Fred A. Bernstein

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A studio that refuses to think small

Extraordinary ingenuity makes a tiny apartment seem spacious 

Published in The New York Times, March 30, 2006

IN his tiny Upper East Side apartment, with its single, shallow closet, Giuseppe Pica has room for only what he absolutely needs.

Like three varieties of Lucite cleaner.

Lucite is central to Mr. Pica's decorating scheme, in which chair bases are practically invisible, allowing light to flow through every inch of the apartment.

That is one design trick, among many, that makes it hard to believe that the place, which was inspired by a multimillion-dollar Sutton Place South penthouse, is only 300 square feet, or that Mr. Pica transformed it for little more than a thousandth of what the penthouse cost to renovate and furnish.

In 2004, when Mr. Pica began looking for a co-op in the East 90's, one of the most undervalued sections of Manhattan, he knew his budget would not get him much space. But even he was surprised when he fell in love with the tiny studio. ("Maybe it's 305" square feet, he said. "Definitely not 310.") But the apartment had a large window facing west, so he could enjoy afternoon light and sunsets. He bought it for $170,000.

If Mr. Pica has a secret, it is that he refuses to think small: he was determined to create a real dining area, a real living area and a real bedroom, not a universal space that would not serve any of those functions well.

As a result, it almost "feels like three apartments," said the high-end decorator Tony Ingrao, who owns the Upper East Side shop Ingrao and who is also Mr. Pica's employer. The space, he added, "is playful, which reflects Giuseppe's spirit."

Many of the furnishings date from the 1970's, when Mr. Pica, 39, was growing up "far from the action," as he put it, on his family's farm outside Alcamo, Sicily. It was not until much later that he developed an interest in the design icons of the disco era.

Mr. Pica moved to New York in 1990 to study at the Martha Graham School and later danced with the Martha Graham Dance Ensemble. After giving up dance at 29, he waited tables at Da Silvano, a Greenwich Village hangout, where he met Mr. Ingrao. The waiter and the customer, who was born in the United States but has a great-grandfather from Alcamo, bonded, and in 1999, after Mr. Pica had taken courses at the New York School of Interior Design, Mr. Ingrao and his partner, Randolph Kemper, offered him a job.

As Mr. Ingrao's assistant, Mr. Pica worked on a 6,400-square-foot apartment on Sutton Place South, which Mr. Ingrao and David Piscuskas of 1100 Architect famously transformed from a bastion of old money into a Pop Art extravaganza. Out came old moldings, wainscoting and mantels; in went white lacquer, neon lighting and art by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Vasarely. (The apartment appeared in several magazines, including Interior Design and Vogue, which devoted 12 pages to it.)

Mr. Pica's responsibilities included visiting stores like R 20th Century, in TriBeCa, where he scouted Pop Art-inspired objects for Mr. Ingrao's client, some of which cost more than his annual salary. Mr. Pica, now a project manager at Ingrao Inc., was captivated by the playfulness of the 70's pieces, which seemed to mirror his own lighthearted personality. So when he bought his own apartment in Manhattan in 2004, after renting in Queens for years to save money for the down payment, he knew just how he wanted to decorate it - creating, in effect, a homage to the Sutton Place South apartment, but for $30,000 instead of millions.

He began by painting the kitchen cabinets white and installing a beige industrial carpet over what he called a "cheap-looking" wood floor. Visiting downtown flea markets and midcentury furniture stores like Las Venus on the Lower East Side, he purchased objects similar to the ones he had scouted for the Midtown penthouse, but almost always for a few hundred dollars or less. His finds included a pair of badly scratched and paint-splattered Lucite chairs with bases shaped like Champagne glasses.

That's when he discovered the three varieties of Novus Plastic Polish: No. 1 for removing dust and dirt, No. 2 for smoothing light scratches and No. 3 for softening the appearance of deep ones. Even Mr. Pica, an eternal optimist, was amazed that a cleaning product could make gashes seem to disappear.

Once the chairs were clean, Mr. Pica replaced their vinyl seats with checkerboard-pattern suede and placed them on the sheepskin rug that defines his living area. He dispensed with a sofa, instead arranging two tufted "mushroom" chairs around an undersize coffee table. For the dining area, he had an old teak table lacquered white, and he positioned it so it could double as a work surface. "It's a large table for a space this size, but because it's white against a white background, it disappears," he said.

A translucent window shade rolls down from the ceiling behind the table when he wants to hide the mess in the all-white kitchen (although it is hard to imagine Mr. Pica, a true minimalist, ever having a mess in his kitchen).

He designed a bed with storage underneath, but unlike other beds with cabinets, it does not look massive. That's because he installed fluorescent tubes underneath, making it appear to float on a halo of bluish light. The headboard, which he designed and then cut to three-quarters its original size to make the space look larger, also functions as a room divider. It defines a small entry area near the door. Having to go around it to enter the room makes the space beyond "more surprising," Mr. Pica said.

Not everything in the apartment is underscale. The giant Pop Art pencils in the living room, a Las Venus find, were chosen to create the illusion that there is room to spare.

Once the apartment was finished, word of Mr. Pica's decorating talents spread through the building. Recently the co-op board asked him to redesign the lobby. At 2,000 square feet, it is about seven times the size of his apartment.

But don't tell that to Mr. Pica. "In my mind," he said, "the apartment is much bigger."