The first thing you notice about Kiera and Michael Kushlan's one-bedroom co-op is how they've pulled it together to be both modern and classic. The second is how spacious it seems.

The Kushlans, both 29, believe that what you leave out of a room is just as important as what you put in. On a limited budget, they invested their own time and DIY skills to renovate the run-down 1920s flat. In the process, they uncovered its hidden charms and discovered a lot about themselves.

"I would much rather have a small space filled with all the things that I love than just buying furniture to fill space," says Kiera, an interior designer who enjoys editing just as much as shopping. The Kushlans' renovation of their 750-square-foot home in Washington unified the three rooms with white walls and new espresso wood floors. They carefully layered in a few bold patterns and colors, framed maps of places they loved and pulled in furniture they've reclaimed and repurposed. They used space creatively: an entrance foyer became a place to dine or work; two Ikea cabinets were transformed into a floating bar. In the bedroom, Michael built a small desktop into a window niche with a piece of plywood and iron brackets from the Brass Knob.

Their stylish co-op has become a calling card for Kiera's design business, Residents Understood, and has created a bit of an online sensation in the blogosphere. In April, Design Sponge featured photos of the Kushlans' apartment. In June, their place got the most votes in the Apartment Therapy Small Cool Home Contest in the "Little" division (homes under 1,000 square feet).

"We discovered we had the same kind of vision," Michael says. "We like to have some traditional pieces but add our own twists of modern. We find things that reflect who we are and where we travel together. We both love order."

The result is a warm retreat that's organized. "I don't like to have a lot of things. It makes me anxious," Kiera says. "My philosophy is, if I don't love it, I don't keep it."

Kiera and Michael met at Ohio University. Michael got an MBA there and he is now a management consultant. Kiera went on to get a master's degree at the University of Florida. In 2009, they moved to Washington and got married. Kiera worked briefly for a designer before starting her own firm in 2010 with Florida classmate Jessica Centella.

"We had a targeted demographic of ages 25 to 40," Kiera says. Most clients live in small spaces. "The name of our firm came from how we approach our projects. It's based around the client's wants, needs, personal aesthetic and style," she says.

The Kushlans started looking for a place to buy in March 2012. It was the building's European flavor and the neighborhood that sold them.

"It felt like I was in Paris with its small elevator and wonderful details," Kiera says. The flat needed work: electrical upgrades, lighting and a new kitchen. They came up with a plan and spent two months remodeling before they moved in, doing a good chunk of the work themselves. They tore out the dated, worn-out galley kitchen. Part of the wall between the kitchen and living room also came down. They chose the Ikea Adel line of white cabinets that they warmed up with Ikea butcher block counters and a farm-style porcelain sink.

In the living room, they took the doors off a closet to create a media storage niche. Although they had no budget to redo the vintage black-and-white-tile bathroom, it got a face-lift with new light fixtures, towel rack and horizontal black-and-white paint stripes. They did all the painting themselves: walls and ceilings in Benjamin Moore Decorators White and trim in Benjamin Moore Ice Mist.

Kiera and Michael talked a lot about how they would use the rooms.

"The entrance foyer was really important because it is your main path to every room in the house," Michael says. They needed it to be a dining room, office and storage for business materials, plus be welcoming and neat. They chose a white West Elm Parsons Rectangular Dining Table where they can work by day and dine by candlelight at night. They installed CB2's Stairway Wall Mounted Bookcase floor-to-ceiling and Kiera has color-coordinated their books. An Ikea Tarva chest (dressed up with Benjamin Moore's Kelly Green paint and Anthropologie hardware) holds swatches and samples. The four white metal Tabouret stacking chairs (with two more in storage) came from

The living room looks roomy because it's not stuffed with a lot of furniture. The sofa (Room & Board's 98-inch Hutton) is generously sized, and the black-and-white tweedy fabric doesn't show shedding from Copeland, their black-and-white dog. Two Dwell Studio Hans brown leather armchairs and a gray Boho Morocco leather pouf complete the seating. The fun piece is the Blu Dot Strut metal coffee table in watermelon pink.

The tiny bedroom has lots of special touches. The West Elm diamond tufted headboard is flanked by Dwell Studio for Target walnut bedside tables. Michael and Kiera collaborated on the rubber stamping of an accent wall. Although Kiera is a self-described "wallpaper addict," she wasn't ready to commit to an expensive paper. She and Michael used a yellow ink pad from and a 4-inch diamond stamp from to create a custom look.

A wall of framed photos and mementos (including the "Just Married" sign from their wedding trolley) reflects their philosophy on stuff.

"Accessories should either serve a purpose or be something meaningful," Kiera says. "We only put out objects or buy things that we really love or connect with."

Starting small

Kiera Kushlan's recommendations for making the most of small space living.

Live with what you love. "This is absolutely my No. 1 tip and the one thing I try to stress the most to clients. If you're working with limited square footage, every inch counts. So surround yourself with things that have meaning to you and clear everything else out."

Dressers are your best friend. "I have a dresser in every room of my house: bedroom, dining room and living room. They each store different items, not just clothing. Instead of picking out a typical end table, try using a tall dresser next to your sofa. You can store extra blankets, electronics, whatever you need around but don't want on display."

Define your spaces. "Defining spaces with visual cues using items such as area rugs and overhead lighting helps to make your space feel larger."

Identify a purpose. "Is that leftover Ikea bookcase really serving a need or is it just collecting dust? Walk through your home and take a long hard look at every piece of furniture. If it's not serving a purpose, it needs to go."

Use vertical space. "Walls can be filled with shelves to hold books or can display framed artwork. Removing these objects from valuable surface areas in your home will visually clean up your space."