Interiorssneak peeks

A Newlywed Nest in New York City

by Sofia Tuovinen

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge
Many of us who have ever lived in New York City can understand how easily you can be priced out of the rental market. John and Zack McDowell are no exception — two and a half years ago they almost let go of their dream of staying. John was back home with family in Chicago, recovering from dozens of denied rental applications, while Zack was couch surfing and desperately continuing the hunt for a home. When a broker that the couple knew found and advocated for them to get an apartment in Washington Heights, John and Zack knew it was either that or leaving New York City altogether. As it happens, luck struck and the apartment was theirs. It didn’t take long for John to return to the city and begin the design process, with the aim to put their distinct personal touch on the 500-square-foot, turn-of-the-century apartment.

John and Zack’s design ethos has been to bring their own history to their new home, whether in the form of art, pieces of furniture or the odd tchotchke — everything serves as a reminder of the memories these newlyweds have built together. “We have a New Year’s Day pact to wake up in a new place at the start of each year. With it, we collect a piece of art from wherever we go,” John explains the process of filling the apartment with meaningful keepsakes.

Even though John and Zack run video production and creative services company Dugud Lab together and work side by side daily, designing a home for two still taught the couple a lot about collaboration. “As a married couple, it’s important to remember that you’re a team. The fact that we’re opposites taught us a lot about contrast and balance,” they share. Zack adds, “John’s also a perfectionist and designing our place over a long period of time taught him a lot about accepting imperfection and being patient.”

Turning their rental apartment into the home they had envisioned from the very beginning took a total of two years. One of the last things to be completed was the canvas above the bed, which John and Zack painted together. “It sat blankly in our apartment for the two years we were designing. While it can feel like a minor detail, we wanted to see the room finished before we settled on what we would paint,” the couple explains. “The day we completed the canvas and finally decided we were done designing was when […] Design*Sponge reached out about a home feature — it feels like a full-circle moment for us.”

Make sure not to miss the video teaser of John and Zack’s home below!  —Sofia

Photography and videography by Dugud Lab / @dugudlab

Image above: John and Zack’s living and sleep areas are located on the opposite sides of the main room in their Washington Heights apartment. The couple chose deep hues and gold tones to accent the neutral wall color. “We wanted a place that felt warm and inviting while also feeling sophisticated. As we completed a room, our measuring stick was always: ‘does it feel grown and sexy?'” they share.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

John and Zack first considered wallpapering the foyer, but eventually settled on painting the space dark blue and adding a console table. “It’s not very common to have a foyer in a small apartment so we love having a place to kick off our shoes and set down keys and mail,” they share.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The wooden life-size mannequin that stands in the hallway was a gift from one of Zack’s interns in Texas. The artist is unknown. The couple chose a rubberized, painted neon yellow chair to contrast the dark blue walls. 

Our apartment chose us.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

John and Zack wanted to create a gallery wall that would invite guests to sit down and stay awhile. 

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The Dugud duo, Zack and John McDowell in their living room. Originally from Chicago and Dallas, the couple wanted to create a serene space and bring pieces of their hometowns to their life in New York City.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The midnight blue velvet sofa from World Market is a prized possession.

When we first saw all of the pattern, we thought we were ridiculous. Once we embraced it, it kind of became our thing.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

Details from the couple’s wedding: a photo strip of John with his aunt Deb and a lightbox that shares a James Baldwin quote, “Love him and let him love you.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

A small stool from HomeGoods divides the bedroom from the living area. “We keep talking about a murphy bed so we can open up the hosting potential for our living/bedroom. However, being New Yorkers, we’ve grown accustomed to constant purging and moving a couple things around to make the space work for us,” John and Zack explain. 

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

Dino the rescue enjoys lounging on the bed. “When we signed the lease, John was still in Chicago. He put together design plans and links to furniture to make sure we were on the same page,” Zack tells us. “He even put a little dog on the rug in his designs and a year later, we found Dino at ASPCA.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

John and Zack chose several rounded pieces to help shape out the boxy room. One of the couple’s bigger ticket items is the ergonomic chair from West Elm. 

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

With around-the-clock edits, it’s important for us to have an in-house office area when we can’t afford MTA delays. We love the playfully masculine energy of this corner,” the couple shares. 

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

Our wedding hashtag was #jzontherun so when our friends Ben and Morgan gave us this behind the scenes photo from Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “On The Run” tour as a wedding gift, we knew it had to sit at our desk.

We’re grateful to have a home and resources to put behind making it uniquely ours. It’s not lost on us that having a home is a privilege.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

Gold knobs from Anthropologie add the right amount of pizazz to the dark-stained Target buffet, which the couple uses as their bar.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

John and Zack love how their foyer helps transition color into the rest of the apartment. Choosing the neutral wall color for the rest of their home was no easy task. “Zack only went through five shades of grey to find the perfect hue for our walls,” John says.

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

“Our ‘Coming To America’ bathroom with the jacuzzi tub and mirrored ceiling. While we wouldn’t have picked the finishes, the bathroom is what winds up on all our friends’ Instagram accounts,” John and Zack reveal. As their bathroom has a calm palette, they didn’t try to fight it. “We embraced the design and kept linens and accessories neutral.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

As cooking is therapeutic for both John and Zack, they chose to keep this space calm and neutral as well. “We always say that food really brings people together. The churrasco and mofongo at Malecon on 175th St is delicious and we love grabbing Cuban coffee from Estrella Bakery on 161st St when family comes to visit.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

When the couple moved in, they began thinking strategically about what their home needed. After a while, they realized that a corner bench in the kitchen would seat more people and help the space flow. 

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The kitchen nook is our favorite place in the entire apartment,” John and Zack share. “Having guests gather around the table to gossip, play cards or share dinner with us is the best part of our home. For this corner, we fully embraced pattern and color through pillows from various places.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The letterboard above the kitchen bench normally houses a different quote each month. “We’ve kept our wedding dessert table menu up a little longer than anticipated.”

A Newlywed Nest in New York City | Design*Sponge

The view of downtown New York City from the living area makes it all worthwhile. “It’s nice to come home to a relaxing environment, light some candles, turn on some Sinatra and unwind. It’s also really nice being able to see downtown from our window – it gives us a chance to be in New York without the hustle and bustle.”


Paint – “Moscow Midnight” by Sherwin Williams
Art above console table – Austin Young

Living Room
Paint – “The Big Chill” by Sherwin Williams
Gallery wall from left to right: How Far Is A Light Year by Alexander Grahovsky (@agrahovsky), Space Law Poster by Christian Dunn (@hellomrdunn), Birds Flying photo by Paul Morgan, Blush & Blue Leaves by @printsproject, Mouth photo by Irving Penn (@the.irving.penn.foundation), Blue Rock print by Austin Mann (@austinmann), Arm quote photo by Zack McDowell (@zackcmcdowell)], Blank Pages print on bar credenza is Sean McCabe (@seanwes)

Bed Area
Canvas above bed – @johnnygolightly & @zackcmcdowell

Art – Zack McDowell (@zackcmcdowell)

Paint – “The Big Chill” by Sherwin Williams,
Café Board by Letterfolk
Masculine Feminine Poster by Keiko Kimura (@keikodane)



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