Living in a 280-square-foot Philly apartment without sacrificing design

The first thing Vanessa Miller will tell you about herself is that she’s a fan of the simplelife. Her minimalistic tendencies explains why she hardly batted an eye when she signed on to live in a tiny studio in Philly. “I’m kind of a hermit,” she says while sitting in her 280-square-foot apartment in Washington Square West.

After studying art history and French language at Temple’s Tyler School of Art, Miller made the decision to stay put in Philly as her peers made the expected move to New York. She soon found a job at the Navy Yard, working in URBN’s IT department. It was a large leap outside of her field, but Miller says in a way it played a role in her decision to sign a lease for the one-room apartment on the fourth floor of a walk-up. The hope was that she would use the small space as an interior design experiment.

“I wanted something where I could say, ‘Here is some visual proof that I understand space and design.’”

The Craigslist find was “so much better than anything else” Miller had seen on her apartment hunt thus far, and the outdoor space, which has views of City Hall’s William Penn statue peaking above the neighborhood’s tree-tops, was big perk.

“This was perfect, and not a weird shape,” she recalls. “I knew I could easily make it work, and I knew how I didn’t want to lay out the apartment after seeing how it was set up at the time.”

Living in a 280-square-foot Philly apartment without sacrificing design

With only a bed and two chairs to her name, Miller moved into her studio nearly empty-handed three and a half years ago. The set of Eames-style LCW chairs were the first pieces of furniture Miller had ever bought, so they’re sentimental, even with their falsities. “I’ve had these chairs forever,” Miller says of the knock-offs. “That’s what got me into learning about furniture—even though they’re fake, which I know now,” she says with a laugh.

But besides those three pieces of furniture, Miller started decorating her first home from scratch: “I decided it would make more sense to really understand the space before I committed to bringing tons of stuff. My parents’ poor basement is just filled with pieces I’ve collected.”

She spent weeks living in the sparse apartment with just her bed and chairs, trying to figure out what she wanted to achieve with her new place. Studios can often feel like just a room to sleep in, and Miller knew she wanted to avoid that. “Studios either go the bedroom route or living route, and I preferred living,” she says.

As the years went on, Miller continued curating her studio to make everything in her space fit just right. And it shows: The Anthropologie couch runs the perfect length along one side of the room, and the George Nelson for Herman Miller vanity looks like it was custom-made just for its spot between her bed and the set of stairs to the terrace. Says Miller, “It’s definitely been an obsession of mine, finding things that fit correctly.”

Hunting for furniture is a pastime of Miller, who grew up scavenging through old antique stores in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her dad to find pieces. During one of those trips, she discovered the Charles & Ray Eames by Herman Miller coffee table that now serves as a centerpiece in her apartment.

And while Miller’s job in IT at URBN doesn’t exactly channel her artistic tendencies, she owes a lot of the other pieces in her apartment to furniture auctions that URBN hosts a couple of times a year for its employees. A lot of the pieces are worn or damaged in some way, but Miller has been able to make them work for her home.

She refinished and repainted the large closet (not surprisingly, storage is an issue here), for example, and had the local Chelsea Plating Company rewire the Arteriors Trump Floor Lamp that sits off to the corner.

Among the few shelves and storage spaces that the studio offers, Miller displays her collection of pottery and kitchen ware that she’s also collected over the years. (The tiny corner kitchen leaves a lot to be desired for someone like Miller, who likes to make handmade pasta every weekend.)

Miller says she’s still tinkering with her space, swapping out a Craigslist or eBay find for another every once in awhile. If she can offer any advice for others trying to make an small apartment feel like your own, it’s this: “First, understand how you’ll end up using the space, and then plan around it,” Miller says. “When I moved in, I had pieces that weren’t the right size. But having been here for three years, you have to be patient—as much as it sucks that you’ll sit on the floor for awhile.”