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A tiny inner-city apartment gets a Japanese inspired makeover on a budget

This compact Auckland apartment was turned into a Japanese-style urban refuge with a little creativity and lots of upcycled materials

Meet and greet

Ani Brunet, freelancer and yoga teacher, Karl Brunet, part-time surfboard craftsman; lives in Wellington and spends alternate weekends at the home, and daughter Ariana, 18.


  • Boring white walls made the space feel drab
  • The interior was dated and dark
  • The small apartment had very limited space


  • Recycled timber was used to build new shelving, furniture and cabinetry which brought warmth and contrast to the apartment.
  • All internal doors were removed, allowing light to flood the space.
  • Multifunctional furniture makes the most of the floor plan and a small work area is hidden inside a wardrobe.

A tiny inner-city apartment gets a Japanese inspired makeover on a budget

While the art of living in compact spaces is ingrained in Japanese and European cultures, the concept is relatively new in New Zealand. But rising house prices and shifting attitudes towards living small have led to apartments becoming a lot more desirable. It was with this trend in mind that Ani Brunet began hunting for her new home. “I had been looking for a few months, so I got to know the market,” she says. “When I saw this one, I grabbed it quick.”

Location and views

The apartment is housed within a character building in the heart of Auckland and boasts all-day sun. It ticked all the boxes for Ani after she spent months viewing and rejecting badly planned, cookie-cutter city apartments. “It had sun and a great location, and it was not some bland new-build that looked the same as everywhere else,” says Ani. “The windows all opened to allow fresh air to breeze through and views of a church steeple and mature pohutukawa trees in full flower totally romanced me,” she says. “I liked the juxtaposition between the old-world stone church and the iconic, modern architecture of the Sky Tower.” Ani loved her apartment so much she named it “seventh heaven” because of its seventh-storey location.

Reno team 

Although the apartment fitted the bill for Ani and her daughter, its interior was dated and dark. After seeing some of their previous zero-waste projects, she engaged Alex Graham-Brown and Sarah Hamilton from Use-d and worked closely with them to devise a renovation brief that prioritised functional living and a minimal environmental impact.

The brief

The initial design brief for the apartment was to transform a poky, dark, one-bedroom space into a bright, open studio on a very limited budget. “Ani was instrumental in allowing us time to come up with ideas and strategies, and a lot of the outcome was determined by the materials we had on hand or could salvage for the project,” says Alex from Use-d.

This outside-the-box thinking is evident in every aspect of this unique home, from the glowing, hand-finished salvaged timber to quirky storage solutions and details such as the leather drawer pulls in the kitchen.

Interior inspiration 

The interior was inspired by Japanese apartment design and the stylish yet compact aesthetic of life in Europe’s great urban centres. Tall windows flood the high-stud space with light, while natural timber and plants make it feel serene. Multifunctional furniture has been used throughout the apartment; for example, the sofa is mounted on wheels and converts into a guest bed, and an office work space folds away into a cavity in the wardrobe area.


The majority of the timber for the renovation came from a combination of old furniture Ani owned and a donation of beautiful native timbers from an old cheese factory near Thames that her father-in-law had turned into a communal workshop.

The renovation

The first step was the removal of all the internal doors (which were repurposed as shelves), allowing light to flood the entire space. The layout was then reworked for open-plan living. “I can now wake up and go to sleep with the gorgeous view of that church steeple and pohutukawa tree,” says Ani. “The sun and breeze fill the whole space.”

An inspiring result 

With lots of quirks throughout, including shelves fashioned from an old church organ, the apartment has evolved into a living art installation that always delights guests. “The result is just beautiful, and everyone who comes and shares it with me tells me that they feel refreshed and inspired in it,” Ani says. “I gave away the large-screen TV that was part of the sale, and when I moved into the newly renovated space, I thought: ‘There’s so much to look at here, who needs a TV?’”

Ani’s reno tips 

  • Focus on what you love most about the space and use your renovation to accentuate that aspect.
  • Involve people you trust who have a similar aesthetic and attitude. I worked with Sarah and Alex (from Use-d) as I loved what I had seen them create at the Zero Waste Zone education centre I worked at. I was so stoked that they wanted to take on my project with me. They had all the creativity and skills to help me realise my dreams. I could not have done it without them – they are gold!
  • Check out community recycling centres and op-shops for furnishings and materials. Keep your ideas very fluid if you choose to upcycle because it’s the treasures you find that often determine the design.

Words by: Tina Stephen. Styling by: Sarah Hamilton. Photography by: Jackie Meiring.

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