The Art of the Apartment

More rooms aren't always better. This downtown Harbor Square renovation devotes 2,000 square feet to creating a spectacular studio apartment.


More rooms aren’t always better. This downtown Harbor Square renovation devotes 2,000 square feet to creating a spectacular studio apartment.

Apartment Living can sometimes feel like dwelling on a sheet of graph paper—a square box, divided into smaller square boxes. Some high-rise restrictions are immovable, of course, but the owners of this downtown condominium show that it is possible to sweep away the grid and create a more organic layout.

The owner bought the first half of the apartment in 1986: a 1,000-square-foot unit high in the downtown Harbor Square condominium. After living in Kailua for years, he had been ready for a more urban experience-walking to work in the morning, gazing over the city lights at night.


He had found exactly what he was looking for here. Local designer Greg Mills, the apartment’s previous owner, had ripped out the interior walls of a standard two-bedroom layout, transforming the place into an expansive studio-a single bedroom/living area, flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and perfect for entertaining. The effect was impressive enough that Mills’ conversion had earned a profile in our April 1984 issue, which described it as a “stunning and spacious L-shaped studio with a spectacular wraparound view.”

As the maxim goes, though, you can never be too thin, too rich or have a big enough apartment. When, in 2001, the next-door neighbor passed away, the owner and his partner decided that their place could be twice as nice, and purchased the newly available unit. It remained in its original two-bedroom configuration, but the couple didn’t plan on keeping it that way long.

They hired architect John Black to handle the renovation that would unite the two apartments, with a relatively short list of design requirements. “We wanted to continue the open layout that Greg Mills had started,” recalls the owner. “We didn’t want something Hawaiian; we wanted a more universal look. And [my partner] wanted someplace to display his art.”

The Hawaiian House Now book cover

Photo by David Croxford

If you’re looking for a gift idea for someone who loves design and home style, try The Hawaiian House Now (Harry N. Abrams, $40). Frequent HONOLULU contributor Linny Morris photographed 20 homes, each more vibrant and inviting than the next, while the text, by Malia Mattoch-McManus, shares insights from the homeowners, such as Wanda Watumull. But be careful! It’s the kind of book that may cause you to knock down a wall, buy a new table or switch to red throw pillows.

With most of the essentials already accounted for in the original apartment—kitchen, master bathroom, bedroom/living room area—almost all the new unit’s square footage was up for grabs. And so down came the walls. At the far end of the unit, Black converted the kitchen area into a laundry room, and built up a small guest area that doubles as a study for the owner’s partner. He used the remaining space to create a large open, continuous flow that begins in a grand entranceway, continues into an expansive living-room area, and wraps around to connect with the original apartment’s L-shaped corridor.

It’s possible to walk from the front door to the master bedroom without encountering a single door, but Black did manage to subtly divide each of the different living areas visually. The hallways leading to the guest bedroom and the master bedroom, for example, both turn  corners before opening onto the living room. “This design gives the feeling of more space since you see the artwork displayed on the hallway wall,” he says. “But there is privacy, since you can’t see further down the hallway.”Eliminating unnecessary doors throughout the apartment provides practical benefits, as well. The huge, south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows offer a beautiful view of the city and the harbor, but they do let in the afternoon sun. Air conditioning becomes vital to combat the heat, and the open layout helps promote air circulation throughout the apartment.

The owners say they don’t miss the divisions of a conventional apartment. “The flow of the place really works, from a functional standpoint,” says the owner. “We each have our own space when we need it, but there are very few boundaries between the different areas.”

On a day-to-day basis, they end up spending most of their time in the bedroom/living room area. “This is really our living center, here,” says one. “I tell people it’s like a big hotel suite. If you checked into a W hotel suite, you’d have a similar layout.”


This space was once two separate apartments. Track and recessed lighting highlight the art throughout.

Another departure from traditional residential norms is the kitchen, which resembles nothing so much as a ship’s quarters: small, compact, well laid out. “We don’t cook a whole lot, so it fits our needs,” says the owner’s partner. “We’ve even got sliding doors, so we can easily close off the entire area. When we entertain, guests will sometimes ask us where the kitchen is.”

As for aesthetics, Greg Mills had done a pretty good job of creating a spare, Asian look with his original makeover, but these owners wanted to take it one step further, stripping away extraneous details and focusing on the clean lines and sharp edges. The ultimate goal was to throw as much attention as possible on the owners’ extensive art and furniture collection. “The art was one of the main considerations when we started the renovation,” says the owner’s partner. “We wanted a very clean, loft type of space, something with a neutral background. We didn’t even think of another color for the walls.”


Travertine flooring is used throughout the apartment; a rug adds texture in the living room area.

Turning the apartment into a blank slate risks a sterile environment, but the owners have stuffed the place with an eclectic menagerie of modern art-Doug Hall, Luisa Lambri, Gay Outlaw, John Koga, Anne Appleby—and a virtual who’s who collection of designer furniture. Saarinen tables, a Mies Van Der Rohe day bed, three pieces by Eames, an Arne Jacobson swan chair, a Philippe Starck Hudson chair. The eye never lacks for stimulation.

Every gallery needs proper lighting, and Black used track and recessed light fixtures to illuminate strategic areas throughout the apartment. To keep the setup unobtrusive, he dropped the ceiling level an inch and a half to accommodate the wiring and hardware. The overall effect is impressive, particularly at night, when the city lights transform the apartment into a warm, dramatic setting.

vintage car



All in all, the renovation cost $350,000, but the owners say the luxury of having so much open space in their apartment has been well worth the expense. “When we first saw the space with all the walls knocked down, we couldn’t imagine what we were going to do with it all,” says one. “We thought it was too big, actually. But once we settled in, it just felt natural right away.”                            

Architect: John Black, AIA (545-4000)
Contractor: Thomas Toma (524-5143)