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Inside a designer’s 540-square-foot Brooklyn apartment

Making a compact home into a bright retreat

Rajiv Fernandez lives a life of layers. He’s of Indian descent and has a traditionally Hispanic last name; he and his family were some of the few people of color in his small Midwestern hometown; he describes himself as an architect, an artist, and a children’s book author with a neo-hip-hop persona; and he lives large in a small apartment that he’s designed to synthesize all of these elements of his identity.

“I’ve embraced what I’ve been given,” he says, explaining his outlook. For instance, he wrote an essay for his graduate school application detailing the origins of the last name he’s been asked about nearly every day of his life.

“My family comes from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India. Our name did end with an ‘s,’ but my grandfather changed it to a ‘z.’ In elementary school, my gym teacher called me ‘Ra-heave,’ assuming I was a Hispanic person.”

A bedroom has a platform bed with storage drawers underneath and a midcentury modern armchair.
Rajiv Fernandez selected a bed from IKEA that has built-in storage drawers underneath. The midcentury modern chair to the left of it was salvaged off the street and refurbished.

He moved from the Midwest to Manhattan, and from there to Brooklyn. “I was looking for a fixer-upper, a place where I could live that would also be a good investment,” he says. His search ended with an L-shaped junior one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights.

The space measures 540 square feet, but the walls and colorful, dated finishes made it feel even smaller. With a few strategic tweaks, he changed the look and function without changing the footprint.

The first step was to open up this space as much as possible. “There was a wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the space, and I removed that,” Fernandez says.

A black-and-white rug has a triangle pattern. The sofa is gray and low-slung. A pair of Chinese armchairs are crafted with warm-hued wood.
In the living room, a low sofa from BoConcept doesn't visually block the room. The rug and coffee table are from IKEA. The chairs around the table and the armchairs are passed down from his family. The Otis lamp is by One Forty Three.

Before the wall came down, you had to enter the kitchen via a hallway. Removing the room-dividing wall and reorienting the space to the living room was a game changer. “It instantly allowed light to flow throughout the space, making it so much brighter. It’s wonderful, unless you are waking up with a hangover—then the brightness can be a little rough.”

In addition to allowing the light to flow through the apartment, “straightening out” the cooking space, making it a galley-style kitchen, increased its functionality. “Originally, there was zero countertop area, now I have much more prep space,” the architect says.

Fernandez also put the kitchen largely under wraps, hiding the refrigerator and a dishwasher drawer behind cabinet-like panels. “I wanted it to look playful and sophisticated at the same time,” he says. “I put everything behind cabinetry and painted most of them Midnight Oil by Benjamin Moore—a color I use in almost all of my projects. The tower that houses the refrigerator is unpainted white oak for a natural accent.”

A small kitchen has gray cabinets, with a column of natural wood cabinets for contrast. The backsplash is a slab of marble.
The gray kitchen cabinets are painted Midnight Oil by Benjamin Moore. Fernandez selected a marble slab backsplash for a smooth, uncluttered look.

Fernandez also switched up the closet game near the entry to make the most of the available space. Near the front door, he turned a linen small closet into a bar; and since it’s around the corner from the kitchen, it also doubles as a prep area. He enlarged a small dressing room that once opened off the bathroom and relocated the door to make it a walk-in closet in the entry.

Throughout the apartment, Fernandez searched for extra space. He found some areas where utilities were boxed in by drywall, and he used space within them for built-in book and display shelves.

Furnishing the house is a mix of his aesthetic, his art, and his heritage. “First of all, I wanted the furniture to be low and not do anything to block the sight lines,” he says. “That’s why I chose that sofa in the living room.” Also in the living room, two wooden armchairs that are family heirlooms. In addition to valuing their sentiment, he appreciates their see-through quality.

A animated GIF shows a closet doors opening and closing. Behind them, you see a wet bar. A white bathroom has a wall-hung sink.
Above: A closet was converted into a bar and sometimes meal prep area. Below: Fernandez remodeled the bathroom with wall-hung sink to open up the space.

Other vintage items (the Scandinavian chairs around the dining table and in the bedroom) reflect the architect’s appreciation of reuse and sustainability. “I found the chair in the bedroom on the street, sanded it down and reupholstered the seat with an olive-green leather,” Fernandez says.

The walls, once poorly and unevenly painted, are now uniformly white—Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore. The idea is to create a neutral backdrop for Fernandez’s brightly colored artwork.

“My company, Lil’ Icon, produces art and objects that make you think and make you wink,” Fernandez explains. It was born after the architect wrote a special book for his nephew, Baby to Brooklyn. It’s a tome that uses graphics to compare icons from a infant’s world to symbols of New York’s most populated borough’s hipster culture (i.e., a “bun in the oven” and a man bun).

In his home, the architect has art he has created, including a large print of that late 1980s staple, the Coogi sweater. “I was obsessed with them when I was a little kid—my whole family was,” Fernandez says. “The white background makes my home feel larger, and it showcases the art.”

The short segment of the “L” serves as the bedroom. Fernandez uses it as an example of why it’s important to take a wait and see approach to remodeling. “I lived here for a year before I started the project, and that time was helpful to see what I really needed,” he says. “If I had started the project immediately, I would have put up a translucent sliding door there. I’m so glad I didn’t, it’s not needed and it makes the space feel a lot more open and expansive.”

Fernandez sits in a Chinese chair in his living room.
Fernandez sits in one of the chairs that once belonged to his grandparents. The credenza is by Organic Modernism.

In fact, the entire time he’s spent in the home has been a lesson about what he does and doesn’t need. “I’ve really learned how to edit things, and I’ve gotten rid of the things I just don’t need. Instead of collections of tchotchkes, I live efficiently with just the things I have to have,” Fernandez says.

It’s a different perspective from his younger years. “Growing up in the Midwest, I lived in a large house with a big yard. We had rooms we didn’t even use. I used to play a game called “MASH” with the kids on the school bus—we’d try and figure out who would live in a mansion, apartment, shack, or house. Now I think, ‘who would want to live in a mansion?’”

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