For the past five years, interior designer Alex Kalita has rented the top floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, her first adult apartment. Her antique-filled home has been a source of happiness and stability, and helped her become an expert at decorating a small space on a budget. Here’s a peek inside…
Daybed: vintage, recovered in Knoll’s Hourglass fabric in Gull. Sconce: Workstead. Throw pillow: Knoll Textile’s Sherman in Earth. Alpaca blanket: souvenir from Argentina. Portrait: Housing Works. Plant hanger: Primitive. Coffee table: vintage. Bud vase: Marimekko. Leather pouf: vintage; similar here. Rug: Dash & Albert.
On adaptable furniture: I don’t own a proper sofa, mostly because I didn’t want to invest in a temporary one that might not fit in a future apartment. This daybed could go in a living room or bedroom or nursery or guest room, wherever I move. It belonged to a friend of my mom’s, and I used to sleep on it when I visited her in Greenwich Village as a child. When I graduated from college, she sold it to me for nothing and I had it re-covered. It reminds me of waking up in her beautiful apartment, listening to the the sounds of downtown that seemed so exotic to me.
On mixing and matching: Most people in their twenties don’t have a lot to spend on decorating. My approach has been to gradually collect individual pieces I love whenever I can find one at low or no cost, and not worry too much about cohesiveness. If you buy great pieces you truly love you can add pillows and textiles to unify them, or mix and match them in infinite ways. The Panton light (above) was a steal from Craigslist. I got the black Workstead lamp at a sale. The Eames base of my dining table was $40 from eBay. The paintings of Brazilian bathers were in my parents’ house growing up.
On podcast love: I’m really into listening to podcasts at home. My current favorites are StartUp (as an interior designer, I can totally relate to the “oh shit” moments of starting and running a business), 99% Invisible, which is about the undercurrent of architecture and design in everything around us, and ReplyAll.
On fresh flowers: My favorites are all in bloom in the spring — ranunculus, peonies and lilacs — so I go nuts then. I’ll go to the wholesale flower market in Manhattan. In the winter, I’ll buy a bunch of juniper, which smells so great and lasts forever. With tulips, I drop a penny into the water, which is chemistry magic.
On Swedish shelves: A few years ago I became obsessed with Swedish modular “string shelves.” If you’re like me and stalk Swedish realtors on Instagram for design inspiration, you’ve seen that these shelves are ubiquitous there. They look awesome and aren’t expensive, except if you try to ship them abroad. Eventually, some friends traveling to New York from Sweden surprised me by lugging a shelf home for me in their suitcase!
Wooden crates: salvaged from grandparents’ basement. Hooks: Ikea. Ball of twine print: Roy Lichtenstein poster. “It Is What It Is” print: Toronto’s One of a Kind Fair. Grocery bag: Whisk NYC. Jacket: Fjällräven. Ceramic dish: Michelle Mendlowitz. Water bottle: Bkr. Booties: Rachel Comey. Sneakers: Nike.
On learning from instability: Last year, I went through a savage breakup and I fell into a pretty rough depression. It felt like everyone was moving onward and upward and leaving me behind. Now I have good days and bad days, but overall I feel like me again. I’ve taken antidepressants, but I’ve also thought a lot about what my natural pick-me-up is, and now I know it’s absolutely this apartment. Making this place my home has been extremely therapeutic and empowering.
Chair: Hand-me-down from great uncle. New from Emeco.
On meditation: I like the guided meditation app Headspace. When my depression and anxiety was at its peak, I was diligent about doing it every day in front of a sun lamp. It makes meditation approachable if you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s a little out there or you find it hard committing to routines. It taught me not to be so skeptical of self-care. I work out and try to eat and sleep well but meditation is an extra step I learned to appreciate while going through a rough patch.
On cooking: Home-cooked meals are a big deal in my family. When I was little my dad worked in Latin America, and we lived in Manhattan. He’d fly home on Friday nights and spend the entire weekend cooking amazing food for my mom and me and storing it in Tupperware labeled Monday through Friday. A funny story: A couple months ago, I was scarfing fast food at home when my dad texted that he was on his way to surprise me for dinner. I quickly opened the windows to air out the tater tots smell, lit a scented candle… and ate a second dinner.
On favorite recipes: I’m in a food loop lately where I’m making salmon tacos up to three times a week. For guests, I love to make Grand Central Oyster Bar’s Oyster Pan Roast. The oysters at the local farmers’ market are pretty affordable, and I just learned how to shuck them myself. My friends and I also team-cooked Food52’s amazing birthday lasagna to celebrate my half-birthday this winter.
On building a collection: Last summer, I started picking up old blue and white dish ware whenever I saw a piece I liked — thrift stores, yard sales, eBay. (My friends call them my “break-up dishes,” because I was in the midst of mine.) And I love to collect pretty ceramics when traveling; I roll them up in clothes in my luggage and so far I’ve never broken anything.
On D.I.Y.ing a backsplash: I bought a set of traditional Spanish tiles on vacation recently. They’re designed to create a chevron pattern but I installed them in a random grid, inspired by the Bauhaus textile designer Annie Albers. I cut a piece of plywood to the size of a backsplash and covered it with mastic glue, and then I stuck the tiles on there. I used a french cleat to secure it to the wall and then painted the trim of the plywood the color of the wall. I love how the backsplash turned out and it was a renter-friendly approach. You could even use industrial Velcro if you didn’t want to drill holes. The project set me back about $50 — the tiles were less than a dollar each!
Swing-arm lamp: vintage. Pine desk: vintage. Sketch on paper: Nick Weber. Bed: West Elm. U.S. Navy blanket: hand-me-down from grandfather. Linen pillowcases: Pottery Barn. Cotton bedding: Restoration Hardware. Striped rug: Williams-Sonoma.
On waking up: I’m an early riser, but I don’t vault out of bed. I like to re-enter slowly. I’ll jot down my dreams. I recently woke up to this memo I had unconsciously written on my phone at 2:34 a.m.: “head sound start. shining Seinfeld Pokemon owl dream, painting exit clown,” plus a string of random numbers.
On bedding: To save money on bedding, my trick is to skip the top sheet. They just get tangled and if you don’t buy a top sheet you can afford better sheets!
On making things: I’ve taken a few classes in woodworking, upholstery and sewing. I don’t have a sewing machine so I sometimes rent time at the Brooklyn General Store. There’s a pile of floor pillows in my bedroom that I made there, and whenever I fall in love with a textile I’ll buy a yard or a yard and a half and I can make two relatively inexpensive pillows. I also made this bedside table (above). It’s lovely to make something for yourself and use it every day.
On funny rituals: Friday nights are for my business bookkeeping, and I try to make it fun. On my way home, I rent a documentary from an awesome neighborhood video store. (Apparently I’m not the only person in the world who still likes to rent DVDs.) I go in and explain what type of mood I’m in and they hook me up. Then I go to Free Range Wines for a pre-chilled can of rosé or red from an Oregon vineyard called Underwood. It’s fantastic wine, and the can equals about two glasses. I’ll sit down with dinner, wine and my movie and then get into Quickbooks and start invoicing clients and doing expenses. It feels like Friday and I’m unwinding, but I still get work done.
File cabinet: Ikea.
On renting in New York: I found this apartment with a friend I’ve known my whole life. When we lucked into getting it we joked that we would raise our families together under this same roof, because neither of us would ever give up such an awesome, affordable place. But last year, she was able to buy her own apartment, and even though it was a financial risk, I love this place so much that I decided to stay. New York real estate is full of ups and downs, but luckily I just found another roommate on Craigslist and am so glad I can afford to keep living here.
Thank you so much, Alex!