For a nine-year-old who loves pirates and science fiction, Jonah Finger thinks of his family’s apartment as make-believe come true. His parents, Michael Finger and Joanne Kennedy, completed the renovation of their 640-square-foot walk-up in Manhattan’s East Village in May of 2008, just a week before the birth of Jonah’s baby sister, Esther. And while changing houses and getting a new sibling can be a turbulent transition for a kid, moving into the new place provided a thrilling amount of entertainment for Jonah. He has secret compartments under the floor to fill with toys and his own Murphy bed hiding in the wall behind his dad’s desk. For Finger and Kennedy, these features are critical space-savers that allow them to live peacefully in the postage stamp–size apartment, but the inventive design is also a reminder that livability isn’t just about organization and tidiness; it’s about the joy of interacting with a space.
The day I visited the family, Hurricane Ike was rumbling across the Atlantic and the humidity in New York City was nearly 100 percent. Climbing the four flights to their door left me slightly drenched, but the apartment was a cool refuge. With ice water in hand, we took a spin around the tiny place, Jonah playing docent while his father and Scott Oliver, one of two architects for the project, filled in the blanks. Oliver’s partner, Margarita McGrath, was away that day at Virginia Tech, where she teaches architecture courses part-time.
Oliver and McGrath run the firm noroof architects, a collaboration that began in 1994. Their initial renovation plans pivoted around three existing conditions: the placement of the building’s plumbing, two skylights Finger had installed prior to the design phase, and a request from Jonah that the apartment be turned into a pirate ship. “He gave us a brief with very specific design ideas, including where lighting rigs should go,” Oliver remembers, adding that a boat was actually a logical source of inspiration in terms of designing creative solutions for compact living.
Upon entering the apartment one would never guess its total size. The front door opens onto an 11.5-by-16-foot living room—an open space that belies the density of the remaining 360 square feet. Between two tall south-facing windows, a table folds down from the wall, revealing a built-in bookcase. It’s a utility surface most of the time, but it lifts up easily on its hinge and hides away flat to make room for company. “It feels surprisingly spacious,” Finger remarks. “For Joanne’s 40th we had a party with 16 people—only three of them were children!”
Friends and kids are high on the family’s priority list, and their renovation goals revolved more around accommodating family and visitors than stashing a lot of stuff. Aside from Jonah’s impressive collection of toys, they keep possessions to a minimum. When the couple met, Finger was backpacking through the U.S. on a visit from his native Australia and Kennedy was living in a small employee room at a Catholic Worker house of hospitality for the homeless where she has worked since 1993. When the couple bought their apartment in 2004, they had no trouble adjusting to its size, but they knew it had potential to be more functional and roomy. “We felt like, for Manhattan, it was big enough,” Finger recalls. “It was just a bad layout.”
They hired Oliver and McGrath after hearing of the pair’s skill with small spaces. One of the first steps was to eliminate several inches of dry-wall along the eastern side, increasing the floor area slightly. Finger restored the remaining exposed brick himself, leaving a groove in the rear of the apartment between the reclaimed pine floor and wall that enables a convenient cleaning strategy—simply sweep dust into the channel, then run a vacuum hose through it. “A pretty thorough cleaning only takes an hour,” he says. With a job that demands frequent travel, he values saving time as much as space, maximizing weekend hours for family and his favorite pastime: cooking.
The new kitchen sits along one wall of the connective passage between the living room and the rear of the apartment. Finger had initially envisioned an all-black, showroom-style kitchen, but ultimately they went with CaesarStone and a gray color scheme, which kept the kitchen from dominating. Though the area is narrow, there’s still enough room for Jonah to set up a battleground for several brigades of army figurines near his father’s collection of lime green Le Creuset pots. Pantry goods are stored in a narrow sliding shelving unit that doubles as a screen when extended fully, providing some peace and quiet in the bedrooms if the kids need to go to sleep while the parents entertain. The floor slopes up at the bathroom, where existing plumbing necessitated some extra elevation.
In the found space above the original floor, recessed lighting provides a subtle night-light, partially filtered by a mahogany grill over the top. The pillbox lavatory was strategically placed so that the shower could share one of the kitchen skylights. “We believe that natural light is important in a shower,” Oliver explains. “It can transform a standard bathroom into a spa-like space.” Birch plywood and jade green stone mosaic floor tiles add to the Japanese feel.
The end of the corridor becomes a slender office/bedroom, with a tall north-facing window that looks out onto a tree and offers glimpses of Manhattan’s minimally varied wildlife. “We have a squirrel and a nesting pigeon,” Finger tells me, “but of course New Yorkers don’t like pigeons.” Jonah quickly interjects: “Excuse me, it’s a turtle dove, and there were two eggs, and two doves mean good luck.”
Clearly Jonah considers himself lucky to have had his pirate ship aspirations honored. He demonstrates the easy transformation of his sleeping berth from desk into bed, which he can do by himself. The floor hatches are also kid-friendly, he readily proves, with each section of mahogany floor lifting up to reveal cavities approximately eight inches deep for storing electronics, clothes, and toys.
The storage units were designed and built by a young firm called STRand, whom McGrath first encountered when the partners were students at Virginia Tech. She and Oliver invited STRand to collaborate on many of the wood elements in the apartment. They designed the kitchen cabinets, living room bookshelves, and even milled the pine floor planks for the front rooms, which they salvaged from a Virginia hay barn.
In the “master” bedroom, the couple now shares their 70 square feet with baby Esther. Through their window, the spire of the Empire State Building can be vaguely made out—a vista Finger relishes despite its reliance on clear skies and sharp eyes. The bed occupies most of the room, but it’s not wasted space. The mattress rests on large rolling bins and the flooring at the foot of the bed lifts, too, though for now the baby’s crib limits access.
The foursome can live harmoniously in their modest domain, but Finger and Kennedy foresee a time when Esther’s toys will tip the balance and they’ll need more room. They often talk about moving to Australia, where Finger’s family still lives. “We are committed to raising our children to be comfortable living outside the United States,” says Kennedy. “When we do leave, it won’t be for somewhere else in the city. This is our home in New York.” Until the wind blows them in a new direction, they’re all hoping Esther develops a penchant for pirates.
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When not working in design, Sarah Rich writes, talks and forecasts about food and consumer culture.