Marcelline Balfour lives in a 500-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side with her two daughters and a grumpy orange cat. After moving in a few years ago, Marcelline joined her local Buy Nothing group on Facebook. “It’s a community of neighbors who give things to each other for free,” she says. “My whole place is basically a ‘buy nothing’ apartment!” Here, she shows us around…
On building community: I love my local Buy Nothing group. There’s no money exchanged, no expectation of trade. The beautiful thing is that you’re seeing the best in your neighbors. And when you witness that kind of generosity, it compels you to do the same, so the kindness compounds. Virtually everything here came from that group: the light fixtures, artwork, the mobile in my girls’ room, their huge teddy bear.
Tray: Buy Nothing group. Sheepskin throw: WaySoft.
On street smarts: I’ve gotten a lot of pieces right off the street. People in my Buy Nothing group will often post ‘curb alerts,’ when they see something cool that’s been put out on the sidewalk. I also follow two street-find accounts on Instagram : @stoopingNYC and @scoopthestoopnyc. They blew up when COVID first hit and everyone was moving out of the city. You do have to smell and inspect things before bringing them home (and some stuff I’d never do — no rugs or mattresses). But, really, most things are in nice condition. You can tell when somebody wants someone else to take it home.
On a family of readers: We are a HUGE book family. We’re always reading, and we have four bookcases. The girls need hands-on, physical copies, but I save space by using a Kindle. I love thrillers, like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child and Rebecca Cantrell’s Joe Tesla series.
On a room within a room: My girls love painting, so I wanted to create space just for that. I already had this little table and chairs when we moved here, and then cobbled together everything else. I found the shelf on the street and got a lot of supplies from my Buy Nothing group. It’s a small space, but they use it every single day.
On a strategic sofa: It’s an Ikea couch, but I got custom slipcovers, because I knew my kids would trash it. So, now I can literally wash my couch whenever I need to. It’s awesome. The girls can pull off the pillows and use it as a bouncy house.
On a worth-it splurge: I found this wallpaper online at Target — it’s peel-and-stick. This space is the first thing you see when you walk in the door, so I wanted to make it feel special and happy.
Play kitchen: street find. Shelves: Buy Nothing group.
On cooking together: This play kitchen was another great freebie. I didn’t cook much before my girls were born, so I’m still learning, and most of what I know is standard child fare: breaded fish, spaghetti and meatballs. We also bake together. LOTS of cookies.
Rug: Ruggable. Deer and frame: Buy Nothing group.
On joyful cupboards: One of my favorite tips is to ‘merchandize’ your closets. I’ll set up shelves to feature things that will make me smile when I open the door: pretty reusable bags, one of my daughter’s stuffies — we even hang some of their favorite paintings in the closet. Above the cabinets, it was looking so bare and empty. So, I did the same thing. The birdcage belonged to one of my neighbor’s grandmothers. It’s quite old but so charming.
On a quick upgrade: The best way to improve the vibe of a room is to change the ceiling light fixture. It has the biggest impact. Someone in my Buy Nothing group posted a curb alert with a photo of a chandelier, and I immediately went to find it. It was filthy, but I cleaned and rewired it. As long as you know where the power boxes are, you can learn how to rewire a fixture. You can learn anything on the Internet.
On a big surprise: It’s a dream bed, right? I wanted to get the Pottery Barn version, but it was a fortune. This one is a knock-off from Home Depot and less than half the price. And it’s wonderful! I assembled it when the girls were away with their dad for a week, and then it was a big surprise when they came back. They’re always still trying to find a way into mom’s bed, but they love it.
Fox pillow: Target, similar. Bedding, lamp and green chair: Buy Nothing group. Dresser: Facebook Marketplace.
On making it special: The whole intent with this apartment was to create some magic for my children. Paint can get very expensive, so I asked my Buy Nothing group if anyone had leftover paint lying around — I wound up with over 10 cans! And the supplies! I’ d never done a wall mural before, but I thought, okay, let’s give it a shot. I did a couple arches, which progressed into some trees, which evolved into some mushrooms — and I got carried away.
On the coziest nook: Someone from the Buy Nothing group gave me the felt and stuffing I used to make this floor cushion for the girls’ reading nook. It was my first sewing project, but I just looked up some tutorials online and went for it. Quite honestly it is so crooked. But it works!
White rug: Ikea.
On the cow jumping over the moon: I actually did that small painting from Goodnight Moon that’s hanging on the wall. I was experiencing postpartum depression, and I wanted to have an outlet to focus on what I loved about motherhood. So, I painted that for my girls. It helped get me through the depression — writing things for them, painting things for them.
On a theme: This bathroom’s theme began with the cactus! My girls and I were out one day and saw it on the street. They absolutely insisted we take it home: ‘We have to!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s over five feet tall. But we put it in the stroller and got it home.
On accent wallpaper: I loved this yellow floral wallpaper, but I couldn’t afford to wallpaper an entire accent wall, so I just got one big piece and framed it with paneling I got on Amazon. It’s one of my favorite home projects.
Bed: Antique (via Apt Deco). Bedding: Buy Nothing group. Art above bed: thrifted.
On sidewalk treasures: I found this beautiful screen on the street. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, and it weighed like 50 pounds, but somehow I managed to drag it home. Then it magically fit in this space beside my bed. It makes the whole room glow.
Dresser and armchair: street finds. Cabinet: Facebook Marketplace.
On a favorite find: One of the coolest things I got from the Buy Nothing group is this Kartell lamp, which usually run for about $500. The base was broken, but I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m pretty good at fixing things.’ I basically MacGyver’ d it: I got the base back together using wire and hot glue. I didn’t know if it would work, but I figured they were going to throw it out anyway, so why not try?
On rediscovering downtime: I’ve had to remember and re-learn all the things I liked doing, because when my kids were younger, I kind of forgot all about me! When I have time to myself now, I spend time outdoors. I’ll go for a run or spend half an hour in our neighborhood tulip garden. And I have to do something creative every day: painting, photos, any small project.
On a little escape: While I wanted the girls’ bathroom to be fun and stimulating, I craved a more tranquil escape. Nature is a huge influence for me — birds, flowers, trees. So, this wallpaper called to me. When I put it up, I realized the birds resembled the ones on the screen in my bedroom, so they kind of coordinated. I think that’s how a home comes together. If you keep collecting things that you’re drawn to, they’re end up complementing everything else in your home .
On finding your way home: This apartment was originally a sublet I stumbled upon when I was newly separated, on my own for the first time, with two toddlers. Very daunting circumstances. I was so lucky to find this place and eventually be able to take on the lease. I wanted to create a special haven for myself and the girls. They inspire so much creativity in me, every day. I get emotional talking about it, because it’s been a really hard journey, being on my own, going through a contested divorce. This is home, finally. This was a fresh start for us — and it shows.
thank you so much, Marcelline!
PS More house tours, and 9 women talk about their divorces.
(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)
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