Manhattan Apartments: Making the Most of a Tiny West Village Studio

Many people are looking for the biggest home they can afford. But not Michael Ingram Jones.

When he began looking to return to New York from San Francisco, size was a secondary concern, because he considered the city to be his larger living room. More important, by far, was the neighborhood where he wanted to live: the West Village. And the specific type of building he hoped to live in: a prewar apartment house built by Bing & Bing.

In the early 20th century, the storied New York developers constructed a handful of buildings in the West Village, “and I would have lived in any of them,” said Mr. Ingram Jones, a fashion designer in his 60s, who lived in a Bing & Bing building at 302 West 12th Street before moving to San Francisco in 2007, to serve as the senior vice president of design for Old Navy.

“I wanted to travel a lot, so I wanted a space that was secure,” he said. “And these buildings have good security. You can just lock them up and go away for a few weeks or a few months.”

Still, he added, “I didn’t go into the search with the idea that it would be so small.”

But small is what he found: a 450-square-foot studio with a view of the Empire State Building.

“I had friends who lived in the building, so I knew it well,” he said. “The space was available, and it had a great view. It’s just the one that presented itself.”

The apartment had been renovated, but not in a way that Mr. Ingram Jones liked. The layout, he thought, was inefficient and wasted space.

So after he bought it for $799,000 in June 2018, he contacted Messana O’Rorke, the New York architecture firm he had hired to transform two previous homes, which weren’t all that large either: his last West Village apartment, about 1,000 square feet, and his San Francisco house, about 1,300 square feet.

His new home would be less than half the size of his previous ones, but Mr. Ingram Jones was confident that Messana O’Rorke would be able to make it comfortable. He had seen the Manhattan apartment that one of the firm’s partners, Brian Messana, had designed for himself — and it was even smaller, at 420 square feet.

“I had no doubt that they would present something I wanted to live in,” Mr. Ingram Jones said.

Planning a gut renovation, the architects started by thinking about the largest piece of furniture the apartment would have to contain.

“When we look at studios, there’s always that question: What to do with the bed?” Mr. Messana said. Most people tuck it into a corner, push it against a wall, try to hide it behind a folding screen or use a Murphy bed.

In his own apartment, Mr. Messana took an entirely different approach: He put the bed smack in the center, inside a cube formed by large doors that can be closed during the day and opened at night. “It creates an object in space, as well as sequences of spaces that can actually make a small apartment feel larger,” he said.

Mr. Ingram Jones liked the result so much that he and the architects decided to use the same strategy in his apartment. They tucked the queen-size bed inside a box lacquered a deep aubergine-gray, with circulation space on all sides. At the back of the apartment, the box has doors that open to integrated closets; the other three sides open to a sleeping area surrounded by gray felt.

On one side of the apartment, a paneled wall runs the length of the space, concealing doors that open into the bathroom, the kitchen and a long storage closet. On the other side of the apartment is a niche that contains Mr. Ingram Jones’s desk. The living and dining area is at the front, by the windows.

The architects used a limited material palette to give the space a feeling of calm. The oak of the kitchen cabinets looks almost identical to wood of the existing strip hardwood floors; the bathroom’s white Carrara marble is repeated on the floor, the vanity and the storage shelf.

“When you limit your palette” — especially when you’re working with a small space, Mr. Messana said — “your space feels larger.”

The team started construction in September 2019, but because of Covid-related delays, the renovation took until September 2021 to complete, at a cost of about $300,000.

So what’s it like to live in such a small place?

The architecture may be pared down, with clean lines and simple details, but Mr. Ingram Jones is quick to assert that he’s no minimalist. “I like furniture, I like art, and I like all the other things that go with that,” he said. “I live in sparely designed apartments, but I have a lot of things with me.”

Those things, amassed over the years, make the apartment feel warmer and more comfortable than an austere space. There’s the pair of deep, linen-upholstered English armchairs from George Sherlock, the Senufo carved-wood table and the wide array of objects and art — including a taxidermy sulphur-crested cockatoo in a glass case and ink illustrations by Sue McNally, a contemporary artist.

With such a thoughtfully planned space, Mr. Ingram Jones said, he rarely misses having a larger home.

“There are times when I wish I had more space,” he conceded. “But that isn’t very often. This apartment has everything I could possibly need: a great bathroom, a great kitchen and an office. I don’t know what else you could possibly want in this city.”

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