’re things I love that make me happy, so I’m glad to break the rules! It truly is an explosion of me, and I imagine this is what the inside of my head looks like.

What’s one unexpected item in the home?

Needlepoint is everywhere in my apartment. I love to stitch so much that I started my own line, R! by Rudy for Lycette Designs. It’s such an enjoyable creative outlet for me, and I love getting to share these designs with other needlepoint enthusiasts around the world! There’s something special about being surrounded by my pieces.

What’s your favorite thing about the finished space?

It’s hard to select just one, but what I will say is this: During the pandemic I went home to be with family. Returning to my apartment and seeing all these treasures that make me smile, it was such a great feeling. I still have that feeling every time I come home, even I was just around the corner. I think a space is successful when the inhabitant is extremely happy and comfortable.


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