A Roomy 178 Square Feet

THE tins of seasoning on top of Zach Motl’s refrigerator – Old Bay, Hungarian paprika, Madras curry powder – are for show only, chosen for their graphic punch and nifty typefaces. Living in a room that’s only 178 square feet, you don’t want to cook much, Mr. Motl said; it’s just too odoriferous. He once made French onion soup, and the apartment smelled for four days. “It was gross,” he said.

But Mr. Motl, 25, has made the most of this studio apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, which he rents for $944 a month, and has outfitted for about $2,500 in the three years since he moved to New York City. He has hewed to the old decorating dictum that says the more stuff you put in a room (albeit artfully arranged stuff), the bigger it seems. More really is more.

Mr. Motl, a theater major who also studied sculpture at the State University of New York at Geneseo, had planned to pursue a career in acting after graduating in 2007. Like so many before him, he had been testing the waters in New York City during his summers off from school, cobbling together a living and a career path by doing two or three jobs at a time, along with a handful of internships: waiting tables in Bellport, N.Y., his hometown, and in Brooklyn; teaching sailing at yacht clubs up and down Long Island; interning at P.S. 122 in New York, and for Miles Redd, the maximalist designer.

Pretty quickly, Mr. Motl began to realize he would much rather work in interior design than the theater. “Not that I knew anything about it,” he said. “I thought ikat” – a trendy textile – “was a piece of furniture.”

Still, he is an innately stylish guy. “I always knew what I liked and what I didn’t like,” he said.

And he has a sailor’s sense of thrift and handiness that has served him well in his new profession, and at home. When he moved into this apartment, a grubby white box, he removed all the window panes, scraped them clean and reattached each one so they wouldn’t bang or let the cold in (he keeps them sparkling clean).

He also chipped the mirrored tiles off the bathroom walls – “That’s when the love affair with my downstairs neighbor began,” he said dryly – and painted the room midnight blue. He built task lights with a steampunk aesthetic out of components he found at Canal Lighting for less than $200; he also put together a milk-glass shade ($12 on eBay), an Edison bulb ($18 at Canal Lighting) and an electric cord to make the fixture that hangs atmospherically over the beadboard breakfast counter/front hall table/cabinet he built himself.

Mr. Motl knows how to arrange furniture in groupings – an office “area,” sitting “room,” “bedroom” and so forth are clearly defined (though only a few inches apart). And he knows how to hit the sweet spot that turns a bunch of objects – like stacks of National Geographic magazines – into a collection, and how to array those objects so they look sculptural, instead of like a sign that he might be a candidate for A&E’s “Hoarders.”

Mr. Motl has been “collecting” since the age of 5 or 6, picking things up from the curb for his room, visiting yard sales when he had his own money. He recalled being kicked out of an antiques store at age 10, because the proprietor thought he was in there to steal something. “I remember, after running to my mother in tears from the confrontation,” Mr. Motl said, that the store owner defended herself “by saying, ‘What interest would a 10-year-old have in antiques?’ ”

When a professor at school culled his library of ’40s and ’50s Penguin paperbacks – mostly theater titles – Mr. Motl scooped them up. They’re jammed together on the shelf above his bed, books being one of the many multiples Mr. Motl has filled this tiny space with.

Wooden tennis rackets hang on the walls. “I bought one at an antiques store,” he said, “and then felt like an idiot because I kept finding them on the street.”

The blue Marc Jacobs Wellington boots were purchased on sale for $10.

Does he ever wear them?

“No, they’re just there.”

By November of 2008, Mr. Motl wanted just one (full-time) job. He was still waiting tables to support himself while he worked part time for Mr. Redd. A friend showed him a posting on Craigslist by Robert Couturier & Associates, the upscale architecture and design firm.

The ad was for a junior designer, with three years’ experience and knowledge of AutoCAD, the computer drafting program. Mr. Motl didn’t meet either of those requirements, but he did have pictures of this apartment. He got the job.

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