amy azzarito

My Most Meaningful Design Decision

by Amy Azzarito

At some point, after eight years of living in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment, I accepted the fact that my semi-permanent status as a renter was perhaps more permanent than semi. Rents in Williamsburg continue to increase making it virtually impossible for me to find a similarly sized apartment on the same budget. In the eight years I’ve called this place home, my apartment has been painted and decorated and redecorated many times over. And if you had seen photos that appeared in online or in Design*Sponge book, you may have thought I had it all together. You may never have wondered about the kitchen. –Amy

Photography by de la Barra Photography

Confession time. For a long period (a.k.a my 20s), I became an expert at future living.  I told myself that I would have pets when I had more space. I would have more people over to dinner, when I had a bigger kitchen. I would take that vacation when I had more time and money. I finally just got tired of waiting until tomorrow to be happy today. The first thing I did with my new found present living philosophy was get two kittens, and I slowly made other changes that have made me really happy today.

See my best decision after the jump

So back to that kitchen. It must have been put up in 1970, and then everyone tried to look the other way. But I couldn’t look the other way because the only wall on which my sofa would fit faced directly into the kitchen with its ugly, ugly wood veneer paneled cabinets. Usually when you live with something long enough, you stop seeing it. But I never stopped cringing every time I looked into that kitchen. I knew there was pretty much no way I could turn my tiny apartment kitchen into the Nancy Meyer kitchen of my dreams so I didn’t try to do anything. After all, my living situation was only semi-permanent.

So I tried not to let it bother me too much, but then one day, I realized that it did bother me. And no amount of pretending that it didn’t would change that. I wish I knew the secret for what changed. How I really achieved my “present living philosophy” Perhaps it was my 5-day a week yoga practice that taught me to live in the present (wishful thinking.) Or maybe it was the fact that in my 30s, I’ve learned not to settle (big life changes will teach you that). But for whatever reason, one day last fall, I got out my electric screwdriver and took the doors off all the cabinets. I went to the hardware store, and bought white paint and just attacked the cabinets. The project took over my entire living room. I didn’t want to pay for new hardware so I painted the existing hinges with black enamel paint. The amazing Matt Pierce, of Wood & Faulk, sent me strips of leather so that I could create cabinet pulls.

Then late one night, with a glass (ok, a bottle) of wine, I created the finishing touch. A collage refrigerator. I had taken a flash drive loaded with all my favorite photos of family and friends to Kinkos and printed them. At the time, I was living alone and yet this little project made me feel so connected to everyone I loved.

So my kitchen is still not a Nancy Meyer masterpiece, and I couldn’t do anything about the lack of counter space. If you look closely at my work,  you can see paint drips, and I’d still like to do something about the floor, but when I look up from my sofa, I feel calm and happy. I’m glad I made the decision to really be in the present, not wish for some better future. I love my little apartment kitchen in Brooklyn.

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  • I feel you, I’ve spent a year and a half living with the terrible wood trim in my Greenpoint apartment. The cheap wood is exposed but is so obviously meant to be painted over because it’s SO ugly (you can see where the pieces interlock like puzzle pieces). I’m painting the entire (terribly painted by the landlord) apartment and the wood trim this week. SO EXCITED.

  • Bravo. I loved reading this because it’s so true. I recently opened up my front door to a friend and as she stepped inside my pretty cute but not perfect house I apologized for the way it looked and said that I was kind of nervous about serving dinner on my fraying placemats (hi, self absorbed much?). She said, without missing a beat: “That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said to me.” It was great reminder to knock it off, live in the freakin’ right now, with the people I get to go through life with. Stop waiting. Rip off the cabinet doors.

    And she was right.

  • So many of us Brooklyn-ers feel your pain. I took charge of my apt. last fall and am still working through a list…it took me 5 years of a horrible beige paint to finally change it. I always thought I was going to move…and here I am feeling so much more cozy and stopped thinking about moving all the time, just enjoying the creativity of constantly working on my space.

  • It’s amazing what you can do with paint! Our house was a monument to the 70’s, complete with wood paneling and avocado green kitchen. We just bought gallonsa and gallons of off white paint switched out every piece of hardware in the entire house and it looks great.

  • Lovely story. Even in my 30s I have tended towards a ‘future living’ approach. You have reminded me why ‘present living’ is such a good idea!

  • Love this! Accepting your dissatisfaction led to quite the kitchen transformation. It feels home-y even through the pictures.

  • Me (and I’m sure many of your readers) come to this site to get inspired by beautiful things. This post, while not the most physically beautiful one of them all, is by far the most inspiring. Isn’t it funny how we assume that certain people—managing editors of sites like this one, for example—have the perfect apartments? This post reminds us that everyone has those parts of their homes—and lives—that aren’t perfect… yet. And you showed that a little bit of guts and spontaneity can make something even better than perfect. So thank you!

  • This is a great post! *Christy, your friend’s comment made me laugh. It’s a great reminder to not sweat the small stuff and appreciate what we have. When you’re enjoying those moments you don’t think about the details that can make us design obsessed perfectionists so neurotic, namely me. :)

  • Thank you for this. I think the sentiment is pretty common among renters. I just moved into a new space, but already I’m trying not to do “too much,” since we aren’t planning to live here more than a year. We got this apartment as part of a deal we broke with our landlord – they allowed us to keep the lease at the same rate as the bed bug-infested apartment they tried to give us, but we get a much bigger place. So it’s strange to live somewhere, knowing you can’t really do what you WANT to do to make it home. :-/

    But in the meantime, I’m planning to do the best I can until we find a better, more permanent (or semi-permanent) solution. :-)

  • Perhaps the take-away from this wonderful sharing post is that we owe it to ourselves to make the best of where are are right now…regardless of our plans for the future. To use whatever resources (physical, fiscal, etc.) we can muster to make our current situation, whether it’s something about our apartment or how we live, more closely resemble that which we say we want.

    I live in a 1920s building on the UWS of Manhattan–and have for quite awhile which means, at my age and income level, I don’t have the ability to move elsewhere in the city anymore. So I am incredibly grateful each day for being in this apartment.

    That said, there is stuff in here that drives me crazy that I have had to learn to live with and there are things I’ve done to improve the things I can. It’s totally hard to ignore some things (I may live in truly the ugliest kitchen anywhere, anytime. I have BROWN metal cabinets. Truly awful stove (I did buy my own fridge however.) and well, let’s not even talk about the sink area.

    One other point prompted by this post: Not waiting for life circumstances to change before you invest in yourself. In my late 20s and 30s, while everyone seemed to be pairing off, and after spending a fortune on shower and wedding and baby gifts, I spent some serous money on myself, investing in a great set of dishes, knives, pots and pans. (I still have many of them as I bought the best I could afford and things were more affordable then, or so it seemed). I have never regretted the investment and truly saw a huge difference once I began to truly commit to the life I was in, not what I might imagine. And when close friends saw how much energy I put into the apartment and making it a true “home” like theirs, they started buying me investment pieces of the kind I would have had, had I set up my own gift registry! (To this day, I have all but one piece, and use almost daily, several Le Creuset pots and pans from a married friend who said: Hey, you deserve it!)

    Take your life seriously, wherever you are. Happiness is in the present moment and how we engage with it.

  • Thanks for sharing your story Amy and giving some much needed inspiration to really tackle whatever project we’ve been putting off. Your post is a great example of how space doesn’t limit imagination and the clever touches you added create a space that defines you and where you are at the moment. Love the pink fridge handles!

  • Not to be a buzzkill (as the cabinets do look cool) but I seriously hope you got permission from your landlord to do that. As someone who owns a rental property, I’d be angry if my tenants altered the existing property without my consent (also, granted, the kitchen is new and not from the 70s).

  • What a great post! And a public service, really! It can be so easy to live in “someday”. For five years I have not-quite-lived in my apartment, always thinking that things would be different and I would move on to have my own house… but here I still am! Lately I have been making some gradual changes to live in the here and now, in this place, with my life as it is. It can be hard to let go of “someday”, but it can ultimately open up to the peace and happiness of “now”.

    I love looking at sites like Design Sponge and the like, but sometimes I think they feed the aspirational part of my brain too much. Thanks for giving us some realness!

  • Thank you for the reminder to live in the present. I am 63 and still living “for the future.” When does it end? You’ve given me a mission for today — start remodeling for my own pleasure NOW … because if the future never comes for someone like me, it never will.

  • whats the deal with that wooden mora clock above the radiator? did you make it? where did you get it? LOVE!

  • I’ll be the lone dissenting voice and say that while it’s great you are “making the space your own” – please be aware that not all landlords are greatful for tenant “improvements”. If my tenant took down kitchen cupboard doors and repainted them I’d be furious. Just something to note: get permission first. Our tenant painted a room navy blue – a nightmare to paint over for the next tenant (who preferred white).

  • Any ideas for the faux marble kitchen counters in my rental loft in BKLYN? We call them mottled hens, but the fanciful interpretation hasn’t altered our lack of fancy for them. Also, who made your fabulous couch?

  • awesome. being happy today with what we have now vs. wishing for happiness in the future. My dad always said, Don’t wish your life away.

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate piece of your life. :) Truly lovely.

  • Future living! I suffer from that condition as well. This post was so refreshing and exactly what I needed to read today. Such a fan of yours, Amy.

  • One of the big reasons, other than the fabulously professional and inspired work you all do on this site, is the fact that you are all so REAL. Thank you for stepping out and showing your real selves to us.
    Amy, hugs to you, and high-five for realizing how important making each moment in the present beautiful to and for yourself is.
    For many perfectly good reasons I’ve put off so many things in my life, but I’m gaining ground in making up for it, and I am WAY older than you are.
    It’s never to late to be what you were always meant to be. And it’s never too late to get yet another gallon or can of paint and change what can be changed!

  • Thanks for the inspiration. I’m about to rearrange my furniture again so I don’t have to look at my yellowing from age white laminate kitchen cabinets when I sit on my sofa. If I dared paint them I’d probably be evicted. Some landlords act like their units were done by Donald Trump’s decorator. I have great space but the space is so poorly designed.

  • Such a great post. Thanks so much for sharing and being so honest, Amy. I live in the future all the time and you’ve inspired me to take a step back and think about what it means to be present.

  • Those leather pulls are straight out of my dreams! I have plain knobs in my kitchen right now, but I can sense an update in my near future. Also, thank you for the reminder to be present and thankful…and if you’re not, to do something about it!

  • I think this waiting mentality is all too common. It’s so easy to not want to do anything, because your situation isn’t perfect, but then – when will it ever be? Think of all you’re missing out while waiting! I enjoyed hearing about your thoughts. Fun to see some pictures of your kitchen too.

  • Amy, This is so fabulous. I am really glad you decided to do it…it looks amazing. Here’s to Being Here Now!
    Also, I have the same.exact.crewel.pillow! I always thought my mom had made it from some 70s crafting pattern. I guess I am wrong?

    • Lesley – My mom made it too! Well, she said she did half of it and her aunt finished it! That’s so cool! :) xoAmy

  • This is great. I live in a large studio loft in Seattle and we are definitely planning on moving in the next 6 months (for several complex reasons) and I have used that as an excuse to leave design elements that I’m totally unhappy with my place just be. But…even 6 months is a long time for an aesthetically-inclined person to sit and become increasingly unhappy with her surroundings, particularly in a studio where every little detail is visible 100% of time. We are going to be moving apartments because of bigger things about the apartment/building/area that we can’t change, and you’ve inspired me to just go ahead and change the things we can now.

  • I love this! I’m a lifetime renter in my mid-30s. Just have to say, I always roll my eyes at the landlords that chime in when renters post. Mind your own business!

  • Amy, I’m with you…and mostly because what tenant is ever absolutely sure of getting
    their deposit back Anyway? A smudge on the wall? You’re not getting your deposit back.
    I am a native of Greenpoint who has been priced out of the hood.. I know of what I speak.
    Hence my relocate to Portland OR. I
    ps I apologize to any landlords out there..just my take from 20 years of experience

  • Amy, after literally YEARS of reading Design*Sponge, this post inspired me enough to finally write my first comment. Thank you for your vulnerability and for reminding me to seek happiness in simple ways in life. Thank you for reminding me to be myself and that the things that make us happy are not trivial, but worth investing in. I feel inspired to take ownership over my life, and to live into the present. With personal and design admiration,

  • as a landlord and someone guilty of waiting for the “right ” time to improve my space, (at age 63, time is running out” i say get permission, do the best job you can and go for it. i recently merged households with a new marriage, and am slowly making his home ours. Don’t wait. live today.

  • Amy,

    Congrats on accepting your (current) place in the world. Sometimes, one of the bravest things a person can do is to release a perception of how things “should be”; and, instead, embrace the reality of the moment.

    Your place is lovely, with or without your name on the deed!



    Ps. I just started listening to you and Grace on “After the Jump”. Keep those podcasts coming! I find them really helpful, insightful, and entertaining!

  • This was a great decision. I love what you did with the cabinets; however, your best choice getting the kittens^..^

  • I love your spirit, but hopefully all the renters out there ask your landlords before making permanent changes to your unit. Landlords have significant amounts of cash invested in their real estate, whether it’s outdated or not. You can appreciate this if you’ve looked into buying your own place. Respect is a two-way street and not every landlord is out to screw you, most are very pleased to have a diligent tenant and respectful, open communication.

  • One of the best stories I’ve read on this site (been reading and enjoying DS for years)
    FAR more interesting and refreshing than most of the picture perfect, styled to death makeover items. They kind of bland out after a while. Thoughtful and well written. Thanks.

  • I couldn’t agree more with the other comments–this is seriously one of the best things I’ve read on D*S–truly memorable. well done. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful & profound story. I too started living in the present several years ago when I awakened to the present-mindfulness & gratitude can change your life more than new floors it seems….even though I’d like the new floors–I’m happy & joyous all the same. A big hug to you Amy-I enjoyed visiting your charming little corner of the world.

  • Hi guys- I just wanted to thank you all for your comments. This was, by far, one of the more personal things I’ve shared on the site. And it was so sweet of you all to embrace it with open arms. Every comment means so much. And let me just add, that I, in no way, have present living conquered yet. It’s a constant battle to try to stay in the present and remember that daily happiness is possible.
    Thank you for making my week! xoAmy

  • Amy, I love what you’ve done with your kitchen, and love even more the philosophy that got you there. All your changes look fantastic. May I recommend tackling the backsplash next? It’s a surface that can make a huge impact. I’d put a sheet of metal (or tiles) behind the cooktop, and wallpaper or laminated wrapping paper over the rest.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Brilliant post, I think all of us who read design blogs can hold our hand up to the “Someday…” shade of thought. And I love how you “manifested” your new mindset – sometimes it’s easy to implement a new resolution in a set of new lists rather than actual action. I’ve also really enjoyed the comments to this post, it’s clear you’ve struck a chord with lots of people (not just me!)

  • I wrote earlier about getting a landlord’s permission. I think the poster Kristina (above) writing “Just have to say, I always roll my eyes at the landlords that chime in when renters post. Mind your own business!” is the attitude causes landlordss/building owners to not want their tenants making improvements. Um, it is their/our business and some changes can diminish the value of their investment. That said, I usually allow tenants to paint, etc. because I’ve rented and understand wanting to make a space nice/your own. I just think getting permission first is important. Good landlords will usually work to make/keep tenants happy.

  • This is very inspirational, Amy! I’m still very much trying to figure out how to live for the moment and not let the daily grind keep me from doing the things I know I will find fulfilling and make me happy.

  • Love this! Been doing the same with our apartment in SF and this definitely inspired me to accept our permanent renter status and get busy with some fun changes! Great article as always.

  • this is great! and reminds me of my one and only little queens apartment i just moved from in january (to a house…). it had beige walls and although i tried to design around them, finally after 5 years i decided to do something about it and painted each room a different color. i adored it. although i only lived there one more year after that, it was all worth it! the strongest memory i have of that apartment is coming home to vintage green colored walls every day after work and feeling so happy.

  • Your floor is WAY easier than the painting…Shaw Ent., Konecto, Metro floors…all have a vinyl plank floor that “snaps” together, is cut with a box cutter, and is NOT glued to the ugly tile underneath. It floats, but does not have that boxy sound of plastic laminats. If you get on from these suppiers, it is dense enough NOT to show the grout lines beneath it, and you can probably do it yourself in a day. My first time was my grandaughters 12 x 15 bedroom. I did make my son install the quarter round along the baseboard edges……

    It comes in many colors and styles of individual boards, and if you use a different color, and go in another direction (diagonal ? makes the room feel larger) it won’t look like you tried to match the living room and missed. People don’t know the difference of the newest style planks unless you tell them..

  • I completely and totally connect with this post – I have only recently also come to the realization that I was “living in the future”. I’ve always been a relatively happy and easy-going person wherever I live, but I’ve also always had the “I hate the decoration of the (furnished!) rental apartment I’m living in, but I’m not going to do anything about because I will be moving out of here eventually”. Well…I’ve just started taking down my landlord’s art and putting up some of my own, and I immediately felt more at home, comfortable, and happy! Small things, but it really makes a difference. Thanks for sharing!

  • Well done Amy! It also took me forever to see that in our new apartment, I have to make things nice for us now, not later. We have to do everything very budget friendly, free if I can get it :) it takes some time and some paint, but it will make you so much happier! I think your philosophy is the best, like you, I’m just sorry I learned that lesson so late.

  • This is great! My parents and I always moved when I was a kid and the words ‘we won’t be here for long’ have stayed with me since. It’s really hard to live in the present. I agree with Irene’s comment not to wait to invest in yourself too, like with buying the best quality you can afford, even if it’s secondhand. When I first met my partner he had just come out of a relationship and had to buy nearly everything new. His vaccuum cleaner was so cheap and hardly sucked up anything…it really frustrated me that he had even wasted a little amount of money on such a unuseful thing. He said that when he has his perfect house one day he’ll buy the things he really likes. But I just think that if that day ever comes, we might not have the money to spend on these kind of things because we’ll be spending it on the house and decorating it. Not only is it frustrating to use things that don’t really work or that aren’t very nice but were cheap, but just think of all those things ending up in a landfill. And in the end you probably end up spending more money on something because you had to buy it more than once. Unfortunatly most goods these days (especially electronics) are designed not to last.

  • I just moved into my new place. I waited years before I fixed things in my old place. Got it so nice eventually, but I only got to enjoy it for a few months, because then I moved. Now although I don’t have a lot of money (mortgage eek!) and can’t make big changes, I’m making heaps of small ones. The best so far was swapping out the handles in my kitchen. They would have “lasted until”, but every time I open a cupboard I smile. Definitely not waiting to do some of those other small things now! Thanks for your story, now I’m even more inspired!

  • this small, personal piece about the imperfect but immediate solution is perhaps the best, most refreshing thing i have read on this site for a long time. it can get really discouraging to see seemingly perfect room/house after perfect room/house and feel as if i’m the only one living in an imperfect (yet totally adorable and lovable) apartment. so reading that a real person who WORKS on this site has an imperfect, lovable space she made herself is exactly the kind of thing i can relate to. i would love to see more of this.

  • I bought a condo at the height of the market, at age 49, thinking – well, that’s it. That’s the house I’m gonna live in until I retire at age 85. Then I fell in love. HAH! That will teach me to make life decisions in a logical manner. The place was a little too small for both of us, but it was our little love nest. Then I lost my job, and defaulted on the loan. The bank did nothing for a year. Finally it was time to move amidst a shaky job market. That made me not dig in as I moved in to a duplex in a nearby town. After a year and a half, I’m ready to bond with this rental. It could be better. There are ants. There are moles in the yard, but at least I have a yard. The garage is dusty and musty, but I have a place to store odd stuff. Our friends come and visit. We love the neighborhood. We’ve got great neighbors. And my work situation is slowly recovering. So… I’m starting by reorganizing the rooms to maximize the space then decorating. Finally! Enough with the waiting! Thanks for the post, and enjoy the kitties.

  • Love it. We are also Brooklynites who realize that while we’re not gonna be buying a home anytime soon, we’re also not gonna be leaving the awesome apartment we somehow snagged last year when the rest of the hipsterati wasn’t looking. So today we decided that we’re gonna paint (finally) and put some real art on the walls. Eff the grand shelter p0rn dream and the five year plan. White cabinets (and in our case, jewel-turquoise bedrooms) may not be forever, but every day that you enjoy them, they will be worth it. :)

  • I echo all of the happy statements above…

    but I really want to know how those pictures are attached to your fridge! :) Surely you don’t have little magnets everywhere, right? Just curious. It must make you so happy!

  • Thanks so much for this, Amy. It really resonates with me and I think this is an important stance for any 20 or 30 something urbanite of today to take. DesignSponge just gets better and better and better. xx.

  • I have been trying to apply this principle to my life overall and you are so right – being content in our present situation is an incredibly important attitude to pursue. Besides, I think if you love your home and allow yourself to be charmed by it, that will show itself when others are over in a good way.

  • I know this post was about your kitchen, but I have been obsessing over your tufted bench in the first photo. Can I ask where you found it? I have been searching for one like it for months!

  • I’ve read all of the ”Most Meaningful decision” posts and, guys, THANK YOU for sharing these stories, your realities, your past, your dreams and fears. And Amy I live on the other part of the world :) in a town called Limassol, the closest I’ve been to were you are was when I got out of train called the D train in Brooklyn. I walked around Brooklyn for like 40 minutes or so to find the office of a businessman I was about to interview. It’s funny but looking at those Brooklyn houses with the yards and the trees etc made me wanna come back home and make my house a home. Something I was procrastinating upon because.. ”If I invest in my domestic life that would symbolically mean that I will stay there forever”. That trip was back in 2010. It took my 2 years to finally change something, but I did. It was only a new sofa, new curtains, wall décor, flowers and a new bed, but I did. And it feels good. Not because of the material things but what this change symbolises. :) sending love and light from Cyprus. Maria

  • I feel your pain on the kitchen – mine is in decent shape but fairly bland and I’ve been holding out for the ‘future dream kitchen’ someday. But this article and other factors in life have inspired me to also quit future living and take the steps now to make my space mine. Great write-up and thanks!

  • Thank you for this. I must translate it for my Mother. She has had the same relationship with her kitchen as you used to have for years. There’s always some “it’s still not that bad” in the air but no – it’s really bad. It’s just difficult for her to make the first step and I have to help her to be a little happier :) (kittens not welcomed)