Unique Spaces: Throwing a Curve at 550 Square Feet

by Robert Kelly

Unique Spaces is a series on UrbanTurf where we take a look at properties that could be considered “one-of-a-kind” in the DC area. If you have a home that you think fits the bill, send an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). See all of our past Unique Spaces articles here.

The new curved wall in a 550-square-foot studio

When Interior Designer Robert Kelly was transferred by his company to Washington, he immediately set about looking for a place to call home. After exploring many of DC’s popular neighborhoods he quickly narrowed his search to the Waterfront neighborhood in Southwest because of its mid-century modern architecture. While many people these days are quick to criticize this period of architecture, there were definitely some good things that came out of it too. To Robert, mid-century architecture recalls a country that optimistically believed in the possibilities of the future and modernity rather than constantly looking backward to the past.

Having moved to DC in 2006, Robert was confronted with an aggressive housing market that forced him to downsize from a three-bedroom house in Atlanta to a studio apartment here. He told his agent that to compensate for such a dramatic downsizing, his new home in DC would need to have something special, like a really great view or something architecturally distinctive.

After being outbid on three different units in Southwest, he was finally able to purchase a 554-square-foot condominium studio unit in the Tiber Island community. Losing on the previous units turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the unit he purchased has sweeping city vistas, including fantastic views of the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument, the Washington Channel, and neighborhood landmarks such as the new Arena Stage Theater.

One of the Tiber Island towers

The Tiber Island community where Robert wound up buying was designed by noted architects Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon and was built in 1965 with four high-rise towers interlocking in a pinwheel formation into a large central plaza. The property encompasses smaller blocks of two and three-story town houses in each of the four quadrants defined by the towers. The Tiber Island design won the American Institute of Architects award for Multi-Family Residential design in 1966. However, the interior of the unit hadn’t been touched since the sixties and desperately needed updating.

Robert started by completely gutting the unit, including the popcorn ceilings and woefully outdated kitchen and bathroom. Organizationally the old plan was an awkward arrangement of volumes that defined the bathroom, a dressing area, and the kitchen. While keeping the locations of fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom in place, Robert reconfigured the spaces by inserting what is now the unit’s signature feature: a floor-to-ceiling curved wall from the entry door through the unit to the entry of the kitchen. The curved wall divides the functional spaces of the unit from the living space, thereby visually simplifying the layout. This simple gesture eliminated the long entry hall and opened up the views from the front door through to the rest of the unit and to the city views beyond.

With the Murphy bed down

A Murphy bed was intentionally recessed into the curved wall so that the view from the bed is of the capitol dome. The sofa was placed to take advantage of the spectacular Washington Monument view. Robert got a rather unexpected surprise on the first Fourth of July in his new home when he realized that he had front row seats to the fireworks on the National Mall.

Floor-to-ceiling windows and the refinished floor

The unit faces north and large amounts of floor-to-ceiling glass allow the unit to be flooded with soft “artist light” throughout the day. Making the best of this light, Robert chose to keep the color palette light to maximize the amount of light and feeling of openness.

Because the existing oak wood floors were in good condition, they were retained. The oak grain and coloration unfortunately created a very busy pattern on the floor so in order to tame this pattern and ground the unit, Robert refinished the floors utilizing an ebony black stain and several coats of high gloss urethane. The grain of the wood is still visible through the stain but is subdued by the uniform color of the ebony.


In order to keep the unit from feeling too cold he incorporated eucalyptus wood cabinetry in the kitchen. Honed Carrara marble was selected for the counters and full height backsplash. The honed finish of the marble adds warmth and translucency that a polished stone surface wouldn’t be able to provide. The wall behind the stove is clad in a CNC-routed MDF panel that he painted a pale aqua to complement the tones of the wood cabinetry. Upper cabinets were left off this wall to enhance the sense of openness in the kitchen, while a full height pantry unit was added in the space that was captured by the curved partition to offset their loss.

New cabinets in the dressing area

Having lived in New York twice before, Robert was well aware of the old adage for small spaces, “If you can’t go out, go up.” Robert adhered to this rule by incorporating several floor-to-ceiling cabinets in the dressing area, finished with high gloss white lacquer, which help to make the absolute most of storage. The white finish keeps this small dressing area feeling open and bright. Additional long-term storage space was created behind the Murphy bed for miscellaneous things like luggage. A coat closet tucked behind the curved wall by the front door rounds out the storage.

In the bathroom, rectangular glass mosaic tiles in shades of sea glass and pale aqua line the new walk-in shower that replaced a way-too-small tub. “Being 6’-2” the tub was ridiculous, as only half of my body could be covered by water at any given time,” Robert said. “So I ripped it out and now have a spacious shower in its place.”

In keeping with the mid-century design, a long, low horizontal medicine cabinet with sliding doors was retained and refinished. A dual-flush toilet and low-flow water fixtures were installed to conserve energy.

Robert is quite pleased to be living in his unique home, in one of the city’s most architecturally unique neighborhoods. He realizes that in any other city, a place like his on the waterfront with access to so many different amenities would more than likely be unattainable. For him, this is ideal city living.

PostScript from UrbanTurf. We coincidentally selected an almost identical unit (550-square-foot studio at Tiber Island) as one of this week’s Best New Listings. For the sake of comparison, take a look at that unit and Robert’s renovation, side by side:

On the market now. See the full listing.

See other articles related to: unique spaces, studios, southwest waterfront, dclofts

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/unique_spaces_throwing_a_curve_at_550_square_feet/2243


  1. William said at 6:34 am on Wednesday July 14, 2010:

    Any details on the Murphy bed? Where did he get it? How was it made?

  1. George M said at 12:28 am on Friday July 16, 2010:

    We got our Murphy bed at wallbedfactory.com. Its not exactly the same but it worked out great for us

  1. Rob said at 2:00 am on Friday July 16, 2010:

    Well thought-out design with great results! It’s interesting how the dark-stained floor reflects light and make the space seem larger now.

  1. Tracy said at 1:24 pm on Monday July 19, 2010:

    Love the color in the living room/bedroom.  Could you give the paint color?

  1. KT said at 7:09 pm on Wednesday December 8, 2010:


    Ok, sorry for the all caps, but I wanted to get your attention. If you read up a few posts I did buy a bed from these guys. It was about $2500 and I thought I was going to get a great bed. It came, it looked ok and after going through the installation process one careful step at a time I pulled the bed down and it worked great.

    One major problem. The springs they supplied (ones that said they were for a queen bed) were clearly not enough. Guests would comment that when they slept on the bed (and most are in the 115-180lbs range) the springs would flex and the bed would sag. Not just a centimeter or so…they would sag about an inch or more.

    And most recently when we had some family over the bed completely broke and could have severely hurt someone. In the middle of the night I heard a large crash. I immediately got up to see what had happened. Our two guests were standing in the middle of the room, pretty shaken up.

    One of the arms to the spring assembly had released from the bed and that side of the bed was lying on the floor. The arm that normally holds the bed up had flung back towards the wall with so much force that it tore through the metal spring cover and sent it flying into the drywall - it actually tore through the drywall and went about 3 inches or so deep.

    All I could think was thank goodness nobody was hurt. If their hand, fingers, or anything had been in the way of that piece of metal they could have been seriously injured and we’d have needed to make a run to the ER no doubt. I’m not the kind of person to really freak out about things like this, but the way this thing went into the wall I’m certain it could have taken off a finger or worse.

    I’ve contacted them and actually even spoken to their CEO. Unfortunately their completely unwilling to take any sort of responsiblity and going even one step further, saying that this is all my fault. That it was operator error.

    Quite possibly the worst customer service I’ve had in my entire life.

    Not to mention they only give you 3 small braces to attach the thing to the wall. I would not ever use them again.

    Their beds aren’t safe. Their customer service is horrific. And I hope none of you have to experience what I have.

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