A Petite Apartment Doesn’t Stop This Designer From Living Large

DOUGLAS BRENNER: Did you know that the first house Elsie de Wolfe ever decorated is right down the street?

MAX SINSTEDEN: Strangely, when the rental agent showed me this studio apartment, it sort of echoed de Wolfe’s famous line, “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint.” Everything was white — walls, carpet, sofa, and bed — not at all to my taste. I’m a fan of old-school decorating with many textures, patterns, and colors. But the whiteness here made it easy to see the potential in the 1929 details, such as these arches and the amazing steel windows that bring in wonderful light.

Treasured books are displayed in the Thin Man bookcase by Bunny Williams Home.


And yet the most unusual curtains here don’t hang on the windows.

My pet peeve with studios is that, from the moment you walk in, you stare at the bed — even when you have a proper entry hall like mine. Dividing the main space with floor-to-ceiling curtains created the effect of two rooms with different identities, especially since I matched the solid fabric on the front to the cream-colored paint in the living area and continued the fine stripe on the back onto the padded bedroom walls. To complete the illusion, this big framed photograph looks as if it’s mounted on the curtain wall. In fact, it hangs from almost invisible wires attached to a ceiling track.

Are there advantages to having a flexible bedroom wall?

For sleeping in on a Saturday, when it’s nice to be totally enveloped, I’ll close the curtains. But for parties I often open them all the way, so people are free to move around. Friends love the bar in the bedroom. And someone’s always sitting on the bed. Without a curtain behind it, the huge picture frame seems to float in midair, which is very cool. After I first moved in — with nothing but piles of books, an air mattress, and a few lamps — I had parties for 40. Now that the apartment has filled up with furniture, objects, and art, the number of invites has decreased.

Although his Manhattan studio apartment totals just 525 square feet, Max Sinsteden conjured up a gracious "enfilade" extending from the foyer, in Fine Paints of Europe's Cave Creek, to the curtained off bed alcove. The stunning Art Deco console is by Bermingham & Co.

How does a 27-year-old amass a collection that someone twice his age might envy?

I am an avid buyer and a frequent flyer. When I lived in London, where Catherine Olasky and I started our business before coming back to the United States, we often went to antiques fairs. We both like what we call “brown furniture,” and given that it’s been out of fashion, we got many pieces over there for great prices — things that are classic and multifunctional and will last forever. The campaign chest inside my closet is only 11 inches deep, which is very useful for a space-challenged clotheshorse. The Regency table serves as my breakfast table, my dining table, my desk, and a place to stack more books. Catherine likes to joke that coffee table books are my idea of airplane reading.

As a collector, you seem particularly drawn to photography.

A photograph makes a crisp, cool, luminous impact on any interior. It brings a traditional room in touch with our time, or it opens a view into some other reality. My father gave me this Cecil Beaton photo negative of Audrey Hepburn. The large photograph above that sofa, by my friend Read McKendree, transports me to a beach on Nantucket that I knew well as a child.

A Regency table is set with antique majolica and flatware from Sinsteden's father, an expert in Irish silver. The Cecil Beaton painting once belonged to Brooke Astor.

Speaking of sofas, why did you put two into a studio apartment?

I tell clients, “Invest in a great seven-foot sofa! It will take you through your whole life.” Well, this place is just too tight for that. I’d brought back antique chairs from England, but I didn’t have any upholstery. So I had this pair of love seats made — with the idea that someday, somewhere, I’ll have a fireplace they can flank, and a full-size sofa in another part of the room. When I have people over now, each love seat is cozy for two, and anyone else pulls up a chair.

And there are so many to choose from!

They have such different personalities and origins. I’m fascinated to see which people fit into which ones — not physically, but mentally. I’ll think, Aha, this person is uncomfortable sitting low to the ground. That one needs arms to lean on. It’s part of being constantly informed as a decorator.

Sconces bracket the bed and take up less space than table lamps. The custom shades pick up the colors of the headboard, upholstered in Le Manach's Toiles de Tours Nuage and trimmed in carpet binding. The walls are covered in Arabel Fabrics' Charisma, while the Leontine Linens shams top L.L. Bean sheets.

Given your adventurous taste, the rather neutral color palette here is a bit surprising.

I never expected to have a beige living room. But in a small space like this — and with the mélange of stuff I had to put in it — I wanted the relief of not being inundated by color. I kept a smooth, creamy tone going through the walls, the fabrics, the carpet, and the lamps to tie things together. Actually, everything is one of three colors. It’s just that they’re subtle iterations of similar shades. Rather than going broad in color, this scheme goes deep into various materials and patterns. As Charlotte Moss taught me when I worked for her, layering more decorating in a small space can be so effective.

What inspired the emphatic green in the hall?

At first, I had the painter do it in a chic stone color, but that looked depressingly mousy against the cream of the living room. I’ve always loved green, so off we went, and this mineral shade that looks like malachite gives the hall its own distinct character. A glossy finish, I decided, would bring light into the windowless space, yet the old, uneven plasterwork concerned me. We are so used to having painters sand for ages to produce mirror-smooth walls, but I wasn’t about to spend the money to do that in a rental. And it turns out the irregular surface just sparkles all the more. That was another fun lesson in the never-ending education of a decorator!

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