A Globally Inspired, DIY-Fueled, Four-Story NYC Walk-Up — House Tour

Name: Carla Culos + Justus Kilian
Location: Chinatown, New York City
Size: 750 Square Feet
Years lived in: 4 years, renting

I’ve never met a more design savvy, DIY-inspired pair. “We want our home to reflect who we are, but living in NYC means we’re constantly balancing constraints: fitting a lot of things in a small space, managing the quirks of a 100-year-old apartment (uneven floors, temporary walls, faulty electrical), and making sure our design ideas don’t break the bank since I work at a nonprofit tackling global poverty and Justus at an outer space startup,” explains Carla.

“Luckily, our creativity thrives somewhere between constraint and vision—and if there’s one thing we aren’t constrained by, it’s time for apartment projects. To us, seeing a pretty picture on Instagram and just hitting ‘buy’ feels soulless, so when we find a design inspiration we’ll either hack it, get it secondhand or try to source something similar from local artists. We travel for work to places like India and Kenya and are always bringing souvenirs home with us (I once traveled to Kenya with only a carry-on suitcase so I could bring baskets back as my checked luggage). While our apartment continues to be a work in progress, we’d be lying to say it weren’t a labor of love.”

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: Eclectic, functional and DIY’ed to the max.

Inspiration: For us, design is a combination of pieces we love and problems we’re trying to solve.

Favorite Element: Our Fire Escape, or what we lovingly refer to as “the terrasse.” It’s surprising what you can do with a 4’x4′ space when that is all you have. We BBQ on it (likely not legal, shh…), host up to five people for dinner, or hang out with a bottle of wine and people-watch below.

Biggest Challenge: Hanging Chair: We’ve run into a lot of setbacks with our DIY projects, but the toughest nut to crack was how to hang our hanging chair. We have a tin ceiling, so we couldn’t use a stud finder to locate a beam to drill into. We tried to suspend it from existing ceiling hooks (leftover from hanging lamp days, I’m guessing), which warped the ceiling, drill a bunch of test holes, which resulted in…a bunch of test holes, and even bring a contractor in to brainstorm ideas. It was the running joke when people would come over and we’d have to warm them: “Hi. Welcome. Don’t sit in the chair!!” After a few months, we nearly gave up until we thought to put a wire hanger up one of the test holes and just poke around until we hit something. Bingo.

What Friends Say: Friends from home: (Kansas and British Columbia): “Wow, it’s so small.”

Friends from NYC: “Wow, it’s so big.”

Friends we like the best: “So, um, when are you coming over to decorate my place?”

Biggest Embarrassment: Our Kitchen Countertops. I’m 99.9% confident the design inspiration for the kitchen was the result of our landlord going to the hardware store and asking, “What is the cheapest lament countertop you have?” And voila, forest green faux marble arrived in our kitchen. We’ve tried everything to resolve this eyesore in a renter-friendly way (there are great Apartment Therapy articles on the topic), from installing temporary decals to adding jungle wallpaper to “blend in” with the green to ignoring it (unsuccessfully). Eventually we decided to focus on function over aesthetics (Pro Tip: Get things off the floor, it makes your kitchen feel bigger). It’s not perfect but, hey, that’s renting.

Proudest DIY: Our DIY Murphy Bed! When Justus moved in, we weren’t sure what to do with our second mattress and second bedroom (gasp!). Since we get a lot of house guests, we wanted a comfortable setup for hosting but didn’t want a bed to dominate the space. Murphy beds cost a bundle, so we opted for a DIY Murphy Bed Kit where they send you the hardware and you get the lumber and get to work. I fell in love with bone-inlay furniture while traveling through India, so I also got a stencil kit to make a mock-Indian armoire facade. Despite our apartment being a construction zone for two weeks and me dedicating three hours every night for three weeks to hand paint the stencils, the Murphy bed is now the jewel of our apartment. Not only is it functional and comfortable, it is the most beautiful and beloved piece in our home.

Biggest Indulgence: Our table. Neither Justus or I owned a dining room table. After a decade of IKEA holdovers, we decided to splurge on a piece we would actually want to keep. I’d seen Modern Cre8tive‘s gorgeous benching system on Instagram, so I reached out to see if they’d build us a table and bench. Robert William, an ex-New Yorker who moved his shop back home to Cleveland, was a dream to work with. He sourced a double-live edge sycamore slab for our table and designed a bench to match. This is the most expensive piece in our apartment and we’re crazy about it (so much so we bought renter’s insurance the day it arrived). Thank you, Rob!

Best Advice: Practical: Get lumber delivered. Buy a drill. Buy a ladder.

Insightful: From Carla’s Mom: “You don’t need to do it all at once.” Instead of designing in a rush, take time to know what you need and only get pieces you love. Over time we’ve collected treasures from travels, come up with creative solutions to small-space problems, got items secondhand from Housing Works or Craigslist, manicured an urban jungle, and learned a lot about each other by undertaking DIY projects. If you can bear the site of a work in progress, we promise it’s worth the wait.

Dream Sources: Our dream sources are literally at our doorstep! Living at the intersection of Chinatown, Little Italy and SoHo is a great overlap of three classic NYC neighborhoods. Down the four-block length of Howard Street are our favs every design maven in NYC should know about: Michelle Varian, M. Crow, BBDW and Tom Dixon, and in the neighborhood are all the necessary DIY supply stores: Blick, Lendy Electric, Canal Lighting & Parts and more. In addition, Justus peruses Dream Big, Live Tiny and Cabin Porn, and on a fancy day you’ll find me in dreamland at ABC Carpet & Home.


Oval Office Blue (Dining Room) – Farrow & Ball
Reading Room Grey (Bedroom) – Farrow & Ball

Jackson Sectional – West Elm (via Craigslist)
Sofa Pillows – Udaipur, India and Istanbul, Turkey
LENDA Curtains, SANNOLIKT Curtain Rods – IKEA
Curtain Pulls – DIY (parts from American Woodcrafters, knobs from Udaipur, India)
Window Planter Holders – Home Depot
Plant Pots – Chinatown
Plant Design – Little Dig
Oak Window Sills – DIY (plywood from Metropolitan Lumber, SoHo)
Carved Wood Coffee Table – West Elm Handcrafted (via Craigslist)
Rug – Udaipur, India
Baskets – Yaya Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Blankets – Hudson Bay Company
East African Masks – Maasai Market, Nairobi, Kenya
Sailor’s Mirrors – Anthropologie
Hanging Pucks – DIY (inspired by BDDW, parts from American Woodcrafters)
Mid Century Night Stand – West Elm
Table Lamp – Housing Works
Hanging Rattan Chair – Serena & Lily
Mesa Plant Hanger – Prism Boutique
9″ Cylinder Ceramic Pot – Planter Resource
Knitted Blood Orange Pouf – CB2

Leonardo Bike Storage Hooks – Delta Systems
Wall Shelves – DIY (aluminum sheets from Amazon, wood from Lumber Boys)
Piazza Sofa – CB2 (via Craigslist, no longer in stock)
Pillow Cases – Fab India, KB Co-operative, Jaisalmer, India
Live Edge Side Table – Collyer’s Mansion
“The Scribble” Print – Moglea
36″x48″ White Frame – PictureFrames.com
11″ Cylinder Ceramic Pot – Planter Resource

Yoshi Bench – Modern Cre8tive
Double Live Edge Slab Table – Modern Cre8tive (similar link)
Pendant Lamps – DIY (inspired by Michelle Varian Brass Mala Pendant, parts from BLANDA BLANK IKEA Bowls, Grand Brass Lamp Parts)
Metal Gallery Frame (Gold) – Blick
“Ruby Beach” Photograph – Niklas Peters
Antique School Chairs – From the Source (similar link)
Vase – Housing Works

Recycled Cotton Rug – CB2 (no longer in stock)
Recycling Containers – IKEA PLUMSA Laundry Bags
“Cairo, Egypt” Photograph – Yuri Kozyrev
MOSSEBO Frame White – IKEA
Maneki Neko (Lucky Cat) – Chinatown
Pots and Pans – Craigslist

MALM Dresser – IKEA (via Craigslist)
Bed Spread – Udaipur, India
Llama Pillow – West Elm (no longer in stock)
Crown Pillow – Fine Cell Work
Carved Wooden Nightstand – Zanzibar Curio Shop
Perch Lamp – West Elm (no longer in stock)
“Lunar Watercolor Project” – Amy Keevy
“El Cosmico Coloring Book” Marfa, Texas – El Cosmico
“Deux Mains Croisées” – Picasso Museum, Paris
“Olga” – Picasso Museum, Paris
“Looking Forward” – Gertrude Harris via Hope in Shadows
“City Scape” – Havana, Cuba
Wind Chimes – Kripalu, Anthropologie (no longer in stock)

Hand-painted Murphy Bed – DIY (Murphy Bed Kit from Easy DIY Murphy Bed, lumber from Lumber Boys, Indian Inlay Stencil from Cutting Edge Stencils)
Eco-Friendly Pillow Plus Mattress – Keetsa
Baskets – Maasai Market, Nairobi, Kenya
Elephant Tea Cozy – Udaipur, India
Oak Plywood Desk – DIY (plywood from Metropolitan Lumber, SoHo, custom powder coated desk leg from ODAAT Customs)
Constellation Light – DIY (inspired by M. Crow, parts from Canal Lighting & Parts)
“Horse” Photograph – Justus Kilian
Metal Gallery Frame (Gold) – Blick
Air Blue Lucky Horseshoe – Cast + Crew, Marfa, Texas
Kasbah Wool Runner – West Elm
Brass Pharmacy Floor Lamp – Housing Works
Basin Plant Hanger – Prism Boutique
Plants and Plant Pots – Chinatown

Yellow Shower Curtain and Bath Mat – West Elm Market (no longer in stock)
Essential Wood Gallery Frame – Blick
“Parisols” Tapestry – Hong Kong
Macramé Plant Hanger – DIY (Pinterest Tutorial, literally takes 10 min)
“Mother, Daughter” Lacquer – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Bead Hook – Karuzi Beads, Nairobi, Kenya
Water Pitcher – Brooklyn Museum Shop
Sink Jars – Fab India
Show Poster – Hatch Show Print, Nashville, Tennessee

Thanks, Carla and Justus!

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