Transcript: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 2 p.m. ET

Update Your Space

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan
Interior designer and author
Wednesday, April 19, 2006; 2:00 PM

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is an interior designer and author of "Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure" (Bantam, 2006). In 2004, Maxwell launched the design blog .

He has been featured in prominent publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. Maxwell was also a guest expert on HGTV's 'Mission: Organization' and currently appears on 'Small Space, Big Style.'

For advice on apartment searching and rental-related issues, check out our special feature: Think Smart: Apartment Hunting Made Easy .

The transcript follows below.


Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Hello, everybody! This is my first time doing this and I can't think of a better way to combine a Q and A session with my blogging at, where I answer questions each day (and readers do too). If you have more questions than I can get to please send me an e-mail (pictures help) and I will answer it there.

As you may know, my first book,

Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure,

just came out a few weeks ago and it is the fruit of my work as an apartment therapist in NYC for the past five years. If you are interested in giving your home a makeover in eight weeks, I urge you to check it out.

We are also holding an online Group Cure at our website where people can share their experiences and pull off all their projects together. You can still join that as well.

Now, let's get to the questions.


Avalon, Calif.: Do you advise the use of partitions to separate sleeping area from the rest of the space a small studio apartment?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Yes. I consider the sleeping area or bedroom to be the most sacred part of the home as well as the place you spend the greatest amount of time (even if it's sleeping).

Therefore, some separation is required to give it protection, create a calming, cozy environment and give yourself some privacy should you be having guests over. That said, you don't need to totally HIDE the bedroom, particularly in a small space.

I have used sheer curtains to separate bedrooms in studio apartments. These allow the light to pass through and keep the space feeling open. Think of this approach as a "light membrane" approach.

You can also use dividers, bookshelves or even plants to separate your bedroom from the rest of your apartment. Creativity in this area yields great results.


Washington, D.C.: Maxwell: Do you have any online shopping hotspots that you can direct us to that aren't big names?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Now that's a good question. Just the words "online hotspots" gets me going.

Here's my quick list:

1. online used

- this continues to be an amazing resource

- this is our furniture classifieds that cover NY, Chicago, LA and soon, San Francisco

- is a site located in New Orleans that uses an auction style approach but is frequented by the trade as well as retail customers

- in Chicago has a website devoted to selling right now

- is a great vintage find in Washington, DC

2. online new

- modern

- modern

- modern

- traditional




and our complete listing of online stores:


Blacksburg, Va.: I live in an apartment that was built in the 1940s. It has small closets and I am having problems with storing my clothes. A big bulky wardrobe isn't an option for me. Any ideas?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Edit your clothes! Seriously, if you can't change the space, you have to change your habits. You will also find that letting go and paring down possessions unleashes new energy and will make your home feel lighter and more relaxing.

And I applaud not using an armoire. These big bulky objects only work well in large homes that have room for them. They clog up small apartments by cutting down on the open wall space.


Washington, D.C.: About how much time do you dedicate to your site, and how have you gotten the name out? Was it the site that drove the book or vice versa?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: I devote way too much time to the site and am now online most of the time. My goal was that the site would make enough money to support all the time spent on it, and it is slowly getting there, but it does crimp my ability to keep up with my clients here in NYC.

All of this started with my leaving my job as a Waldorf School teacher in 2001 to return to my first love: designing spaces. I had worked in interior design right after college but quickly grown disillusioned with it all, as it cared more for appearances than comfort and quality. I started working with clients in the NYC area and quickly found I was the only one who was interested in helping regular people improve their homes. All the regular interior designers only worked with rich people.

Anyway, I am answering your question in a very roundabout fashion. The point is I have pursued what I love to do in a field that no one wants and picked up a lot of press because of that. started as an extension of what I was doing, simply a place to archive all my sources and collect more from readers. The book was an idea someone else approached me on and I saw it as a good way of collecting up my experiences and helping those that live far away.

Everything I have done has been to help people make their homes more beautiful, organized and healthy -- this is a public service that I believe makes for a good life. It also supplies endless ideas for growth because there are so many ways to help people.

So, clients, website, book. Next, a store and then -- hopefullly -- another book called the 9 Month Cure that will help people set up their homes properly before the baby comes.


New York, N.Y.: How much does feng shui figure in your approach to decor?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: I really respect feng shui and consider it's basic tenants to be within my approach to any space. That said, I am not trained in feng shui and have not studied it deeply, so I do not use it directly or pretend to know all about it.

The major concept I DO use everyday is that of energy flows. This is in my book and also in Karen Kingston's book, Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui, which I have read many times and love.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi, Maxwell. I have been a long-time reader of and was wondering if there are plans to add a D.C. area section to the site?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Hi, Fairfax!

I would love to add a DC blog to and will do so as soon as we get our handle on Chicago (launched last week) and San Francisco (which is going up this week - hopefully).

Launching a new site does take a lot of work though, and we need to know the readers are there. We will hold an online poll to ask readers where they are and where the next site should go. If all you DC readers are the most vocal, it will go there.

Also, I have to say I have been really impressed with how active the DC readers have been. There are far more of you than I would ever have guessed. I thought DC was a transitory town, but there seems to be a growing home design fan base blossoming there. Get ready to vote!


Rockville, Md.: I've long given up trying to make plain white walls attractive, especially with a dog. However I made spring-rod curtains last winter. Now it's spring and I don't need the insulation, I've moved the curtains down halfway for privacy and to admit as much light as I can without sacrificing same privacy. How do you do an apartment cheap, stylishly, when you know you have to move in a few months? Any thoughts would be welcome as I try and throw out all the junk that I have in preparation for another move.

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: This is a funny question that I have never been asked before. How do you decorate before you move?

I would say that if you are really moving in a few months you should forgo decorating in favor of putting your energy into editing your space so that you don't move a lot of stuff you don't need and start daydreaming about your new space.

To kickstart your daydreaming, I recommend making a Style Tray. This is in my book. By collecting photographs of rooms that you love you can create a cohesive vision on paper before you apply it to your home. This will give you new ideas and also force you to weed out things that just don't fit in before you buy or do anything.

And I hope that you get to paint your wall wherever you end up!


Washington, D.C.: I need help with my new condo, won't move in till the second week in May. one room will serve as the living room and dining room. Can I send you pictures and a floorplan for advice?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Yes. I not only work with clients over the phone by looking at pictures, but I also post pictures and floorplans for a brief comment on my part and many comments on the readers parts.

Our readers are very helpful and have great ideas.

To email me, send to and put QUESTIONS in the subject field.


Jersey City, N.J.: Hi Maxwell! It's your overworked-at-her-full-time-job-this-week Scavenger here. Following up on that closet question, my current organization obsession is my clothing storage. I currently have room for all seasons' clothing in my dresser/closet -- barely. I wear all my clothing and it's pretty well organized, just crowded. Should I bite the bullet and buy underbed storage for my off-season clothes? See you at Smallest, Coolest! Thanks. -MM

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Molly, what are you doing online! You should be working!

As far as underbed storage goes, if you are really squeezed for space and can't edit down your clothing anymore, it's a great place to put seasonal storage.

You should just be sure to put your clothing in tightly sealed containers that slide easily in and out and hide them with a skirt around your bed.

If you need more room for the containers to clear the bedframe, there are numerous companies that make bed risers that will give you a few extra inches.

Bed, Bath and Beyond stocks a great brand that make them in wood.


Inexpensive furniture?: Hi!

The online sites you recommended have some beautiful pieces, but are WAY out of my price range. I'm looking for a functional, yet elegant, sofa/futon/something for well under $1000? Am I dreaming?

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Good question.

If you want to know where I do the bulk of my shopping for clients who live in the real world, it's

Room & Board

Crate & Barrel


Pottery Barn

West Elm

the top two are my favorites because their quality and service is the best, but all of them have something to offer.

The problem is -- and I also write about this in the book -- only these big shops can get prices down to the level at which we consider them affordable. Only they have the scale to cut the costs. Real fine furniture doesn't cost this little and shouldn't, but that is how the market works.

We buy furniture too much nowadays and have become used to items that we dispose of in 10 years.

I buying less, buying less often and investing in pieces that will last forever and increase or hold their value over time.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi there. In all of your years in apartment therapy-ing, is there one mistake that you see people making more than any other? Thanks!

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Yes! Actually there are a few of them. Here are the top ones:

1. Not enough lighting -- every room should have at least three points of light, preferably below eye level (track light is an exception). Too many people rely on the single fixture in the middle of their ceiling for their light. I like to cap these.

2. Windows are dirty -- I know this sounds like knit-picking, but this is such a simple, inexpensive fix and clean windows make a MAJOR difference in the feeling of a room. Not only is more light let in, more interior light is reflected off of a clean window and your eye can travel in and out easily.

3. Living Rooms are not complete -- too many people line their living room up to face their television and what they create is a movie theater at the expense of a "living" room. Each living room should have at least three seating stations that face one another, centering on a coffee table or something like this. The television should sit outside this circle.

There are more, but those are the top ones. The rest is in the book (really!).


Washington, D.C.: I cannot paint my rented apartment walls. What are some other options for changing the look/color of the walls that are not "permanent?"

I had heard about adding fabric to walls using a starch-based solution and wondered if that is a viable option (will it really come off without damaging the walls?).

thank you!

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: This is an evergreen question and you are right that the starch based wallpaper solution has been a top answer. I have never tried it but am all in favor of it. Starch is a very gentle and water soluble. I think you should test it first, but suspect it will be fine.

Also, there other ways of covering your walls. Fabric hung neatly from the ceiling can be beautiful and there are now a bunch of companies that make wall applications, the biggest of which is called BLIK.

Of course, you can also try something that one of our contest entrants did, which is to cover your wall in post-its. Apparently they do not come off and will turn your wall a very pleasing yellow.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Max, I'm looking to add some color and texture to my apartment walls. I recently learned about wallpaper tiles. Sounds like a great idea, but I was wondering if you know of any companies that make similar products? I like to have options!

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: This is a continuation of the last question and I forgot to add that wall tiles are a really nice idea as well.

Here are the ones I know about:

- makes something called Wallter which is very chic

- makes Wallbands that are borders and easy to remove

- makes three dimensional wall tiles


Chicago, Ill.:

My fiance and I are planning to move to a new apartment within the next few months. Unfortunately, the unit does not get a lot of natural light. I have a collection of house plants that currently sit near our well-lit balcony, and I would prefer not to see them die after we move to our new place. Are there any types of specialty bulbs that we could affix to a stand-up lamp that would provide the plants with light without making it look like we are two hippies running a growing operation? Thanks.

Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: This has to be the last question, and I am sorry as there are a host of you out there.

I too love plants and consider them integral to any home. I also have a very dark apartment. However, I use typical grow lights from the lighting supply store near me and a timer to keep them green.

These are not expensive and I find the light blends in nicely with my regular fixtures. The trick is to make sure that the lamp is stylish enough or inoffensive enough not to look like an oddly placed hippie lamp.

If you want to eliminate the floor lamp, you could move to an inexpensive sconce fixture (Ikea has them as well as neighborhood lighting shops) that you can attach to the wall near your plant, staple gun the cord tight to the wall and plug in at a nearby socket. I have these and painted the visors white to blend in with our walls.

You might also consider smaller, lighter plants for your new space. If you bring in too many, you will block it up and defeat the purpose.


Maxwell Gillingham Ryan: Thanks, very much to all of you and if your question wasn't answered you are invited to swamp my inbox and I will post it on the site in the next few weeks:

Also, for many of your questions, I recommend that you make a small investment in my book, as this will answer many of them in one few swoop. It is also good reading as I include many stories of my clients. I have been told that it is great bedside reading.

Best, Maxwell


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