My New York City Pied-à-Terre

Having a pied-à-terre in New York City means I finally get to live out my Marlo Thomas “That Girl” fantasy. Of course, Marlo’s TV-show apartment was far from a traditional pied-à-terre. Hers was beyond glam, with built-in bookshelves, a fireplace, and an entire alcove area that served as a dining room. Mine is a true studio, meaning the living room, bedroom and dining room are all in one room, measuring all of 16 feet by 12 feet. Granted there’s an entry way, a galley kitchen, two very small closets and a bathroom.  By the way, the direct translation of the French phrase “pied-à-terre” is “foot in the ground” and usually refers to smallish lodgings, away from home. Aka, your pied-à-terre is your little foot in a piece of ground.  In my case, pied-à-terre translates to the perfect tiny palace I dreamed of every time I heard the “That Girl Theme song.”

In case you forgot the incredibly witty theme song,  I’ll help you,

“Diamonds, daisies, snowflakes
That Girl
Chestnuts, rainbows, springtime,
Is that gurrrrl.”

bah, bah pah, bah, bah, bah….
And so on….

“Pied-à-terre” translates as “foot in the ground”

I’m no stranger to New York, having lived here for more than a decade shortly after my husband and I graduated from college. We both came here with that “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere” mentality.  The time was the eighties and we weathered the inevitable New York City real estate gales and squalls, living in garrets and funky brownstones until we truly hit the jackpot with a loft on Wooster Street in Soho. We were barely 25 years old, working in television, collecting pitiful entry-level salaries when a friend told us that the playwright, Richard Foreman, was moving to Paris and wanted to sublet his loft. There was a catch, Richard was notoriously anti-social and didn’t want to be bothered with having to show the loft to anyone. We badgered Richard’s agent until we finally arranged a meeting. Richard’s loft was on the top floor of one of Soho’s earliest artist co-op buildings and the elevator was a precarious creature with a crank you had to operate yourself. We met Richard on the 6th floor and he cracked open the door to this huge loft and told us he’d like to rent it out indefinitely for $1200 a month. We said, “Sorry.  We can’t afford that. To which he said, “How about $800,” and just like that, we had ourselves a loft in Soho.

That loft and a subsequent one we bought in the same building are the stuff of real estate history.  When we bought into the building, we paid something like $250,000 for a large loft in the center of SOHO. Today, the average price of lofts in that building are $3.5 million.  Still, I’m perfectly happy with my tiny rental in a pre-war building on a tree-lined block, a stone’s throw from Central Park. We moved in during the pandemic which meant we were really holed up in the tiny space. I took over the lease from my cousin who left most of her belongings, so the apartment came partially furnished. Having a bed, couch and the basics afforded me time to get used to living in a small apartment and slowly make minor improvements to make it both more efficient and truly feel like my home away from home.  Along the way, I’ve learned more than a few things about living in a studio apartment, namely:

  • Every inch of space counts and every piece of furniture needs to be multifunctional. For example, my one table serves triple duty as desk, TV room and dining room table. I keep two folding chairs in a closet and if I have guests over, I drag the table into the middle of the room and can pull off a four-person dinner party!
  • Clutter is your enemy. Every single thing you bring into the apartment must have a designated storage space. A studio apartment is essentially one bag of stuff away from looking like a hoarder’s paradise. My keys, hats, masks and backpacks all live in a neat corner of the entryway. I got a bed that has built in drawers as storage and that’s where I keep extra supplies.
  • Shoes never enter the apartment! (New York city streets are dog pee-pee-ree-volting.) I purchased a small entry bench and storage area for shoes and only wear slippers in the apartment.
  • While it’s tempting to fill every inch of shelf with books and chotchkes, bookcases need some space and grace. I try to resist the urge to pack things in and actually leave one-third of every shelf empty to give some breathing room.
  • The walk-in closet is clearly not a pre-war commodity so I’ve had to conduct a serious clothing edit. That said, I invested in some fanciful hooks and purchased heavy duty wire shelves and baskets for my folded clothing. Everything goes in baskets, whether it’s bundled socks or laundry supplies.
  • I’m in a charming, old building which means there is no overhead lighting. Zero. And even though I’m on this equally charming tree-lined street, my apartment looks out over a back alley, which does not afford a lot of light. The first thing I did was a thorough scrub of the windows. I even found this bizarre squeegee device on Amazon that allows me to wash the window exteriors without plunging to my death. That said, I purchased a terrific standing lamp from Target which allows me to direct the light depending on the time of the day. I also have multiple desk lamps with simple, modern shades.
whimsical wallpaper for a studio apartment.

I did do one daring thing in putting up whimsical wallpaper featuring navy-blue elk-like creatures.  I also added throw pillows hither and thither to brighten up the space.  The entry hall leading into the apartment was a narrow, dank lost space so I painted it a bold deep turquoise blue and created a portrait wall.  These additions took up no space but added a “je ne sais quoi” to the place.

I’m always collecting tips for living in a small studio apartment. My favorite kitchen find is a cutting board that fits over the sink area and has a detachable sieve. Unlike most New Yorkers, we actually do cook and eat in our apartment.   If you know of things that don’t take up a lot of space but also bring charm and efficiency, feel free to drop links below.

In the meantime, let me know when you’re visiting New York. As I said, I’m a stone’s throw from Central Park and happy to take you on one of my eccentric tours of this greatest American park.

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