Paris. Tokyo. Helsinki. From the time Rosa and Robert Garneau met during architecture school in Rome in 1997 until they settled in New York City two years later, the Canadian couple lived life in roughly four-month cycles, moving from city to city practically with the change of seasons. Those nomadic years working at various architectural studios informed the design of their permanent settlement, a once-derelict 650-square-foot Chelsea co-op on a high floor with vast southern and western views. In turns, Rosa and Robert explain how they transformed a neglected prewar space into a showcase for their hide-and-seek aesthetic.
Rosa: Living abroad teaches you how elastic you are, how you’re able to adapt. During all of our moves, we gained a lot of inspiration. In Italy, we were influenced by the culture of food and how everyone hangs out in kitchens. So we wanted to make ours big, relatively speaking. Paris, of course, gave us an eye for fashion, high style, and the joie de vivre of the people. In Tokyo, we came to understand that you don’t need any more than what is necessary, as well as the joy you can get out of daily ritual. We lived in a one-room apartment, and we actually shared the kitchen with someone else. There was not a lot of room—we had to roll up the bed every day—so there was some intensity but also peacefulness. The Finns, they made us love true modernism. They are very into craftsmanship and customization, maximizing light for winter, and using natural materials that give you tactile pleasure when you touch them, since you’re inside so much. All those ideas came back with us to New York.
We looked for an apartment to buy for over a year, and when we found this place, we were willing to sacrifice space for light and air. A woman had rented it for 30 years, and it was cut up into a lot of little rooms with tons of circulation but not much usable space. Oh, and it was a wreck! The radiators were rusting, the windows were cracked, and there was rainwater damage. When I turned on the kitchen tap (something I always do when I’m house-hunting), more water sprayed horizontally than out of the faucet mouth. But it had great bones and a good location, and it was in a nice, private building. We were tired of living in spaces that weren’t optimized and knew we could turn this into a place for relaxation and contemplation—simplicity surrounded by complexity.
Our design concept was to be like a book: The cover may be plain but inside is a world of stories. We also use the flower analogy—a closed peony only shows its true beauty when it’s fully open. We played with layers of scale: city to building to apartment to rooms to storage. To do that required lots of customization, but in this age, everything is customized, so why not our home? We wanted a white palette, but when you slid open a wall or opened a closet, you’d reveal luxurious walnut. Because of the modest space, the furniture had to be multipurpose and movable, like our hydraulic table that can be converted into a countertop and the sofa sectionals that can be easily turned into a standard queen-size bed for guests. We maximized efficiency and aesthetics and created long-term solutions for the way we live. I think living in the rundown space for more than two years before renovating helped us to better understand the inherent potential and to allow solutions to show themselves right before our eyes.
Robert: We did a lot of exploratory demolition to find hidden square footage and took out a lot of walls, but we kept the configuration (entry, kitchen, living room, bedroom, dressing room, bath) essentially the same. When you walk in, there is a loftlike quality to the space: white walls, solid walnut floors, southern light. At the entrance, there is a walk-in closet lined in walnut, with a shoe shelf built into the door, and storage for everything from Rosa’s purses to luggage and even ski gear. The “hallway” is a 450-pound sliding wall that opens or closes off the bedroom and conceals our library. It is a solid, two-inch-thick construction with a layer of acoustic drywall and plywood, engineered to hang from a beam we installed; it doubles as a projection screen when we have friends over. We decided to install a Murphy bed because it suited our goal to have everything double function. Every morning we lift our bed to enlarge the room and keep the cats off the mattress.
The surface area of the main table is large in comparison to the rest of the apartment, but it is the workhorse of our home. The hydraulic legs have preset heights for dining, cooking prep (one for me and one for Rosa, who is one foot shorter than I am), and a standing work desk. There are drawers for artwork and doodads and flaps that hide power outlets and the table controls. My favorite appliance is the refrigerator, which is made entirely of stainless steel. It blends into the kitchen unit, which is seamless for easy cleanup—–just swipe everything into the sink! Things for daily cooking are on the bottom shelves, where Rosa can reach, and I can reach things, like the yogurt maker, which are kept up top. Not an inch of storage is wasted.
We like to think that we don’t have a lot of stuff, but we do. Our dressing room has two levels of hanging rods, with pull-down rods that essentially double our usable space. Since our hangers are thick and custom-made to our shoulder widths, I can only keep 16 shirts out at a time. By editing our possessions to things we actually use on a daily basis, we don’t feel overwhelmed by our stuff.
We keep all the storage on the interior perimeter walls, increasing functionality and flexibility with each multipurpose piece. We both like the idea of hiding places that you can open up to reveal something else. In the bathroom, the towel rods pull open to expose a hamper, and there’s a ten-inch-deep medicine cabinet that can hold everything from extra toiletries to cat toys. The analogy I love to use is that our apartment is like a Swiss Army knife: a compact, well-designed, functional thing of beauty.
Heidi Mitchell is an editor and writer with 16 years of experience working in print journalism, with a focus on travel, culture, and trends. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, InStyle, and a diverse range of other publications. Most recently, Mitchell served as Editor in Chief of Town & Country Travel, as well as Features & Travel Editor at Town & Country; she also regularly consults with luxury brands on their editorial messaging. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.