Like many creatives, Nicole Arruda grew up envisioning a life in New York City. After completing her undergraduate degree in interior design, the Canadian made the move to Manhattan, where she now operates her own firm, Nicole Alexandra Design Studio. As a professional designer, Nicole is full of tips and tricks for making even the smallest of city apartments shine. Her own Upper East Side studio is rooted in neutrals and serves as a cozy sanctuary for Nicole and her pup, Jack, a Jack Russell-beagle mutt.
The welcoming space is extremely well-curated (you won’t find any clutter here, trust us!) and beautifully fuses practical and aesthetically pleasing solutions. There are even a few fun surprises, like the non-traditional furniture layout and the charming faux fireplace mantel that Nicole sourced through Facebook Marketplace and styled so that it looks original to her space. Read on for a full apartment tour of Nicole’s 500-square-foot nest below!
Nicole Arruda’s Studio Apartment Tour
Name: Nicole Arruda
Location: Upper East Side, New York City
Square Footage: 500
You grew up in Ontario and moved to New York City in your 20s. What brought you to Manhattan, and what have you enjoyed most about being an NYC resident?
Moving to New York City straight out of university was always a BIG dream of mine. For as long as I can remember, this city was a place I wanted to be in; it always felt so special to me. I quickly imagined myself starting my interior design career here, and after years of building experience in and outside of school, I landed myself a position as a junior designer here in New York City. The single scariest and most rewarding decision of my life! Everything feels possible here and the energy is unmatched—I love being a part of it.
You studied interior design in school and now lead your own design firm, which is amazing! What made you want to pursue the field of interior design, and what steps did you take to get to the point where you were able to launch your own company?
Thank you! I have always been led by good design and grew up with it all around me. My mom would continuously change up rooms in our home, making them more and more beautiful each time. She even made all our pillows and window treatments. My dad is a landscape designer and made sure the exterior of our home was always just as stunning as the interior. My parents’ creative minds have always played a significant role in mine. I always say this field chose me—there truly is nothing else I would rather do for a living!
I was lucky enough to work alongside an incredibly talented designer who became a good friend and mentor of mine. From the initial meetings to the installations, I had a front-row seat to every project we were working on, and I learned more than I ever could have imagined.
Eventually, I had the opportunity to manage clients on my own and learned the business side of things. I found myself absolutely loving it and really feeling like I was in my element, so I made the leap! The second scariest and most rewarding decision of my life!
What do you enjoy most about being an interior designer?
I really enjoy getting to know my clients and understanding what it is they’re looking for. From there, it’s all about getting creative and problem-solving to design a space they never knew could exist! Playing with space, textures, and colors—it’s so fun.
Where do you like to shop for furniture and decor for your own home?
I’m constantly sourcing new vendors for my clients so the list is ever-growing, but a few of my faves are Etsy, Chairish, Pamano, Housing Works Auctions, and eBay. Design is what you make of it and beauty can be found in the most unassuming of places—it all starts with a little imagination.
What inspires your design style? How would you describe your personal style?
For me, it’s all about how the design feels, and I trust my eye to allow a space to unfold just the way it’s supposed to. I’m inspired by the unexpected and lean into spontaneity. I get giddy when clients say, “I never would have thought of that!” It’s all about creating spaces that feel layered, livable, and classic—that’s my style. I embrace the home’s original moments while creating something that feels new and exciting.
Your space is primarily rooted in neutral colors and features a lot of beautiful textures. Have you always been drawn to neutrals? If not, how has your style evolved over time?
I have always loved neutrals but have redefined what that means to me. Neutrals don’t always have to be black, white, beige, and gray! I love to inject texture, warmth, and contrast within a neutral backdrop. My apartment is a good example of that. As for my love for vintage, that has certainly evolved over time. I almost never feel like a room is fully completed without at least one vintage goodie! It evokes personality and sets your design apart.
As a studio dweller, what are some tips that you have for making the most of a small space while still prioritizing aesthetics? How can one ensure their studio looks stylish without appearing too cramped?
Defining how you want to utilize every inch of space is key. Once you create a functional layout that focuses on your needs, you can shift gears and start honing in on the aesthetics. “There is a home for everything” has really become my mantra and helped me stay organized. A small space should speak your visual language but also be grounded in practicality.
What are some of your favorite pieces in your apartment? Do you own anything with an interesting story behind it?
This is tough! I love every piece in my apartment, but the blue velvet chair (Lady Blue) and I go way back! This was the first piece of furniture I bought for my old apartment, and I remember thinking I HAD to have it. I found it on Facebook Marketplace from a fashion designer in SoHo. I took an Uber XL to go pick it up and then carried it up my 5th-floor walkup. It was also one of the only pieces of furniture I had when I moved into my new apartment, so it set the tone for everything else!
Tell us about your faux fireplace mantel. What made you decide to integrate this into your design scheme, and how did you source this piece?
I’d love to! The faux fireplace was a vision from the start. The apartment had a bump out that just lent itself to something special. I knew I wanted this to be an aesthetic moment that would really anchor the space. Finding an apartment with a fireplace was on my list of must-haves so when I didn’t get lucky, I created it myself!
I found this beat-up mantel on Facebook Marketplace in the Hamptons. I knew that with a little sanding and a fresh coat of black paint, it would be exactly what I was looking for—and it was!
Did you install the molding in your studio? What was that process like?
I measured out the molding and drew it up to show exactly how I wanted it to look. Then I worked with my contracting team to put everything up. I would obsess about making them perfect, so hiring it out was a better idea for my sanity!
Can you share a bit about foregoing a couch in your layout? How did you decide to skip this piece and what do you use instead for lounging/relaxing? What about when you have company over?
Everyone thought I was crazy when I told them I wasn’t going to incorporate a sofa, but it really just came down to prioritizing and what I felt I needed. For me, it was more important to have different zones rather than just a living area, which would have eaten the majority of the space I had to work with. It’s essentially one room, and walking straight into the living room just felt wrong. Instead, I wanted more of a lounge area and dining space. Simply put, it was a delicate dance between aesthetics and utility, which for me meant no sofa!
When I’m entertaining, we often gather around my dining table and pull up the accent chairs. In the summer I love to utilize my balcony AKA fire escape—every inch counts here in NYC, ha!
You’ve carved out a beautiful desk nook for working from home. How do you make an effort to unplug at night when your workspace is so close to your sleep/lounge space?
I’m all about the multifunctional moments! My computer turns into my TV at night and mentally I’m able to disconnect that way. I’m still learning how to set boundaries for that balance but for now, it works! My next apartment will definitely have a separate office space, so stay tuned.
What are some of your favorite storage solutions? How do you maintain a minimalist aesthetic while living in such close quarters?
The million-dollar question! I have an effective system in my closets that allows me to store everything I need. First, I installed upper shelves to utilize the vertical space and have very specific piles and baskets. I also added hooks at the back of the closet doors so I could hang things like cleaning supplies, dog leashes, hats, etc. I’m a big fan of under-bed storage as well! I use pull-out bins that are labeled and easy to get to. I have quickly learned to be uber-organized living in such a small space!
You’ve creatively used a small wooden sideboard so that it doubles as a bedside table. Tell us about this piece and how you landed upon that layout decision.
I didn’t want to cram my space with a ton of furniture, so instead I got really intentional with the pieces I went with. Less furniture that offered more than one purpose was my M.O. In this case, I knew I needed a surface and storage: something that could act like my entry table and nightstand. I desired an apartment that felt classic, warm, and feminine. This vintage console checked all my boxes. The scale filled up the space perfectly and it may shock you how much I can fit in there!
How do you choose and style accessories? Every piece looks really intentional. What tips do you have for selecting art and accessories and then making them shine in a space?
I have a thing for accessories—they make a room sing and pull it all together. I collect vintage finds and mix and match them up around my space. Layering artwork with books and creating vignettes with groupings and scale is what it’s all about. I try to avoid getting knick-knacky to allow for the pieces to take the show. For me, it’s these small details that really take a room to the next level.