The apartment was a typical white box, with popcorn ceiling, concrete floor and boring beige kitchen. There were no light fixtures, and the windows had green trim.
But it became a comfortable home and a showcase of design ideas in the hands of interior designer Alexandra Karram Barbar.
The Boca Raton, Fla., apartment is the home of Ms. Barbar and her husband, developer Philip Barbar, who bought the two-bedroom, two-bath place when they became engaged in 1988. They married a year later.
"I opened the whole floor plan by removing six doors and some walls," said Ms. Barbar, of Alexandra Interiors. "I installed some mirrors, which gives the illusion that the apartment is much bigger. People come in and think it's huge, but it has just 1,524 square feet."
Ms. Barbar believes you can enlarge a small space by "using clean lines . . . when you design something uncluttered, the space is more interesting. I use a lot of detail -- such as two colors in the marble floor -- but nothing to bring the walls closer together. I try to push everything farther apart."
Ms. Barbar said her strategy was to "spend design dollars where they deliver the most impact." This included:
* Installing white marble floors banded with black marble in the main living area.
* Using shoji-style doors throughout the apartment to suggest a serene Japanese theme.
* Removing part of a wall between the living room and second bedroom to create a media room. The stepped-down wall defines the spaces without closing them in.
Although Ms. Barbar declined to reveal her overall budget for this project, she did discuss the expense of some items. Having the "popcorn" scraped off the ceilings and plastering with a smooth finish cost $850. Custom soffits in the kitchen and master bedroom cost $500. The tongue and groove wood ceiling in the dining room was $1,200.
To carry out the Japanese theme, Ms. Barbar decided shoji doors would be just the thing in place of some of the plain paneled doors she removed. Typical shojis are constructed of wood and rice paper, but Ms. Barbar wanted something more durable. So she had four doors crafted of black lacquered wood and frosted glass. At night, lights in the rooms shine on the frosted glass, giving them the appearance of being illuminated.
One shoji was installed in the master bedroom, one in the guest bath, and two (on rollers) in the kitchen to replace bifold doors. Total cost of the shoji doors: $8,500.
In the living room, Ms. Barbar chose a crisp color scheme of black, white and red. A sculptured glass cocktail table is placed before a white leather sofa and chair. Two occasional chairs upholstered in black and white striped fabric flank an etagere opposite the sofa.
Adjacent to the living room is a former bedroom, reincarnated as a media room. The divider -- the stepped-down wall -- houses a media center on one side and serves as a display area for sculpture in the living room.
In the master bedroom, Ms. Barbar opted for clean lines and minimal furnishings to carry out the Japanese theme. The platform bed, dressed in black and white printed sheets, is against a mirrored wall. The other walls are upholstered in a luxurious moire wall covering in pale cream. The new soffits create a tray ceiling, adding a bit of architecture in what was a plain box of a room.
The apartment's typical galley kitchen was greatly improved with a white marble floor with a geometric black insert, a tray ceiling, white cabinets and black appliances. The original cabinets were installed in the laundry room.
In the master bath, Ms. Barbar simply changed the faucets and cabinet hardware to update it a bit. In the second bath, which was done entirely in beige, the designer replaced the sink with a black one, replaced a simulated marble counter top with travertine marble and installed black hardware on a cabinet.
An interior design graduate of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, the Manhattan-born Ms. Barbar launched a fashion business at age 16 on $200 capital. After a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she studied interior design at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut before moving to South Florida.
Her design philosophy includes this phrase: "Comfortable elegance that deftly reflects and acknowledges the client's personal beliefs." It seems to describe this apartment in which the clients -- the Barbars themselves -- enjoy comfortable elegance.
Bored with living in boxy rooms? You may not be able to do something as ambitious -- or expensive -- as adding a soffit or real crown molding, but you can add some fake architecture and get the same effect.
Even if you are a renter, you can jazz up your rooms with some strippable wallpaper borders or faux painting techniques.
When traveling at home or abroad, look for fabric remnants that can be used to cover pillows.
You might follow a theme, such as blue and white prints, floral chintzes or stripes in complementary colors. Flea markets, country stores -- even museum shops -- can yield interesting fabrics.
Bits of fabric won't add much weight to your luggage. After you return home and find time to cover some pillows, you'll have a daily reminder of the places you visited.