How to Decorate Your New York Apartment Before You Move There

When Jackie Terrell left her life behind during the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, she migrated to the East Coast from the West — unlike most Americans, who moved in the opposite direction. And she took her nest with her.

Raised in Laguna Beach, Calif., Ms. Terrell, a 75-year-old interior designer and artist, was a lifelong Southern Californian. But her grown daughters, an art director and a comedy agent, and her grandchildren all lived in New York City, and she had gamely trekked east as much as her working schedule allowed. They had long discussed her moving as a vague future plan.

Then, all of a sudden, the future arrived.

In August 2020, her daughters called. “It’s time,” they told her.

A long-term renter, Ms. Terrell had a budget of $4,000 a month and decades of experience at making the best of a series of midcentury-era apartments. (Her most recent home was a condo in the Century City neighborhood of Los Angeles, built in 1964.) She knew their drawbacks — the “landlord beige” paint jobs, the indifferent or nonexistent interior architecture — and their good qualities. Those boxy rooms are often bright and airy, and can serve as a blank canvas for artists like Ms. Terrell.

For many years, she had lived in a series of apartments in Park La Brea, the modernist village on some 160 acres overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Still one of the largest housing developments in the country, with 18 towers and more than 30 two-story buildings, Park La Brea was built from 1941 to 1948 — the war got in the way — by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as affordable housing for the middle class. Around the same time, MetLife was building a similar city-within-a-city in its hometown: Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the 80-acre, parklike complex in downtown Manhattan that would house generations of middle-class New Yorkers, beginning with servicemen just home from the war.

During the last recession, Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village became a spectacular casualty of the financial crisis. Developers who hoped to turn the property into luxury condominiums bought it for $5.4 billion in 2006, in what was then considered the largest real estate deal in American history. Nearly four years later, they lost it to their lenders. The complex’s fortunes have improved since then, and its rents are market rate — about $4,000 for a one-bedroom, which is what Ms. Terrell found.

Moving there was sort of an accident, as she had been looking elsewhere. But one of her daughters had a friend who lived there, and one thing led to another.

“Mom,” her daughter said, “it’s just like Park La Brea.”

“It was so familiar,” Ms. Terrell said. “I rented the apartment without seeing it.”

Not that she could have seen it: The summer of 2020 was not a time to be flying back and forth across the country. The planning would have to be done remotely, but she had her daughters — soldiers on the ground — and her skill at sketching floor plans.

A difficult divorce many years ago led Ms. Terrell to become a designer. She didn’t have enough money to pay a lawyer, but made too much to qualify for free representation. Her divorce lawyer offered to trade her services if Ms. Terrell would help her decorate a new house.

“She needed paint colors, and I also did some murals, and that’s what I thought my future would be,” Ms. Terrell said. “But it went from there. I had always done my own homes, but I didn’t know I was a designer. The divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but also the best.”

Television writers became her niche. Showrunners passed her name along, and many became repeat clients.

Ms. Terrell planned her move to New York City by working off her new apartment’s floor plan, translating its measurements and that of her furniture into scale drawings and accounting for every light switch, outlet, door swing and window height. That way she knew exactly what to bring and what to toss.

Then she had the place painted, in Simply White from Benjamin Moore, her go-to hue. “It reads as white, but it’s not at all cold and it’s not at all beige,” she said. “It’s just perfect.”

White everything — from trim to ceiling — opens a place up, she said. It can make a conventional apartment feel like a loft.

Long practiced at working from home, Ms. Terrell configured her new living room with separate zones. She brought with her two seven-foot tables made by Blu Dot, the furniture company whose pieces recall the work of Charles and Ray Eames (set end to end, they run nearly the entire length of her new living room and become her office during the day); six Swedish school chairs and two ottomans that she could move around depending on who showed up for dinner; and an Ikea lacquered wall unit — a wall of closets — also the length of her new living room, where she could stow her work at the end of the day.

She also packed wire cables and translucent tent fabric — another Ikea find. Stitched into panels, the wire-and-fabric pieces would hang over the bottom of the windows in her new home, hiding air-conditioners and letting the light through.

But mostly she brought artwork — lots and lots of artwork. Much of it was hers, including some 50 family photographs in Lucite box frames that would line the hallway of the new apartment, along with brightly colored rugs, a small Suzani textile panel that she would hang on the wall and a collection of handmade paper flowers that looked as if they had been painted by Miro, the Spanish Surrealist.

“It was the early days of the pandemic when no one knew anything, and we couldn’t go outside,” Ms. Terrell said, recalling Los Angeles’s strict protocols. “I needed to make something. It sort of cheered things up. I gave a lot away to friends and kept a bunch. And even now when I want to remind myself that I make stuff, I’ll make more.”

In the fall of 2020, Ms. Terrell and her dog, Pip, an energetic Jack Russell terrier, landed in New York.

“There were stupid things I hadn’t thought of, like snow,” she said. “When winter happened, I didn’t have proper shoes.”

It was scary, during the long winter months, not knowing when the world would open up. “I hadn’t really thought about how enormous a change it would be,” she said. “I just put my head down and did it.”

But spring came, and she was vaccinated. She went to the opera — her first performance ever — at Lincoln Center. Her grandchildren began to visit for dinner and sleepovers.

Once a week after school, her granddaughter walked over with a friend, and it became a ritual. Ms. Terrell now puts out her art supplies, and the girls draw and do homework, and then everyone has dinner together.

Alone in her new city, she is never lonely. A 14-foot table can accommodate a lot of drop-ins. Zoom, FaceTime and UPS connect her to clients and friends back in Los Angeles.

“The pandemic has taught us if you’re a connecting person, you can connect,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be in person.”

Pip has also adjusted nicely: A dog walker comes three times a week with an enormous Irish terrier, and Pip seems proud to be able to hold his own. Ms. Terrell’s daughters and grandchildren all mock fight about who will spend the night with whom, and they all tell her constantly how glad they are that she made the move.

“I am so happy they wanted me here, and that they gave me permission to be here,” she said. “I would never have asked or presumed, ‘Hey, I want to live in New York.’”

Recently, Ms. Terrell received her senior card for the subway, although its byways are still a mystery to her. In any case, after a life spent in traffic, she prefers to walk.

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