They Dreamed of a Bigger Apartment. Little by Little, It Came True.

Most New Yorkers wish for more space, but moving isn’t the only way to get it. Sometimes you just have to wait for the neighbors to sell. By Tim McKeough Complaining about cramped quarters is common practice for most people who […]

Most New Yorkers wish for more space, but moving isn’t the only way to get it. Sometimes you just have to wait for the neighbors to sell.

By Tim McKeough

Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

Complaining about cramped quarters is common practice for most people who live in apartments. But sometimes you don’t have to move to find a little extra space.

That’s what Lauren and Michael Stein discovered.

In 2012, they paid $895,000 for a two-bedroom co-op apartment in Midtown Manhattan that a previous owner had already expanded, by blowing out a wall between a small one-bedroom and a studio.

“They were combined, but not really done well,” said Ms. Stein, 40, a sales director at a social media company, noting that the apartments had been attached without reconfiguring the floor plan. But after she and Mr. Stein, 44, a mortgage banker, made a few cosmetic changes, the space was good enough for them.

That is, until they started having children. “Then it was your typical, ‘Oh, this space is tight,’” she said. “But we had made friends in the building and community, and didn’t want to leave the building.”

Looking for a way to expand, the Steins asked the owners of the two neighboring apartments if they would be interested in selling, but found no takers. Then their real estate agent, Craig Roth of NextStopNY Real Estate, learned that the studio above the couple would be going on the market.

The Steins struck a deal to buy it for $419,000 in 2016, and began working with 3F Living, an architecture and design firm that shares office space with NextStopNY, to combine it with their own apartment.

Adding a staircase between the units required cutting an opening in the concrete slab between floors, so getting approval from the building wasn’t easy. “Co-ops are always difficult when it comes to combinations,” said Lindsay Joyce, who runs 3F Living with her husband, Tomasz Gil. But in this case, it was especially challenging, she noted, because the duplex would be “the first of its kind in the building.”

After nearly a year of negotiating, the couple received permission to make the cut and gut renovate the combined space. Upstairs, in the old studio, they created a primary suite with a dressing room and a desk area in front of a glass wall overlooking the staircase. Downstairs, they remodeled their old apartment to include a small living-and-dining room, a new kitchen and two bedrooms for their children, Chase, now 8, and Parker, 6. Construction took about six months and cost roughly $940,000.

After moving back in, the Steins were pleased. But when the pandemic struck and one of their next-door neighbors decided to sell a one-bedroom unit, they knew it was an opportunity for something better. Now they could add more space, which would allow them to create a generous living room, a proper dining space and a playroom.

They bought their neighbor’s apartment for $627,500 in October 2020 and got to work. But this time, they decided to do things a little differently.

Shortly before buying the apartment next door, the Steins had worked with Jennifer Hunter, an interior designer, on remodeling their Hamptons home, and the interiors of that house were so appealing and reflective of their personalities that they began to find their city apartment lacking.

So for their second renovation, they asked Ms. Hunter to be part of the team. “I wanted it to be fun, edgy and colorful,” Ms. Stein said of the apartment. “I was like, ‘Bring it all to life, Jen. Otherwise, the apartment is going to be a great space that just kind of falls flat.’”

But Ms. Hunter was determined not to repeat the same decorative approach in the city. “It was different, because the Hamptons was very beachy and casual,” she said. The Steins are energetic people who love art and fashion, and their urban home needed to reflect those things with bolder colors and patterns.

To understand her clients’ style preferences, Ms. Hunter often considers the clothing they wear. Ms. Stein favors colorful clothes from designers like Diane von Furstenberg and Veronica Beard, Ms. Hunter said, but “I wasn’t seeing that reflected in their home. So that was my job: to add that personality.”

This time around, 3F Living demolished the walls they had put up in 2017 to make bedrooms for the children, creating a wide-open living room and a dining area. Then the architects took down the wall to connect the new one-bedroom, building a children’s wing with two bedrooms, a playroom and a separate reading nook.

To furnish the space, Ms. Hunter used colors and patterns as eye-catching as those of any Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. Just inside the front door, she chose a teal paint color for cabinets resembling an upscale take on gym lockers. She wrapped a living room wall in Kelly Wearstler’s imposing Graffito wallpaper.

In the playroom, she coated doors and trim in orangey-red paint and added Too Much NYC Stuff wallpaper from Flat Vernacular, populated with tiny images of New York icons. The reading nook has Leo wallpaper from Pierre Frey, resembling Jackson Pollock paint splatters, and yellow Fatboy beanbag chairs.

Upstairs, in the primary bedroom, she added Nuvolette wallpaper with Fornasetti clouds from Cole & Son and, at the top of the staircase, a custom purple-neon sign from Name Glo proclaiming, “let the good times roll.”

After six months of construction, the 2,000-square-foot apartment was complete in October 2021, at a cost of about $600,000. Now everyone can be together or find their own space when they need it, Ms. Stein said. When the family entertains, the children gravitate toward the playroom, while the adults gather in the open kitchen.

But the reward isn’t just having a larger space — it’s how the home feels.

“I love it every time I walk in,” Ms. Stein said. “The apartment’s a reflection of me, my husband and the kids. We all have big personalities and a lot of energy. A cookie-cutter apartment would not be in line with who we are.”

Dec. 27, 2022