When Justina White, principal of J.G.W. Decor, had to locate an apartment in Oakland, California—one of the toughest rental markets in the U.S.—she discovered herself in a make-it-work moment.
After weeks of looking, she landed a one bedroom for herself and her daughter. But the designer says that while she had to compromise on size, that was no excuse to give style a short shrift.
Returning to the East Bay recently made White happy, but the rental prices came as a shock. "Before I moved away, I had lived in Oakland for years, and I loved the culture, the restaurants, and social life here," she says. "When I split up with my daughter’s father, I moved back to discover the rental prices had doubled. I wanted to live near Lake Merritt, so I decided to downsize in order to afford the location."
She felt lucky to find an apartment in the perfect location, just five minutes from the lake, with hardwood floors and crown molding. The challenge was that it measured just 500 square feet.
She immediately decided to give her daughter the bedroom and take the living room for herself. "My reasoning was that it would be like living in a studio for me, and she would have her own space to play and have her friends over," White says.
But White also needed a place to entertain and work, so she took her bedroom undercover, so to speak. "I thought about how I would really use the space. When I had a regular bedroom, I was rarely in it, I just slept there," she says. "Most of the time I was out in the living room or the kitchen."
With that in mind, she selected a daybed with arms and a tufted back that looks like a sofa during the day and becomes bed at night when the throw pillows are removed. Only a close look reveals that the seat cushion is actually a mattress covered by a gray sheet. "In my designs, I like to use furniture that has more than one function for versatility," she says.
Above the sofa, she hung a striking photograph that gives the small space a big dose of her signature style. "I wanted something dramatic there, and I went searching online. I found this image on a photographer’s Instagram, and I contacted her and arranged to buy a print," White says. "I love it because it shows a strong, black woman. I had not lived without another adult in the house for nine years, and now I was making a home for females—just me and my daughter. I love the energy and the pop it gives the place."
The photograph also advanced the black, white, and gray color palette she initiated with the daybed. "I love this palette. It’s so classic," she says. "Some people think large dark elements make a room feel small and depressing, but I don’t feel that way. I think the color black adds a lot of character and feels chic. You just need to balance it with some lighter accents."
She expanded on the idea in the kitchen, where she painted the walls behind the white cabinets black. She also brought out the black paint for several lampshades in the space. "When I can’t find what I need, I don’t mind DIY-ing it," White says. "I also painted the oak table that I use as my desk a light gray."
The desk lives where a dining room table might normally sit. "In a space this small, you have to decide what’s important," says White. "I need a place to work at home, and Jasmyn and I have our meals on the eat-in counter in the kitchen."
The square footage of the home necessitates decisions about storage as well as space planning. White’s clothes are stored in the bedroom closet, while Jasmyn’s clothes are stowed in a dresser. "We try save space by having just enough clothes," says White. "You don’t really need hundreds pairs of jeans or leggings. By keeping it minimal, we can keep things organized." White uses a storage space in the building to house off-season clothes.
The family imposes the same kind of discipline on other accessories and possessions. "For quite a while, we’ve been working on purging, because we don’t have room for excess clutter. When we get new things, we get rid of or donate old things," says White. "For example, when my daughter outgrows toys, we donate them. I think it’s a good lesson for her."
She’s also teaching her daughter lessons in saving and creativity. "I work with my clients by sourcing what they can afford, and that’s often very high end," White says. "For me, this apartment was about showing people that interior design is not exclusively for a certain category of folks. In my own home, I shopped at Marshall’s, Overstock.com, and thrift stores. My goal was to use creativity to make a high-design look for a fraction of the cost."
White and her daughter are thrilled with the result. "I am in love with my space, it’s my sanctuary and retreat at the end of a long day," White says. "Sharing it with Jasmyn is working out great. She has her space, and I have mine, and we are both happy."