Dorm Tours

This Couple Uses Paint to Make Their 450-Square-Foot NYC Studio Look Bigger

published Nov 28, 2023
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Home Type
Studio apartment (off-campus)
Columbia University
Parsons School of Design
Mid-Century Modern
Upper West Side, New York, New York
Square feet
Sq ft
Post Image
Credit: Erin Derby

When Gaby Neira moved to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design alongside her boyfriend, Chris Yera (who’s attending Columbia University), the couple had trouble finding a rental apartment because they were on a tight budget, had to find one fast, and “needed a place somewhere in the middle for both of us to commute to and from school,” Gaby begins. “We found this apartment on our second weekend in the city, just two hours before our flight back to Miami. From the moment we first walked into our studio, we instantly felt at home with its uniquely large windows facing tons of greenery and a prominent Upper West Side street. For the next month, I imagined what could be and spent hours drawing our apartment’s layout and rendering different furniture items that would perfectly suit our personalities and feel like home.”

“From long walks in the park to adventures in the Grand Bazaar, we’ve loved every second of living in the Upper West Side. Now coming up on a year since our move, our studio has seen us experience endless all-nighters at our desks, countless visits from friends and family, attempts at perfecting our Cuban craft in the kitchen, tons of binge-watching, and the welcoming of our cat, Moon! We can’t wait to see what the future holds for us here at our small yet eclectic space,” writes Gaby.

Credit: Erin Derby

My style: Minimal + bold color + Scandinavian with a splash of mid-century modern.

Inspiration: Looking at old New York brownstones’ interiors on Pinterest and design pages. I take inspiration from modern interior spaces that still embrace that “old New York” charm by using color, clean lines, and functional furniture pieces to elevate the space. I also love the colors blue and green!

Credit: Erin Derby

Favorite element: My favorite thing in the apartment would have to be the preexisting, custom-built, mid-century modern dresser and the large windows overlooking the street. This has become our favorite spot to sit, people-watch, and sometimes work. The dresser is a huge plus, as it hides the radiator and provides much-needed storage to our small studio apartment. Oh, and our windows also extend to the closet — a closet with a window!

Biggest challenge: Living in New York is expensive, especially for college students. We had to design the space with a small budget, limited stock availability across the city, and a two-week moving time constraint. We resorted to buying as much furniture as we could online through IKEA, Wayfair, and Facebook Marketplace, and getting most of them delivered straight to our apartment. With the help of our families, we were able to build our furniture and lay out the space just in time before classes started.

Credit: Erin Derby

Proudest DIY: I never prioritized the kitchen and bathroom when designing our space, so after we moved in, I realized that they felt dull and detached from the rest of the apartment. Looking for a quick and easy solution, I found the power of peel-and-stick floor tiles! I also added a faux terrazzo contact paper over the kitchen counter to match the new look of the tiles. The final touch was swapping the existing handles with simple black ones. This DIY completely transformed the look of our kitchen and bathroom and was super renter-friendly. You can completely change the look of a space without having to lift any tiles or granite counters!

Credit: Erin Derby

Biggest indulgence: My art prints are my biggest indulgence. They have definitely been worth it. They provide a sneak peek into our personalities and showcase my passion for furniture design, our love for the city, and our favorite museums and parks. I have always been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and I’ve loved being able to include some of his sections and plans.

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? Living in a studio apartment is all about maximizing space. When we first toured our apartment in its previous layout, we noticed that way too much space was being wasted. While moving in, I decided to section off spaces using paint and glass storage to divide the living and bedroom. I’d say our desks are definitely unique since they’re large for New York standards, but completely necessary for us as college students. We spend a lot of time at our desks!

Credit: Erin Derby

What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? My favorite products would have to be the IKEA VITTSJO glass storage as it functions as our room divider while still allowing natural light into our space, while also serving as book storage and a home to our mini plant collection. Our dining chairs are also at the top of my list! These were FB Marketplace finds that I bought from a seller in Brooklyn for $12 each, and while carrying them back on the subway and through the streets, I noticed a familiar symbol underneath them. I came to find that these were Herman Miller Caper chairs that retail for around $200 each! These chairs also happen to be my favorite color!

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: My biggest advice would be to draw out a small sketch of your space with measurements and start laying out furniture to scale on it. I think we are always safe with layouts and don’t think about just having things floating in space and serving as dividers. Furniture doesn’t always have to be against the wall; maximize your space!

Credit: Erin Derby

Also, using paint to your advantage to section off spaces can really make a difference. The desk/office space is sectioned off with a wall strip of paint that continues onto the ceiling, creating this nook-like feel. I have always had a love/hate relationship with headboards and honestly didn’t want to purchase one, so I created a similar effect using Benjamin Moore’s “Polo Blue” to paint the bottom section of the wall.

Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? The best decorating advice I have is to not buy all your decorations at once, but to just collect different knickknacks along the way. Some of my favorite decor pieces were from the Grand Bazaar on the Upper West Side, Housing Works, and Goodwill. Having furniture acts almost as a canvas and allows these pieces to tell a story about who inhabits the space. Some of my favorite finds include a school chess clock, vintage binoculars, a ceramic palette, brass candle holders, wooden building blocks, and design books.

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.

Get to know Erin Derby
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