Little City Glam
A historic West End condo gets an elegant face-lift
It seems intuitive that small spaces require small furniture—pint-sized chairs, compact tables, wee little sofas. But designer Mindy Schwarz shows there’s another way of doing things. “My condo is just 712 square feet,” she says of her one-bedroom Portland pad. “But it feels huge.” Instead of scaling down her featured pieces, Schwarz decided to supersize everything. There’s a spacious white sectional for lounging in the living room, over-sized rugs underfoot, massive tiles in the bath- rooms, and a king-sized bed in her room, which takes up almost the entire space. Yet, somehow, her approach works.
Schwarz reveals that this audacity is a hall- mark of her design style. She splits her time between Connecticut and Maine, but no matter where she’s working, she never stops pursuing her bold vision. “I’m always questioned about it,” she says. Carpenters and clients alike have challenged her propensity to embrace the bigger-is-better model, though they often see the light once she’s finished a job. “I think it’s partially since I’m five-foot-two and everything I set my sights on is big, big, big,” she says with a laugh.
“But it really works. This apartment, with little things in it, would look small. But when you put the big objects in, it changes everything.” She’s said it before, and she has no problem saying it again: “I think you should go big or go home.”
Schwarz wanted her West End condo to feel airy, light, and modern. She calls her style “mini-mod” because, while she adores midcentury modern furniture, she doesn’t like to go full retro (hence the prefix). To achieve this balance, she brought in a mix of carefully chosen items from various sources, including vintage art objects, transitional rugs from Home Goods and Marden’s, and statement-making lighting fixtures, all displayed against a bright white backdrop.
“When we got the place, it was orange and green, and while I happen to love orange, it wasn’t right for this,” she says. “We painted everything white.” She used one of her favorite paint colors, Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore, to cover the floors, walls, and ceilings, which immediately opened up the space to a variety of other design possibilities. She decided to keep the floors intact because she liked how they’d been patched and repaired. “They went this way and that way,” she says. “They were wide, they were narrow. I didn’t feel like ripping that all up and putting something boring down.” She went to Architectural Salvage in Portland to pick up some additional floorboards to fill in any blank spaces, and then covered all the charmingly hodgepodge with Chantilly Lace.
“You just can’t go wrong with that color,” she reveals. “It’s the whitest white, and it never looks bad. It has no yellow—it just is what it is. I’ve probably used it a hundred times, if not more.” To add texture, Schwarz designed her own modern crown mould- ing and added large wood panels to a few select walls. If these panels were narrower, she says, they’d be considered shiplap, but “these oversized panels are bigger and better.” (The tiles lining the bathroom walls are similarly supersized, though she opted to use smaller marble tiles on the bathroom floor.) Because she often works from home, Schwarz converted a closet into a mini work- space, and this private nook is the only room that’s painted a color other than white. (Schwarz used Benjamin Moore’s Gray, a “true charcoal.”)
Fortunately, the condo didn’t require a full gut job. Schwarz only moved a couple walls. She expanded the bathroom by reclaiming unused space in the bedroom—“I think there must have been a fireplace there, at some point,” she says—and she added small windows to the bathroom wall to brighten it up. The bulk of her efforts went into updating the kitchen and choosing the right rugs, art, and lighting. To keep things streamlined, she adhered to a limited color palette of white, gray, orange, and blue. The living room is particularly enticing, with its cerulean and azure pillows and rug. “That color actually came from a little glass ball I bought in New York,” Schwarz explains. On the shelves of an antique shop, she spotted the bright blue bauble. “I decided that blue would be the color—just the shade of the sky,” she says. Although she had never mixed orange and blue before, her natural affinity for tangerine lead her to embrace this gutsy pairing. A big wave-patterned blue rug anchors the living room, though originally Schwarz thought she’d choose something neutral for this space. But she dragged up two other options before settling on the most colorful choice. “The first one was too blah, and the second one had no feeling,” she recalls. “The third one was just right.”
This is indicative of how Schwarz designs in general. She doesn’t like to plan everything out on paper. She follows her instincts. For instance, she knew she wanted a “big face of a lady” to hang above the living room couch. “I don’t know why,” she says with a laugh, “I just wanted a big face.” She was at an art show in Westport, Connecticut, when she turned a corner and suddenly saw it. It was Marilyn Monroe, done in vivid blues with bright red lips. “I actually asked the artist if he could make the lips orange,” she says. “But he said, ‘You can put red anywhere,’ and I figured he was right.” The little pop of red works—plus, Schwarz herself has been known to embrace a bold red lip, so the choice made a certain kind of sense.
Marilyn is also a fitting figure to brighten up the condo. She’s emblematic of classic Hollywood, a time and place that has always fascinated Schwarz. “I like glamour,” she says. “It’s my signature. Not over-the-top glam, but bits of it.” Hanging from a mirrored ceiling medallion, a frothy cluster of glass orbs lights up the living room, like bubbles in a glass of champagne.
“Everyone who sees that wants it in their house,” she says of the piece, which she stocks in her showroom, which is in Wallingford, Connecticut.
The bedroom also boasts a striking chandelier. Above the spacious bed hangs a starburst made of brushed nickel that Schwarz says glimmers and looks “almost like glass.” Instead of cluttering the space with a multitude of objects, Schwarz chose to highlight a few impactful pieces, like the horse lamps that stand on either side of the bureau. “I had those made at Cranberry Lighting in York many years ago,” she says. “I had these marble sculptures, and I knew I wanted to make them into something else.”
The only room in the house that isn’t marked by extra-large furniture is the kitchen, which Schwarz kept compact and tidy. She added a built-in island (which hides a washer and dryer), installed seamless marble countertops, and tiled the walls. This, she explains, is one of the most commented-upon features of the apartment. “My lovely tile guys were fighting me all the way on my choice of wide, dark grout,” she says.
“They were making fun of me, but once it was done, I started seeing it all over town.” She used white subway tiles, which pop against the dark grout. “The kitchen was actually inspired by Stonewall Kitchen in York,” Schwarz reveals. “I’ve always been in love with it.” In a house full of L.A.-inspired glam, it’s a sneaky way to bring in a dose of Maine inspiration. Although she might sound like a seasoned city dweller, this is actually Schwarz’s first time trying out urban life. “I’ve always been a country girl, but I decided I wanted to live in the big city of Portland to see what it’s like.” And? “Oh, I love it.”