Throwback Home Tour: Nick Olsen's Tiny Red Apartment

Craving a new challenge, interior designer Nick Olsen revives a dark, cramped apartment to create a bold, Chinese-influenced escape

“My bedroom is like grandma meets pop art, but I think it totally works!” he says. “And that’s why I love it, because it’s a little off. Just like me!” Paying homage to artist Damien Hirst, Olsen painted this polka-dot piece himself. “It proves that all colors really do go together!” he says. All photos © Lonny. 
“My bedroom is like grandma meets pop art, but I think it totally works!” he says. “And that’s why I love it, because it’s a little off. Just like me!” Paying homage to artist Damien Hirst, Olsen painted this polka-dot piece himself. “It proves that all colors really do go together!” he says. All photos © Lonny. 
Interior designer Nick Olsen at home in his former New York City apartment.
Interior designer Nick Olsen at home in his former New York City apartment.

Several years ago, interior designer Nick Olsen got the itch for a new venture. Without further ado, he sold all his belongings (save a few select pieces) and relocated from his Flatiron District studio to a Nolita one bedroom, swapping high ceilings and elegant architectural details for a dingy, dark apartment with a choppy layout and uneven flooring. Olsen was thrilled. “The apartment was the complete opposite of what I’d had before. I took it as an opportunity to do something quirky and intense, like an over-the-top jewel box on a smaller scale.” Not an unusual stance for Olsen; close friends have referred to his aesthetic as “maximalist,” to which Olsen agrees: “I’m not completely extremist,” he says, “but I don’t do things halfway, and I’m never restrained in my decorating.” With a keen interest in history, his spaces are a modern marriage of yesterday and today; his general style is largely contemporary, while always maintaining a strong foothold in the past. “Ancient pieces have a grounding effect for me; if a space is without anything historical, it just feels too new,” says Olsen, who works to incorporate Greek sculptures and motifs or Roman busts.

Olsen had originally planned to cover the IKEA melamine with paper, but loved the red, gold, and white “Under the Sea” motif of this screen-printed fabric remnant he found at his upholsterer’s. “Screen-printing makes fabric very stiff, so it worked really well to cover,” he says.
Olsen had originally planned to cover the IKEA melamine with paper, but loved the red, gold, and white “Under the Sea” motif of this screen-printed fabric remnant he found at his upholsterer’s. “Screen-printing makes fabric very stiff, so it worked really well to cover,” he says.
Throwback Home Tour: Nick Olsen's Tiny Red Apartment
Using a mixture of stripes and patterns, Olsen carefully selected each fabric to complement one another in both scale and contrast.
Using a mixture of stripes and patterns, Olsen carefully selected each fabric to complement one another in both scale and contrast.

Originally studying to become an architect, Olsen says the tables took an unexpected turn his senior year when he stumbled across a picture of interior designer Miles Redd’s townhouse in W magazine; his response to the décor was so strong he wrote Redd a letter, explaining himself and his interests. Redd called Olsen in for a meeting, and two weeks later hired him as his assistant. The designer worked by Redd’s side for five years, referring to the experience as his “education in decorating,” learning everything from color combinations and styling to functionally breaking down a room. “The most important thing he taught me was furniture arrangement and how to use a room to make the most of a space,” says Olsen. “Miles truly has an impeccable taste; he’s influenced my current work in every way.”

After lacquering his entire living room, kitchen, and entryway in high-gloss red, he applied red piping to his reupholstered couch to tie in the element.
After lacquering his entire living room, kitchen, and entryway in high-gloss red, he applied red piping to his reupholstered couch to tie in the element.
A Christmas present from Redd from John Rosselli Antiques & Decorations is Olsen’s favorite object in his apartment.
A Christmas present from Redd from John Rosselli Antiques & Decorations is Olsen’s favorite object in his apartment.

Olsen approaches interiors like a narrative, unfolding a story he’s kept, until then, in only the confines of his mind. Inspired by a brief stay in Chinatown between apartments, Olsen envisioned a Chinese opium den–like experience for his Nolita apartment, resulting in the high-gloss red backsplash that excites the living room and kitchen walls. He had used a bold color in his previous apartment but had painted all trim white, from the moldings to the sofa. This time around, he engulfed the space in the shade without any of the white relief. The feeling, and mission, is certainly accomplished; by including the ceiling in the paint job, the aura is completely and vibrantly encompassing. “Paint is the single most transformative thing you can do to a room,” says Olsen. “If you can’t embrace changing a space with paint, your options become extremely limited.”

“I love the style context of mixing chintz slipcovers and painted French furniture with modern elements like bold colors, abstract paintings, and a geometric tiled floor.”
“I love the style context of mixing chintz slipcovers and painted French furniture with modern elements like bold colors, abstract paintings, and a geometric tiled floor.”
Throwback Home Tour: Nick Olsen's Tiny Red Apartment
Few things got in between Olsen and his high-gloss shade of red, including a kitchen window. “It had already been painted shut when I moved in, plus it looked out onto a shaft. So I just painted the entire thing red.”
Few things got in between Olsen and his high-gloss shade of red, including a kitchen window. “It had already been painted shut when I moved in, plus it looked out onto a shaft. So I just painted the entire thing red.”

Having lived in studios until this point, it was also important to Olsen that he both maximize and celebrate his separate spaces. Aiming to create a cozy, intimate bedroom, the designer utilized fabrics across the board, an element he hadn’t worked with in the Flatiron District. Instead of painting, he draped fabric against all four walls, staple gunning it to the ceiling and pulling it apart at the windows for instant curtains. “The bedroom gets such great light; mixed with the fabric, it creates this warm, tented, outdoor-like feeling, almost old English in a way,” says Olsen, who finished the space with wall-to-wall sisal carpeting.

"This lamp is my little &squot;80s Memphis-lite moment!" Olsen laughs; he found it on the clearance rack at an NYU dorm-supplies store.
"This lamp is my little '80s Memphis-lite moment!" Olsen laughs; he found it on the clearance rack at an NYU dorm-supplies store.
Olsen constructed the green folding screen in his living room by spray mounting green felt to the wood.
Olsen constructed the green folding screen in his living room by spray mounting green felt to the wood.

None of the above took place until Olsen first applied several necessary renovations. He hired contractors to tear down a partition in the bedroom to create a larger space, and to rewire the lighting, which, Olsen says, “felt like a fire hazard.” Olsen himself replaced the kitchen island with an IKEA cabinet and even went to such lengths as removing the original refrigerator because of its bulk. “It was huge! I couldn’t stand it in my kitchen any longer,” he says; he now uses a mini fridge, kept under the counter butcher block.

 No longer working as Redd’s assistant, Olsen is busy launching himself as an independent designer. He has officially established Nick Olsen, Inc., offering to take on projects at any scale. His goal? Establish himself to the likes of mentor Redd, in terms of talent, hard work, and reputation. “Every designer has that gold standard they look up to,” says Olsen. “Miles is my gold standard.”

“I love the tchotchkes factor, sculptures and vases, objects, colors, factoring in anything that catches the eye. I’ll buy a coffee-table book just for an interesting cover.” Because setting out the tchotchkes ultimately comes down to styling, it’s one of the last things Olsen will affect, bringing the room and all its pieces immediately into play.
“I love the tchotchkes factor, sculptures and vases, objects, colors, factoring in anything that catches the eye. I’ll buy a coffee-table book just for an interesting cover.” Because setting out the tchotchkes ultimately comes down to styling, it’s one of the last things Olsen will affect, bringing the room and all its pieces immediately into play.
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