The (Apartment) Doctor is In
Maxwell Ryan, the man behind the Apartment Therapy blog
Photo courtesy Better Homes & Gardens
It was the summer of 2001, and Maxwell Ryan was jobless. He’d recently left his six-year position as a Waldorf school teacher in New York to pursue an interest in starting his own business. The only hiccup: He had no business ideas, no business education, and no business investors.
At a dinner party with his then-girlfriend’s friends, fate was in the seat Ryan chose at the table. The person sitting next to him needed someone to spruce up his apartment, and with a new excess of free time, Ryan jumped at the opportunity. Word got out, and soon he was redecorating friends’ and friends-of-friends’ living spaces. “Before I knew it, I was working for total strangers and charging an hourly or daily rate,” he recalls.
Dubbed the “apartment therapist,” Ryan traveled to his clients via scooter and helped rearrange their spaces to reflect their personalities and tastes, but never dictated how they should live. This philosophy has blossomed into Apartment Therapy, an online home and lifestyle resource with 12 million monthly readers and a full-time staff of 60. From parenting tips to DIY organization solutions, the site operates around the sentiment that a happy life starts with a happy home.
Here, Ryan shares how Terence Conran changed his approach to design, why a home that just looks good isn’t enough, and his tips for making a small space feel bigger.
You grew up in New York. What did your room look like when you were a kid?
I had a bedroom with a twin bed and a clock radio. When my mother said I could design my room, I started drawing pictures. I wanted it to look like a skateboard park with ramps. It was going to be like a bowl made of curved plywood that was padded. By the time I was done drawing it from every angle, I realized it was impossible and would never happen in my childhood, so I just went back to having my regular old room.
Los Angeles couple Anne Ziegler and Scott Mason’s light-filled office space, as featured in Apartment Therapy: Complete + Happy Home. [Photo copyright 2016 by Apartment Therapy, LLC. Photographs by Melanie Acevedo]
Any early signs of you becoming an “apartment therapist”?
My father is a psychiatrist, so I grew up in an environment with someone who was helping people figure out their lives. It was very natural for me to think that if you devoted yourself to helping people and developed expertise in a certain area, that would make for a viable job or life. My younger brother always said I liked to tell people what to do, so maybe that’s part of it too.
The living room of Ryan’s two-bedroom SoHo rental that he shares with his daughter, Ursula. [Photo copyright 2016 by Apartment Therapy, LLC. Photographs by Melanie Acevedo]
How did you go from making house calls to manning a multimillion-reader website?
I quickly realized working with clients in New York was going to be difficult to manage. I started at 6 in the morning and ended after 9 at night. I was getting tired. So I thought, what if I had a product, something where I could help clients with their spaces in a way that kept working while I slept?
I started a weekly e-mail inspired by DailyCandy and Craigslist, which also started as e-mails. My brother came to visit, and he saw me slaving away all day with clients, writing the e-mail newsletter, and working on my first book, and he said, “You should start a blog.” The blog started in 2004, and by 2008 we’d grown to half a million readers. Then I got an offer to buy my blog. I was like, “You want to buy my blog? It doesn’t make any money.” That’s when a light bulb went off.
Paige and Smoot Hull’s home in Round Top, Texas, as featured in Apartment Therapy: Complete + Happy Home. [Photo copyright 2016 by Apartment Therapy, LLC. Photographs by Melanie Acevedo]
What’s your design philosophy?
The home is an extension of yourself. It’s like your second skin; it’s either itchy and uncomfortable, or it feels great and is totally supportive. It’s expressive and supportive of the goals in your life, both socially and professionally and with regard to your family. I’ve seen people who’ve been single and dating and having a hard time, and once they begin to work on their home, their outside life starts to change.
Who or what has influenced you?
I love that Terence Conran married food and design, and I love that he focused on the whole home. He insisted that the use of the home and the living in the home is the goal, not how it looks. It has to work well. It has to feel good. It has to be warm and inviting so you can have people over. I connected with him instantly when I saw his work and read his books. It’s all about hospitality and simple solutions. That’s what designers are good at: figuring out solutions. I love to solve problems. I love the inelegant solution. I’m not as concerned with what it looks like.
Any tips for living in a small space?
Remove as many doors as you can. Most of the time they just take up space and you can’t put furniture near them. In my first apartment, I took the doors off the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the closets, and put sliding curtains over the bedroom, bathroom, and closets. It saves a ton of space. Second, lighting is so important. A space feels big or small not by how you move around it, but by how your eye moves around it. Lighting will enlarge your space more than adding a few square feet, literally. The more you drive away the shadows, the bigger and more expansive the room will feel.
[Photo copyright 2016 by Apartment Therapy, LLC. Photographs by Melanie Acevedo]
Tell us about your fourth book, Apartment Therapy: Complete + Happy Home, released last year.
We wanted to make a book that would both teach and inspire readers to find, set up, and beautify their home, wherever they live. We wanted to reach a broader audience—various styles and sizes of homes—and to create a book that would be used and referred to for years.
You have an 8-year-old daughter, Ursula. What’s your design advice for parents?
Kids actually don’t need much for a long time. Seriously. Ursula didn’t even have her own room for the first year. It’s just amazing how little they need besides endless diapers. The design of your home doesn’t need to shift dramatically to accommodate a child. The child just wants to be with you. When I counsel parents I say, “Keep your home an adults’ home, with a space for your child. Don’t turn it into a child’s home with a space for you.” I think that’s really important.
What do you think are the essentials for an outdoor space?
Two chairs and a table. You want to be able to treat the outdoors as another room in your home, even if it’s just a scrap of balcony in an apartment. It can be a little café table where you can sit in the morning and have coffee or a bigger table that seats four for dining outside. Beyond that, there’s decorative things you can do. You can put out candles or an outdoor fire pit if you have that much space.
Any tricks for keeping a small space decluttered?
It’s such a psychological thing. Understanding why you do it is the first step toward beating it back down. I think that we’re all evolved from cavemen. In those days, just to survive, you had to get as many things into your cave as you possibly could: sticks, food, fur, whatever. The more stuff you had, the more secure you felt that you could survive the winter. I think there’s a little part of our brain that’s still operating that way.
If you really want to feel free to bring stuff home, ask what you can lose. The more I lose, the more I can bring in. So it’s like a reward system. If you clean your closet out, you can absolutely get more. And if you just start that cycle of thinking, you get much better about this constant circulation where new stuff is coming in and old stuff is going out.
The best straightforward tip I’ve come up with is the “outbox.” Designate a space in your home that’s out of the way: in a corner, beside the front door, in a hall. Anything you think you can lose, put in the outbox. Then a week later, you’re allowed to take anything from the box and put it back in your home. Otherwise, anything that’s left, throw it out or donate it. 9.9 times out of 10, nobody ever takes anything out of the box and brings it back into their home. The metaphor I use is, if you see a really beautiful rock on the beach and it’s all shiny and glistening with water, you take it home. The next morning it’s dried out and doesn’t look as pretty. When you’re decluttering at home, if you take the thing out of its environment and put it in the outbox, you see it for what it really is, and it loses its luster.