An Architect’s Award-Winning Apartment With Ingenious Small-Space Solutions

Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Living Room Bike Rack by Tsai Design

We love when we come across a project where the architect is also the client. Architects’ homes tend to be full of design ingenuity, and Jack Chen’s apartment in Richmond, Australia, a suburb just outside of Melbourne, is no different.

Chen’s rather remarkable home is all of 377-square-feet, yet, through multipurpose furniture, hidden storage, and disappearing built-ins, he’s able to fit everything he needs into the tiny apartment—including a bedroom, an office nook, a dining table, and a hardworking kitchen.

“I have always been interested in small apartment designs. It is quite popular in other countries, but in Australia the trend doesn’t appear to have taken off,” says Chen, who founded Tsai Design in 2013. “Projects I do at work however are mostly bigger-scale boutique houses. So I guess inspiration comes from fusing the two typologies together—to live in a small apartment with illusion of a bigger house.”

His clever designs for this project—from a dining table that disappears into the wall to a vertical plant garden in the bathroom—have drawn accolades, including three prizes at the 2018 ArchiTeam Awards.

Let’s take a tour.

Photography by Tess Kelly, courtesy of Tsai Design.

Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Entry Pegboard
Above: Chen’s walkup is one of 12 in a 1970s building. A built-in adjustable pegboard and shelving in the entry provides smart storage for shoes, umbrellas, outerwear, a helmet, and wine bottles (the kitchen is adjacent to this area). He conceived the apartment as two delineated sections: the entry, kitchen, and bathroom housed in what he calls “a timber box,” and the living room and bedroom in a white-walled section. (See An Easy-ish DIY: Oversize Plywood Pegboard with Shelves.)
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Living Room
Above: You can see the sharp delineation between the oak-clad insert and the rest of the apartment in this photo. Note the mirror-clad fronts (at the bottom and top of the window-seat wall) to create the illusion of more space. About the bike: “I’ve had heaps of comments on the bike, about its practicality above a lounge. The story is that I bought a bike as a way to get to work. However, after two weeks, I discovered I was struggling with the fixed-gear bike. So now it is more of an item of display,” he explains. (See 10 Easy Pieces: Cool Indoor Bike Racks, from Cheap to Not Cheap.)
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Living Room Gif
Above: To maximize space, furniture was kept to a minimum while built-ins were given priority. Here, in the living room, besides the built-in window seat, there’s also a pull-out work station (with computer monitor hidden in the adjacent cabinet), a hidden TV screen, and a pull-out dining counter (at left).
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Three Rooms
Above: The view from the kitchen into the bedroom, which features an entire wall of built-in closets. The flooring in the living room and bedroom is made up of silvery-blue woven vinyl tiles from Swedish flooring brand Bolon. Chen likens it to traditional tatami straw flooring.
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Bedroom
Above: A cut-out panel in the bedroom wall flips down to form a nightstand. (See 10 Easy Pieces: Wall-Mounted Bedside Shelves with Drawers.)
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment Melbourne Whiteboard
Above: When the sliding door between the living room and bedroom is closed, it can be used as a whiteboard. Note the bird made of wire perched above the window seat, a moment of unexpected whimsy.
Above: The view from the bedroom into the living room. The door is made from a translucent polycarbonate panel to allow light to pass between the rooms even when it’s closed.
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Kitchen
Above: One of Chen’s renovation priorities was to carve out a “large, functional kitchen,” which is, ultimately, where most of his budget went. A black faucet and black marble-like Dekton backsplash lend the kitchen a sophisticated look.
Above: A panel on the kitchen wall slides out and folds down into a dining counter.
Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Kitchen Gif
Above: Ingenuity in action.
Above: At the end of the galley kitchen is the bathroom. When the translucent sliding door is open, you can see its wall of moss and plants as soon you walk into the apartment.

Tsai Design Type St. Apartment in Melbourne Bathroom
Above: “[The bathroom] was created to give the illusion of an outdoor space,” says Chen. “It’s quite enjoyable to take a shower surrounded by greenery.” His favorite feature in his newly renovated apartment happens to be in this room: “There’s a folding drying rack in here, concealed behind a cabinet door when not in use.”
For more on clever small-space solutions, see:

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published March 2020.

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