Renter Friendly DIY Budget 350-Square-Foot Brooklyn Studio



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Name: Christine Leahy, and my rescue dog, Chloe!
Location: Prospect Heights Brooklyn, NY
Size: 350 square feet
Type of Home: Studio Apartment
Years lived in: 1 year, renting

A few months into lockdown last year, Christine Leahy decided to move apartments. “I’d been living and working from home in a space that got no direct light, and then my dad and one of my oldest friends both died within a few weeks of each other, and the lack of light started to become a mental health concern as I navigated that grief,” Christine says. She stayed in the same neighborhood she’s been in and loved for the past 10 years, Prospect Heights, and found this 350-square-foot studio apartment just up the block from her last rental. “This space was a reaction to that experience and was designed to make me feel happy. Tons of light, lots of color, different textures, and deeply personal touches.”

Despite lockdown, Christine was not alone when it came to designing this small space. In fact Christine says it was a collaborative pandemic project from day one. “I called one of my best friends in Los Angeles, Katy Nedwick, and we immediately dove into mood boards, YouTube tutorials, DIYs, and low-budget hacks,” she says. “We had daily FaceTime calls to discuss everything from paint color to houseplant placement to how to use an impact driver correctly (still don’t know if I’ve got that one down). It changed a process that, alone, could have felt too daunting, into a moment to connect, and I don’t think I would have had the confidence to execute my vision for the space without her involvement and support.” 

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: I guess I would sum it up as the efficiency of New York City with the easygoing attitude of California. I’ve worked in menswear for most of my career, and that has really affected how I think about design; form and comfort are the most important elements, but how do you draw in details that surprise and delight? I’m always aiming for functional elements that make me smile.

Inspiration: My mom is remarkably handy and has always been an inspiration to me as a woman who possesses the confidence and drive to tackle projects that might seem out of reach. I’ll call her on a Saturday afternoon and she’ll be retiling her kitchen, or in the backyard with her chainsaw, casually cutting down a tree. Mind you, she’s a business attorney, not a contractor. People who are willing to go beyond the limits of what’s reasonable or expected, and who work hard for the simple satisfaction of a job done right and done well really inspire me, and I hope to bring that into everything I do.

Favorite Element: I love sitting at the kitchen table in the morning and taking in the view of Mount Prospect Park. The light at that time is just magical, and I get to watch a parade of happy pups on their way to the dog run while I have breakfast and get ready for the day ahead.

Biggest Challenge: My biggest challenge was a teeny, tiny budget, but what I didn’t have in cash, I had in time. Katy and I made little renderings and floor plans of what I wanted the space to look like before I even signed the lease, and it is uncanny how true to that vision we remained. With the fortune of unused paid vacation days, I took time off to paint the walls and refinish the kitchen. That time was invaluable, as there was more than one trial-and-error moment (I may have repainted the hallway twice, among other missteps). Most of my furniture was built by a friend for my last place, which was even smaller, and I selected this apartment with the idea of repurposing those elements in mind. My couch is a floor sample from Design Within Reach, and most of my pillows, the shearling pelts on the dining benches, the leather mat under my desk chair, and my curtains were made from scraps from my office. Most of the ceramics I made myself, including all my dishes and planters.

Proudest DIY: When I moved in, the kitchen was, well, really ugly. I signed the lease in a leap of faith that I could somehow transform it AND recoup my security deposit. I covered all the cabinets and the countertop in contact paper, replaced the nickel knobs with matte black ones, and used stick-on subway tile for the backsplash. I removed the doors above the sink and lined the shelves to create some open shelving to display some of my ceramics (I made the dishes and mugs myself with mason-stained porcelain), bringing some pops of color to the space, and placed the bottom shelf high enough so I could shelve some of my favorite cookbooks. The table and benches in the kitchen were built by a friend, and the photo hanging was one I took on my iPhone and had blown up and printed locally.

Biggest Indulgence: The shag rug under the couch was an indulgence, in that it’s not particularly practical to put a snow-white rug that is hard to vacuum in an apartment this size (no such thing as a low-traffic area!), but it has really functioned as another piece of furniture rather than an accent or afterthought. The lines of the couch are very strong, and I think it helps to soften the space, adding an element of comfort and coziness. People often end up sitting on the rug instead of the couch!

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? I wanted a workspace that I could use for my full-time role in corporate fashion, especially because I was working remotely, but also a large surface where I could explore other creative pursuits that wasn’t in the way. I had the loft built for my last place and built the wrap-around desk once it was installed here. It’s just a sheet of 1” Baltic birch plywood, cut down, sanded, and varnished, with some table legs from Lowe’s, all mounted to the wall with brackets I bought at the hardware store. The workspace is so multi-purpose, super functional, and I absolutely love it.

What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? I splurged on a Dyson stick vacuum earlier this year, and it has been an absolute game changer, especially around my workspace, where weird scraps of fabric, paper, or clay are a common occurrence. While smaller spaces may seem easier to maintain, any sort of mess makes a much larger impact, and this vacuum just works, and is beautiful to boot!

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: Don’t be afraid to hang stuff on the walls, even in a rental! Holes can be spackled, and vertical space is so underutilized!

Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Style over fashion, as a rule for living. Also, love your local hardware store. 

This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.

Erin Derby


Originally from California, but turned New Yorker since 2000, I’ve been shooting my entire life and am still inspired and excited about it. Lately I have been putting my energies into my Fine Art, which can be seen on my website and on Saatchi Art. Being infatuated with interior design doesn’t hurt either, which mixes well with my love of photographing interiors.