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“For me, marriage is a lifetime. That old sofa I liked isn’t.”

Newlyweds pare back and make a 500-square-foot apartment work in Harlem

When newlyweds Joshua Itiola and Bisserat Tseggai looked to lease their first apartment together, they focused on Harlem. “To me, this neighborhood is the epicenter of blackness—it’s where the Harlem Renaissance happened,” Itiola says. “True, Harlem is changing, but many of the streets still have their old-school charm. It’s the place that feels most like home to both of us.”

But, in order to live there, they had to make peace with with a smaller space—an approximately 500-square-foot, second-floor unit in a 1920s brownstone.

“An apartment like this, one in a brownstone with beautiful old woodwork, is the best of New York living,” says Itiola. “Even though we were moving into a smaller space, it felt like an upgrade.”

When Bisserat Tseggai and Joshua Itiola moved into a small apartment, they used their design skills to make it work.
Bisserat Tseggai and Joshua Itiola sit together on a blue midcentury modern-style sofa. A framed print is propped in a non-functioning fireplace.
A non-functioning fireplace becomes a frame for graphic art.

The place has a living room, bedroom, bath, and kitchen. Itiola (a planner and designer for Vitsoe) and Tseggai (an actress and one-time graphic designer) used their design skills and shared modern aesthetic to merge their collections and make it work.

“Look, I grew up in New York, so I know about living small,” says Itiola. “As long as you have tall ceilings and natural sunlight, it will be good.” The combined living and dining area proves his theory. A bay window makes sure the room is illuminated for much of the day. “My favorite thing about the apartment is this window,” says Tseggai. “I love how much light it lets in.”

The room is where they relax, eat, and socialize, so space planning was key. The fireplace surround and mantel are beautiful, the kind of period feature that makes people swoon over prewar apartments. The challenge is marrying a classic feature with modern amenities—like the couple’s 55-inch flat television screen.

“We aren’t necessarily the kind of people who would have a large television, but my wife won it in a contest,” Itiola says. “Since we had it, we decided to try and use it.”

Itiola made it fit by using his work products, installing a Vitsœ shelving unit on one side and making a home for the television within it. When they want to use it, they can angle it toward seating areas. “We didn’t want to center the room around the television set, and this allows the mantel to be the focal point,” he says.

The Norden folding table from Ikea can serve two or six.
A white folding table sits in the corner. When it's opened, it seats six. A narrow, wall-hung shelving system makes compact storage in the living room.
A shelving system from Vitsœ makes for unobtrusive storage in the living room.

Another challenge: merging furniture and collections. “We definitely have a similar aesthetic, and we like to shop. We are the type of people who see it, buy it, and then worry about making it fit later,” Itiola says. “We picked out the pieces that would work, and used them. That means that half of our collection is stashed in storage in the basement—and that we had to get rid of some pieces.” They add that pieces that don't work for them often find a home with friends and relatives.

Itiola has some advice for people combining households. “You’ll find that some of your personal things clash or just don’t fit. Don’t let that get in the way; be okay with letting some things go,” he says. “For me, marriage is for a lifetime. That old sofa I liked isn’t.”

Modern, colorful art helps knit together the classic background and the modern furniture. “Bisserat has brought more color to my life—including a number of well-done graphic design posters,” Itiola says. “We are both huge fans and admirers of this type of art.”

Tseggai installed the gallery wall over the sofa. This is one of those projects that’s more easily envisioned than done. “As far as assembly goes, I just kept moving stuff around till I liked how it looked,” she says. “Each piece has a story behind it. If it doesn't have a story, I don't hang it up.”

A blue, midcentury-modern style sofa is the main seating for the living room.
When the couple moved in, they owned a sofa that Itiola liked, but it didn't particularly fit the space. Tseggai found a new one on Wayfair.

Obtaining the sofa was a more instantaneous decision. “I fell into one of those Instagram advertising traps and before I knew it I was ordering a sofa from Wayfair,” Tseggai explains.

The kitchen is less roomy. “Truly, we can only have one person in the kitchen at one time,” says Itiola. “Cooking can be challenging, because we don’t have a lot of prep space.”

That doesn’t keep them from entertaining. An expanding table sits in the corner, and day-to-day it serves the two of them. But when company comes for dinner, it unfolds beside the bay window. “We can comfortably host four other people,” says Itiola.

When asked about the most challenging aspect of small-space living, Itiola is quick to respond: “Closet space.” They have a single closet in the bedroom. “I think that’s the first thing New Yorkers ask when they are looking at an apartment, ‘How many closets does it have?’” he says. “Fitting our things together in the closet was a real challenge, and we had to sit down together and work it out. It’s all about negotiation.” They replaced two hanging rods with a Vitsœ system that allows them to fold and store most of their clothing.

The couple poses beside the mantel. "This is the first place we've shared together," Itiola says. "We have had to work as a team to curate the space."
The couple is beside the living room fireplace, he sits on an orange Eames chair, she leans against the mantel. A colorful wooden statue is by folk artist Alexander Girard.
The couple collects wooden figures by Alexander Girard, buying one on notable occasions such as an anniversary.

Both of them say that negotiation is the tough part, and time together can be the sweet part. “The best thing is that Josh is always near me; and the worst thing is that Josh is always near me,” Tseggai says, laughing.

“I love the coziness and how homey our place feels,” she adds. “But the worst thing by far is how often we have to closet purge because we just don't have room for all of our stuff. But honestly, when I hear myself say that out loud, it isn't actually worth complaining about. Every New Yorker wishes they had just one more closet.”

Itiola says that while their current home may not be their forever home, their neighborhood is for the long haul. “A lot of people never come uptown; they say it’s too far. But I’m an uptown kind of guy,” he says. “Culturally it’s very diverse. I’m the son of Nigerian immigrants, and there are many people here with a similar background, and that makes it seem like a community.”

It’s a community where they’ve found all they need. “I’ve heard people who live in Brooklyn say, ‘I don’t leave Brooklyn on the weekends.’ We feel that way about our neighborhood, and we don’t leave Harlem on the weekends,” Itiola says. “This is the place where we want to live the rest of our lives.”

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