My 280sqft: How a wellness expert used plants and DIY to open up her tiny West Village studio

December 17, 2018

Our ongoing series “My sqft” checks out the homes of New Yorkers across all the boroughs. Our latest interior adventure brings us to wellness entrepreneur and innovation consultant Ilse Paanakker’s West Village studio. Want to see your home featured here? Get in touch!

“Wellness” is definitely a buzzword these days, but Ilse Paanakker, a self-described “habit-based wellness guru” is definitely not just talk. By day, Ilse works as an innovation consultant, but she’s also the founder of Habit House, a wellness technology that helps women build healthy lifestyles one habit at a time. And it when it came to her 280-square-foot West Village studio, Ilse was sure to use her expertise to create a home that not only feels much larger than its tiny footprint but empowers her to maintain her personal healthy habits. From her beautifully curated collection of plants (it’s “meditative to take care of them,” she says) and DIY projects to her accountability board and streamlined kitchen that’s perfect for meal-prep, Ilse’s home is the true definition of a wellness lifestyle.

Ilse’s grandfather worked in a pharmacy, which is how she got these retro medicine bottles. 

What’s your favorite thing about your apartment?

My studio has four big windows in the main living space which bring in incredible natural light. This is definitely my favorite feature. It’s also my reward for walking up six flights of stairs! The morning sunshine brings in an incredible light which allows my plants to flourish, making my place an energizing environment for me to live and work in.

Ilse worked with Murphy Bed Express on her bed.

Were you concerned about fitting a bed?

Yes! My apartment is less than 280 square feet and the main living space is about 13×16 feet. A traditional bed would leave little space for much else. A Murphy bed was the best solution and the moment I realized how much storage space I could design around it, I was sold. I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my bed “away” each morning to make sure I come home to a vibrant living space in the evening, not a bedroom. Plus, it makes the apartment seem larger. Definitely the right choice!

What are your top three tips for those living in small apartments?

There are three apartment tips that I think are key for anyone living in a small space.

1. Plan it. Really think through your space before you buy any furniture. First, identify the pieces you want and tape their measurements out on your floor. This will help you confirm it actually all fits together. For example, I decided to design my murphy bed to unfold vertically instead of horizontally because it made more sense in my space and created room for the couch I wanted. I wouldn’t have realized this had I not taped my couch and bed measurements out on the floor.

2. Paint it. Even if you only plan to rent the space for a year, taking a day to paint the spaces’ walls or even just an accent wall, will add so much and really make it feel like home.

3. Create storage. “Things” make a small space seem even smaller. Create space for everything you own and have as little “stuff” lying around as possible. I got a wooden crate for my books and magazines, purchased a couch with built-in storage underneath, and bought closed-off shelves to house items I didn’t want to look at all the time (dirt for plants takes up a lot of room!). This makes a small space seem bigger.

Her apartment may be small, but Ilse’s kitchen has a full stove, cool pull-out fridge AND a dishwasher!

Okay, but your kitchen is definitely NOT small! Do you like to cook?

I LOVE to cook. Besides the windows which bring in an abundance of natural light, my kitchen is my favorite thing about my apartment. Its size allows me to be able to truly cook. An NYC lifestyle is very centered around food and alcohol consumption. Since I am focused on living healthy, NYC’s environment is sometimes tricky to navigate. Having a real kitchen allows me to enjoy preparing lunches for the work week and means I can host people here instead of going out to eat. It makes it easier to keep my lifestyle healthier.

The masks are from a family trip to Indonesia.

How and when did you get interested in plants?

My parents both have green thumbs so I’ve been around houseplants all my life. When I moved to New York for college, my mom gave me my first plant (I still have it today and it’s thriving!). When I started working full-time, I realized the importance of having a comfortable space to come home to and relax in. Since plants have a calming effect and reduce stress, they were an obvious choice for me. I think I also missed the greenery of Oregon, where I went to high school. I’ve slowly acquired these plants over the course of seven years.

Ilse says she has about 30 plants.

Your plant collection is so perfectly edited. Is it hard to not go overboard?

Ha! Many of my friends describe my apartment as “a jungle” and think I’ve gone overboard, but I would agree that it’s a tasteful collection! While I would love to have more plants, I don’t want them to get in the way of me living comfortably. A while ago I decided my apartment was “full” and I now only allow myself to buy a plant if I really, really, really want it. This is easier said than done as there are so many tempting plant stores in the city! Someday I want to build an entire plant wall, but that’ll have to be in a different home.

What are your favorite places to shop for plants?

The north side of the Union Square farmers market houses all the plant vendors. In the spring and summer, they have a great selection, especially if you get there early in the day. I’ve bought a majority of my plants there (including my big Montera!) because the quality is good and the price is fair. My second favorite place is Sprout Home in Williamsburg. They are very knowledgeable, plus they also have an amazing selection of modern pots to display your plants in.

Ilse has lived in NYC for seven years and been in this apartment for three.

What’s your watering routine?

After I started working full-time, taking care of my plants became the one consistent moment of relaxing “me time” every week that I now look forward to- definitely an unexpected benefit! My bigger plants need watering every seven to 10 days. They all have pots with drainage holes so I place them in my bathtub and have a “plant pool party” where they all get a good soak at once. Usually, I leave them in there overnight to drain. The smaller plants are watered with a watering can every week, and the succulents are sprayed occasionally and watered every two to three weeks depending on the time of year. Weekly, my plant watering routine takes no more than 30 minutes. Repotting, however, is a whole different story!

Ilse found the plywood for the kitchen shelves on the street.

For those just starting out, what plants do you feel are best for apartment dwellers?

Devil’s ivy and spider plants are easy to take care of, can grow in different levels of light, and can survive a brief period of oops-I-forgot-to-water. I have both of mine hanging from the ceiling in macrame plant holders which work well if you have limited shelf space in your apartment. The spider plant gets cute little white flowers and you can give your friends its new sproutings as it grows. The devil’s ivy grows fast and is an easy way to bring a green statement piece into the home. Succulents are also a great option, just don’t over water them.

Ilse built the ladder using wood that she bought and sawed.

Along with the plants, you’ve DIY-ed a lot of the decorative elements in your home. Have you always been crafty?

Yes, I have always been creative! My mother is an abstract painter and growing up we did a lot of arts and crafts together as a family. She made the painting that is the centerpiece of my apartment! (See her work here and here) I’m not as talented as her, but I still like to create every once in a while. In my apartment, I’ve woven the macrame hangers and built a ladder for my plants, stained wooden triangles for wall decor, hung up old windows as whiteboards, and created my own shelves out of weathered plywood and mason jars. Like watering my plants, it’s a way for me to unwind after a busy week. Plus, I usually have my best work-related thoughts when doing something crafty.

Ilse’s sister made the bust. Her other sister made the face vase on the ladder.

Tell us about Habit House.

Habit House is my company! It’s a wellness technology that empowers powerful, badass woman to feel as good as their resumes look. We help women build wellness habits by providing them the streamlined support they need to make this healthy habit one less thing on their to-do list—for good.

I built Habit House because I wanted to make building a wellness routine and simultaneously pursuing a career possible. As I interviewed hundreds of women, I realized how unrealistic and overwhelming existing approaches to wellness were. It has historically been an industry that forces drastic lifestyle changes, based on experts telling you, the customer, what habits you should or shouldn’t care about without building in any type of accountability.

What are some of the ways you incorporated wellness into your home decor?

Creating and maintaining my space is an important part of my wellness routine. Not only is taking care of my plants relaxing for me, having an energizing space creates an environment in which I can be inspired to try new things (like building a new healthy habit and starting my own business!).

Every twelve weeks I draw a calendar on my window-whiteboard in my kitchen. Here I keep myself accountable to my healthy habits by writing in what I did once I complete it. This allows me to quickly identify when I’m falling off track (e.g., a hectic week at work or a post-vacation slump). It’s a great way to keep myself accountable. I’m currently building the habit of meditating and am tracking when I’ve accomplished it on the whiteboard (p.s. I share my progress towards building this habit every Sunday on Habit House’s Instagram).

“It’s a little bit of home,” Ilse says of her mother’s painting, which she made after seeing Ilse’s purple wall.

When you’re not working at Luminary Labs and Habit House, what do you like to do for fun?

It may sound silly to some, but I love to strength train. Two years ago, I started weight training and it’s been an empowering experience. I’ve grown to be confident in a space full of mostly men and this has helped me in ways I didn’t foresee! Plus, pushing your body beyond what you think it’s capable of is an important reminder that you can make almost anything happen if you put your mind to it and practice it consistently.

I also love to host friends at my apartment for dinners (I am planning a movable feast with two friends next week where we hop from apartment to apartment for different courses!), escaping the city to go hiking, and Citi Biking to explore new NYC neighborhoods.

Favorite spots in the neighborhood?

The Abingdon Square Greenmarket has become a non-negotiable part of my Saturday morning routine. There’s nothing quite like fresh sprouts and eggs for a post-workout recovery breakfast. If I’m celebrating something and want to go out to dinner, Hudson Clearwater is high on my list, especially in the summer months because their outdoor garden is great. Though I don’t drink much, if I’m looking for a casual bar with friends, Wilfie and Nell is nice and cozy. If I’m in the mood for a treat, Milk and Cookies Bakery makes a mean salted oats cookie. Toby’s Estate Coffee is my go-to place to get work done and they almost always have a seat left to sit.


All photos taken by James and Karla Murray exclusively for 6sqft. Photos are not to be reproduced without written permission from 6sqft.

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