Photographer Alice Gao is well known for her photos with gorgeous colors and dramatic lighting. She recently moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan, and we couldn’t wait for her to finish decorating her space. (Seriously. We checked in with her one million times.) The final product did not disappoint. Here’s a peek inside…
On love at first sight: My original plan was to rent a studio, which was more in my budget. I looked at a bunch of studios in this building, but I’m a total real estate nerd (I’d probably work in real estate if I weren’t a photographer), so I was like, “Let’s just see the one-bedroom.” Then I had to have it. It was a struggle to get, because as a freelancer they never want to give you an apartment. I had to put down four months’ rent as a security deposit!
On moving, a lot: This is my sixth apartment in six years. The first was with Craigslist roommates that didn’t work out. Then I moved in with my boyfriend at the time and he had termites. They would come out of the floorboards by the hundreds. We had exterminators come, but they couldn’t get rid of all of them. The third place was in the East Village, which was so loud we had to sleep with earplugs. So we moved to South Street Seaport, and then Hurricane Sandy happened. My last apartment was right down the street in Gramercy, but when my boyfriend and I broke up, I moved out. This is my first apartment that’s my own, and it feels so good.
On greenery: Green is my favorite color, and plants are a good way to bring in that color without feeling overpowering. It’s a struggle to keep them alive while traveling, but I have lots of those self-watering bulbs, and if you’re only gone for a few days they work really well.
On the best souvenir: I bought the plush alpaca [pictured above, bottom left] in Peru three years ago, when I was visiting Machu Picchu. It was one of those times when you know you’re getting ripped off. They had a ton of alpacas, but their faces were all different, and this one had the best face. I put it down to look for a cheaper one, but then I was like, no, I have to have the original guy. His little eyes! His little ears! It’s like the best souvenir ever. If you put him in the sun, his fur actually fluffs up.
On creating quiet space: Another thing I love about this apartment is that it has radiator covers where I can put my tchotchkes. I like to highlight new pieces there. Right now, it’s everything I like — books, art, ceramics. I love the wooden hand, which I’ve used as a prop in so many shoots. The drawing of a face was done with just one line. It’s kind of my quiet space.
Face drawing: Christiane Spangsberg.
On decorating slowly: I took more time decorating this place than the others, and my friend Kira helped with a lot of it. I didn’t take much with me from my old apartment, so pretty much everything was chosen for this space. This often meant ordering furniture that took four months to come — like the shelving unit in the living room. The first thing I got was the blue velvet sofa, because I wanted a couch to anchor everything. I’d been looking for a long time, but as soon as I saw this one, I knew it was right.
On printed inspiration: When I travel, I have a terrible habit of buying books — they’re the heaviest things to bring back. But I like going to local bookstores and finding photographers I never would have heard of. Sometimes I’ll get books by people who aren’t known at all. I love getting inspiration from other people’s work. I also love looking through Holiday and The Gentlewoman magazines. The best.
On reading rituals: I do almost all my reading on planes. I’m in the middle of three books right now. I like to balance serious books with lighter ones, which I call my “embarrassing reads.” My current one is Opening Belle. I took the jacket off so I could read it on the plane, because it looks so chick lit-y. But the story, about a woman working on Wall Street, is actually really interesting.
On how to wake up early: I actually sleep with my blinds cracked open, so the natural light will help me wake up. I’m not an early riser by nature, but I force myself to be. I have this routine where, for a long time, I won’t sleep very much, but then I’ll have a day where I need 12 or 13 hours of sleep. I remember my dreams in vivid detail every single night, which makes me think that maybe I don’t sleep very well.
On low-maintenance bedding: I definitely like linen sheets, because I like the way they wrinkle. They have an effortless look to them. I love the look of crisp, white sheets, too, but they’re so high-maintenance. It’s like, who’s going to iron those sheets?
On nightly rituals: The one nightly ritual I have is my skincare routine. I recently discovered Drunk Elephant, and now I use their entire line, especially the cleanser, night serum and face oil, which I keep in my nightstand drawer. My skin hasn’t always been that great, but this is helping!
On creative storage: Most of my clothes live in the closet, but the clothing rack is where I keep the clothes I’m really into. Sometimes I organize it by seasonal favorites; other times I’ll get into a color. There are also a lot of things hidden under the bed. But I purge a lot. I’m constantly selling or donating things. I sell my things on Depop, which is a little like the Instagram of eBay. You post photos, and people can buy with one click.
On a beloved childhood friend: I’ve had Teddy for as long as I can remember. My parents bought him at a garage sale, and he was new-ish at the time. He was someone else’s teddy who was unloved. He was so white and fluffy back then, I wish I had photos of him. But he’s in pretty good shape for his age. He came with me to college, and to all of my apartments. Once I accidentally took him to the laundromat! He must have gotten tangled in the sheets. I got him back and was horrified. He was a lot fluffier, from the dryer, probably.
On keeping things clean: Now and then, I get into cleaning moods where I can’t get any work done until my space is clean. Even knowing there’s a mess at home makes me anxious. There are certain areas I always try to keep organized, like the bathroom and living room. And I always make the bed.
On entryway art: The photo is of the Blue Lagoon in Jamaica, a favorite spot from a trip I took a few years back. I chose it because it has so many green tones in it, and I was trying to carry green throughout the space. Right now I just have it taped to the wall. I’d love to get it framed, but framing something that big feel intimidating.
On tricky spaces: At first, I didn’t know what to do with the little entryway, since it’s just a place to drop off keys and whatnot. But once I added the console table that helped a lot. One thing I really struggle with is shoe storage. I’ll keep one or two pairs out here, and then the rest I’ll try to keep in the closet. But there are just shoes everywhere!
On a favorite morning ritual: I love spending my mornings at the table with a cup of coffee. I’m very serious about my coffee and making it just right. I measure the beans, I take the temperature of the water, I get the exact ratio. When I first moved to New York and was on a very tight budget, going for coffee was one thing I could do on the cheap. In the early days of my blog, would visit one or two coffee shops a weekend and take pictures.
Table: Saarinen. Chairs: vintage Thonets and Eames.
On building a shelves: When I first moved into the apartment, this was an empty nook and my friend Kira built this bookshelf with her boyfriend. They installed it one weekend when I was traveling; and when I came home, it was all done! Here the light gives it an ombre effect, but it’s actually all one color.
Paint: Benjamin Moore Nimbus Gray.
On cookbooks: I love reading cookbooks for relaxation, even thought I don’t usually cook from them. I really like David Tanis’s cookbooks, like One Good Dish and A Platter of Figs. I also like Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. When I cook at home, it’s usually pretty simple. In the winter, I make pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage, or braised chicken with mushrooms. I love sautéed summer squash, which I’ll eat with a big bowl of rice and summer herbs. I get a lot of recipes from the New York Times recipe section, which I find to be well-tested. I’ve discovered that’s not the case with a lot of places!
On small-space entertaining: I can’t really throw a traditional dinner party, since I don’t have a big table. But I’ve had a carnitas taco night and a dumpling night. That way, people can assemble their food in the kitchen and go sit in the living room. I really like board games — I love Settlers of Catan, and now I’m trying to figure out a new game called Power Grid. I’d love to host more nights with board games and drinks. That’s my speed of entertaining.
Thank you so much, Alice!