Ensembl sat down with Maxwell Ryan, Founder of Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, to discuss living and entertaining in an apartment, the impact design has on our lives, and what we should think about when bringing new products into our home.
Maxwell also gave us great design advice on how to get your space ready to host a dinner party. Check out his six tips for dinner party design here.
Apartment Therapy was founded in 2001 and launched its home design blog in 2004 – the first of its kind. Apartment Therapy’s goal is to motivate people to achieve and maintain a happy, organized, and healthy home, centered around the belief that our surroundings have a profound impact on the quality of our life. Apartment Therapy executes its vision by connecting readers to a wealth of resources, inspiration, and attainable home solutions, all focused on helping us improve the spaces we call home.
Maxwell Ryan, Founder of Apartment Therapy.
our conversation with maxwell ryan.
kate (ensembl) - Before we dive in, we just wanted to say that everyone at Ensembl is a huge fan of Apartment Therapy. We love city life, which tends to mean living in a smaller space, and love all the resources Apartment Therapy has created to help people make the most of apartment/condo life. Can you tell us about your journey to start Apartment Therapy?
maxwell - I minored in art in college, and when I finished, worked for a design company in NYC that made decorative housewares. After working for a few months, I realized I could not do this forever – I did not enjoy simply creating décor for the sake of decoration.
I decided to travel, then went back to school.
I became an elementary school teacher, and worked within the Waldorf School system. In this system, they taught us the role of the classroom and the things inside, and how that impacts the children: the pencils used, the way the chairs were arranged, the color of the walls. I came to a new understanding of art and design; design was not simply decorative, it was something that made an impact – whether it was done right or wrong.
And I was struck by how big of an impact this had on a child’s life. When I did home visits, I found that the children that did the best in class came from the best homes; not from home with the most money, but from homes that were the most cared for. Home design, I realized, had an impact on that child, including their ability to learn.
For me, the logic followed was that my own home’s design was likely having an impact on me – my career, my dating life, my wellbeing.
I started to tie all these pieces together, and for the first time saw a real approach to design – a new approach - that didn’t just talk about design from a decorative level. It was how design should be conceived to take into account heath and organization.
And this revelation was the beginning of Apartment Therapy. I started Apartment Therapy 17 years ago. It began as an interior design business. Like a therapist, I worked with clients by the hour. At the end of each meeting I would write them a prescription for their home, this would usually be an assignment of things to do or things to buy that would be part of their home’s therapy. They would complete the assignment during the week, and I would return the following week to continue our session.
An interesting thing to note is that client I’ve ever interviewed said the one thing they wished they could do more was entertain at home – especially host dinner parties – without feeling insecure. That insecurity comes from a lack of understanding of design and how design can make you feel. It showed me they needed help.
And people should get help in their homes! It is the only place in the world that is yours (doesn’t matter if you rent or own), the place where you have 100% control. It’s a place of refuge, retreat, recharging; it’s a place of self-expression. There are not a lot things you can control in the world, but you can clean up your living room. You can make your bed. You can tidy up your bookshelf. To the extent that you improve your home, you create a foundation for success in your life.
In 2004 my brother, who was working in digital media in Silicon Valley, told me to check out this new thing called blogs. I remember asking “What’s a blog?”! He explained how you could write, channel that information to the reader, readers could comment, and it would all live on the web. So, I started compiling some of my apartment design tips into a blog.
After four years, both sides of the business were doing well. I had to choose between pursing the blog or interior design. At that time, no one was writing about or sharing interior design with an eye towards self-realization - it was either focused on décor or celebrity homes. Apartment Therapy’s content filled that gap. I chose to pursue the blog.
Not the beginning, but early days at Apartment Therapy. Maxwell Ryan's first book - the eight-step home cure. Photo: Apartment Therapy
Apartment Therapy today: your regular dose of home inspiration. Photo Credit: @Carlaypage via Apartment Therapy
kate (ensembl) – This is an incredible story, and inspiring to see the way seemingly unrelated careers led you down this path to create something both unique and lasting.
You mentioned that “everyone just wants to host a dinner party”, and noted one of the reasons people may be reluctant to host is a feeling of insecurity about their home and their home's design. How do you help people maximize their dinner party hosting potential in an apartment?
maxwell – To start, think about your favorite restaurant in the city. Chances are, you’re going to be sitting at a small table. And you’ll probably feel lovely about it. You’ll be close to those you’re going to share a meal with. There will be a warm buzz in the air.
Now, think about the actual table. For two, people’s it’s probably 2ft by 2ft. For four, it’s only slightly bigger. When we think of traditional dining room tables, that seems tiny in comparison, but only because we’ve been trained to think so! In reality – and the reality of restaurant dining, the table doesn’t need to be that big.
Now think about the kitchen that your favorite restaurant is cooking out of. It’s probably the size of a closet in your home. Professional kitchens are cramped, they need to make a lot of food and don’t want to take up space in the kitchen. But they maximize that space and make excellent food.
If you think about this restaurant, think about its cozy space, and how eating in this space is not only something you look forward to but something you pay (lots of money) to do, then you should not be constrained by the space (or lack thereof!) in your home.
Instead, try to take inspiration from the restaurant’s set up in the way you set up your home.
family style dinner.
kate (ensembl) – That’s such a great way to look at it. Practically speaking, what is required to make that vision a reality?
maxwell – Start with a small table and chairs. Then, make sure your room is not cluttered with personal stuff – you don’t want to have gym equipment in your restaurant, so don’t have that out when you’re hosting. Put it away, and get rid of as much of the clutter as you can. Next, focus on lighting. Restaurant lighting is impeccable. Try to have at least three points of light in the room, and if possible, dim the lights, and add candles. Adding mirrors also helps – they let the space breathe and expand, and reflect the light. This really makes a space come alive when you entertain.
And last, but not least, focus on the food. Get really good food. You can purchase great ingredients for a fraction of what you would spend on the same items in a restaurant, so make sure you spend time selecting and planning your menu.
Get your lighting situation right. Candles are key to set the mood for dinner parties.
kate (ensembl) – I can already see this space coming together. When it comes time to actually host a dinner party, what are the “right things” that an apartment dweller should own for entertaining?
maxwell – There is a certain luxury to a well-appointed table. Consider what people will see on the dinner table, what they will pick up, what they will eat from. Anything you can do to improve that experience – both the visual and tactile experience – makes an impact. This doesn’t need to mean buying expensive things, but considering the look and feel of cutlery, wine glasses, the dishes you serve from, and what is on the table. A table cloth is very underrated but does so much to improve the way your dining table looks during a meal.
kate (ensembl) – Great ideas. Now that we’ve got our table set-up done, let’s get back to your point about cleaning up the clutter. Creating a clutter-free space is key, not just for times when you’re hosting, but for day-to-day living. Is there anything an apartment dweller should have or do to help stay organized and clutter free?
maxwell – Great shelving is crucial for an apartment. Without it, you’re going to have things that sit on the floor, and this creates places for things to get stuck and dust to build up. Invest in shelving, it makes a huge difference.
Shelves and tables are used to keep this apartment organized and clutter free.
kate (ensembl) – Any clutter-traps to avoid?
maxwell - The most difficult areas to keep organized are the ones you cannot see – closets, cupboards, cabinets. Out of site is out of mind, and we just don’t manage it. This is where the most friction and stress in an apartment exists.
I’m a huge advocate of taking doors off – closets, cupboards, and even rooms. In a small space, doors can really get in the way. I like to use curtains – over doorways and especially closets; you can easily get in, you can see what’s there, you’re motivated to keep the space organized, and you don’t lose any space by having the door there.
kate (ensembl) – We’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability and trying to be more conscious about our purchases. In the wake of a shift towards greener, more sustainable living, do you think there is a shift in the way apartment dwellers make purchases for their homes?
maxwell – Apartment dwellers – or anyone living in a small space - may not be more (or less) earth conscious, but they are definitely space-conscious. They want their space to be uncluttered. They just don’t have the space to be unconscious about it.
I was at a friend’s parents’ home; her father was a famous architect. We were at his small, custom built, Hamptons cottage. They didn’t have a garbage bin inside, and she said, “my father doesn’t want a trash can because he can’t find one that fits”. That is the reality when you don’t have a lot of space - everything must be perfect, small, and save space. There is, quite literally, no room for anything that doesn’t meet that criteria.
Because of limited space, apartment dwellers are likely to be more thoughtful about the purchases they make. In an apartment, you’re likely to spend more money to seek out something that is perfect because you are only going to have one. The things you own are always going to be on display; you may not be able to put it away, or it may simply be visible from everywhere in your space. You want to really like something that you see all the time.
The "right things" inside Maxwell Ryan's Hampton's home.
kate (ensembl) – In the context of buying things for our homes, or for personal consumption generally, what does “sustainable consumerism” mean to you?
maxwell – I grew up in New York City, the center of consumerism, so on one level I’m not a fair judge. But I think that consumerism is what we as humans do – we use things, we eat things, we consume things. And I don’t think that is inherently the problem. I think the problem is that we don’t think about what happens after we consume. We need to think cradle to cradle about products, otherwise we will burry ourselves in trash. So, I’m inclined to say there is nothing wrong with consumption, just so long as we’re mindful of the effects that consumption has.
You can approach that in an eco-friendly way, like buying things that are biodegradable or with less packaging. But I’m not sure people are always thinking on that level. I think the reality of what we’re seeing now is more of a shift to purchasing “fewer better things” - by seeking out products that are meant to be used for a long time.
kate (ensembl) – You grew up and still live in New York City. With more people moving to and staying longer in urban centers, do you see a change in the way products are being made? Can it drive change in the way that new homes and apartments are designed?
maxwell - That's a very interesting question and I guess the answer would have to be yes, to a certain extent. We've already seen major companies designing smaller scale furnishings for urban dwellers - a larger part of their customer base, and IKEA's research has echoed that as of a few years ago - 2017 - more people are living in cities than outside of them than ever before. This has to have an impact - perhaps the Japanification of interior life where everything is much smaller, more mobile, more storable and - with fewer things - much more considered.
This Budapest apartment takes space-efficiency to another level. Does it represent the future of apartment design? Photo credit: Balázs Glódi via Dezeen
how do you come together? (dinner party repertoire with apartment therapy's maxwell ryan.)
outset: what gets done in advance?
Shopping for food and then - when I'm home - I set the table before I do anything else. I figure that when guests come, if nothing else is done, having a beautiful table will make them feel calm and welcome while I catch up.
prelude: how does the night start?
Always a drink… first thing, when you walk in the door. It not only lubricates, but it gives the guests something to do so they feel welcomed into the home.
piece de resistance: what are you serving, how are you serving it?
Always family style.
night cap: what marks the end of a good night?
I like just a good old sit around the table, drink more and get deeper into conversation with no one feeling like they want to go home!
Maxwell Ryan's Hampton's kitchen (we imagine he's in the midst of preparing for a dinner party right now!)
Photo credit: Eric Striffler via Apartment Therapy
Don't forget to check out Maxwell's six tips for dinner party design - great advice on how to style your space when you want to host a dinner party.