Mini to the max: Living well in 425 square feet

WASHINGTON — Skyla Freeman left her West Wing job at the Bush White House on Jan. 20, 2009, part of a wave of Washingtonians who retool every four or eight years when administrations change. “What can I do now?” Freeman remembers thinking. “I was ready to try something nonpolitical.”

A few days later, Freeman launched her home decorating blog, Sanity Fair, shifting attention from politics to paint, pillows and Palm Beach style. And, eventually, chronicling her adventures decorating her first solo apartment: a petite Capitol Hill studio done in grass green and white.

Since then, the Sanity Fair blog has championed what Freeman calls her “practical, less-materialistic answer to luxury-obsessed home and style blog culture.” Freeman, 32, dishes on style, shopping and DIY. Her goal: to share her belief that it's not how much you spend on an item, but how well you use it.

Her apartment is her design lab. “I imagined an entire house in 425 square feet,” she says.

The place is polished and practical and artfully arranged with vintage finds from her native Alabama as well as local thrift shops. She haunts area Home Goods stores, which specialize in discount home furnishings and accessories. There are family treasures and re-purposed items. One pair of small foo dogs from Target has been spray-painted three times in three different colors. Her clever storage solutions and insightful furniture placement (she can seat 10 people for drinks) make it seem roomier than it actually is.

The apartment demonstrates her belief that money does not buy taste. Curated with affordable pieces from Ikea, eBay and Craigslist, the place is cozy and sophisticated. The kitchen, walk-in closet and bathroom are meticulously ordered. Vitamins are stored in green lacquered boxes from the Container Store; water hyacinth baskets from World Market atop kitchen cabinets stash serving pieces and linens.

“I'm a maximalist in a minimalist space,” Freeman says. Her scheme was to treat her studio as if it were a one-bedroom. “I love the same school of decorating as Tony Duquette. More is more. I always want more.”

She delights in giving tours. “Welcome to the bedroom, not to be confused with the hallway,” she laughs, opening the front door and pointing to the double bed with a Chinese screen as a headboard. While in many studios you'll find the bed plopped in the apartment's center, there was no way her guests were going to be sitting around on a mattress. “Here's the library where I can have a glass of port,” she says about the Expedit Ikea shelving that holds many of her 1,000 books (English literature and history, design and politics) and serves as the divider from her “bedroom.”

She takes a half-step and continues the tour. “Next is my home office, which is adjacent to my living room,” she says. The white office desk, from Home Decorators Collection, has the faux bamboo details she adores. She dressed it up with Anthropologie coral pulls. The living room houses two major statement pieces: a 71-inch sofa from Creative Classics in Alexandria, Va., (a small-space furniture specialist) and a large $175 white credenza from eBay, storage for office supplies and gift wrap. She points to a black faux bamboo table for two: “This is my dining room.”

Freeman says, “I've been obsessed with home decor most of my life. My mom had done interior decorating work and I had considered going to design school.” But her career took a different path. In 2003, finished with college and graduate school, she moved to Washington. After working as a Capitol Hill intern and at a nonprofit, she got a White House job in 2005. She began as a presidential writer and ended as an assistant staff secretary in the West Wing. “Our office was a funnel of information to the Oval Office,” Freeman says. “It was a front seat on history.”

After George W. Bush left office, she moved home to Alabama and did some freelance writing. As she re-evaluated life post-White House, the blog was her creative outlet. Meanwhile, she missed Washington. She moved back in January 2011 to work as a congressional aide. Determined to get her own place after a series of group houses, she stumbled upon a teeny studio in a 1940s Capitol Hill building with parquet floors and lots of light. When she unloaded her moving truck, she had only her clothes and a few vintage pieces, and a whole lot of ideas.

Green was a good way to combine two favorite design themes: bold beachy Palm Beach style and chinoiserie, a look defined by fanciful Chinese-inspired furnishings. “My parents had lived in Asia before I was born, so we had some Asian furniture in the house,” she says. In a stroke of good fortune, she located two crates before she left home that contained two 22-inch-tall ceramic green foo dogs that her father had flown back from Saigon, where he served as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War. On three walls, she used Mythic Paint's Hanging Vine high-gloss paint and hunted down $20 green ikat pillows from Wisteria.

Even her walk-in closet is a temple of orderliness. Green document boxes from the Container Store hold necklaces and bracelets, and Target plastic stacking drawers lined with wallpaper contain clothes and other accessories. “The problem with a small space is that all your weaknesses are on display,” she says, eyeing a shoe rack of Tory Burch flats. “In this small of an apartment, everything is living space.”

On the wall next to her bed are prints of paintings commissioned for official White House holiday cards during the four years she was at the Bush White House, a traditional annual staff gift from the president. “They are reminders of the Christmas season at the White House, a beautiful and special time,” Freeman says. “This kind of personal memento makes your home an honest reflection of who you are, and not just an anonymous space.”

Naturally, Freeman added her own touch: The prints are displayed in four matching carved gold frames she scored at a hotel liquidation sale for $10 apiece.

Skyla Freeman started her design blog, Sanity Fair, a few days after leaving her job at the White House in 2009. Her home office, a bamboo desk, is tucked into a corner of her studio apartment. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post
Freeman created a bedroom niche using an Ikea bookcase as a room divider; her headboard is a vintage Chinese screen. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post
Floor carpet tiles define the living room, and foo dogs from Saigon flank a white credenza purchased on eBay. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post
Tiny foo dogs from Target on this side table have been spray-painted three times in different colors.
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