Abode: A nod to the past


The 300-square-foot studio apartment where Sean Santiago lives is not easy to find. Hidden behind an iron gate and an urban, ivy filled garden, the space is a refuge for the local designer, writer and photographer. In it, he’s created a home that tells a story of who he is and what he likes. 

Photo by Nick Strocchia.

In Santiago’s favorite corner, amongst stacks of fashion magazines that are piled almost waist-high, there’s a white mirror that has a collection of vintage black-and-white photographs sticking around the edges. In fact, Santiago’s entire space, like he himself, is a nod to the past. 

“Almost my whole wardrobe is vintage. I would say that my aesthetic vibe is secondhand glamour.” A true embracer of all things local, Santiago is adamant about furnishing his apartment with Charlottesville finds or hand-me-downs from his family, who live in Crozet. “So much of what I have is stuff my mom thought was ugly!” 

Having just gotten back from a year he spent in China (a collection of his photographs will be on display this October at Artifacts), Santiago betrays an Asian influence: pops of bold, primary colors, like a kelly green bench he spray painted. Santiago, who “loves a good floral pattern,” surrounds himself with retro finds, all the while making sure his belongings have a place to go. “That way, if things get a bit hectic, cleaning involves putting everything back where it belongs.”—Cate West Zahl

In his own words…

“It was definitely fun coming into this small space and expressing myself, but it’s harder for me to design interiors because my vision that I have in my head for a space doesn’t easily manifest itself. There’s something so immediate with fashion and putting together an outfit; a room takes much longer. I’ve definitely taken my time with this space. Everything is very edited. 

“Respecting your belongings is important. I think that when you don’t respect your belongings, it’s reflected in your space, and that’s when it turns into an episode of ‘Hoarders’ or something!

“My great aunt lived in Panama, and that painted candlestick holder was a gift to my grandmother, and it was out in my parents’ dining room. I’m pretty sure my mom thought it was ugly, but I thought it was cool, so I took it! That’s actually how I acquired a lot of items in the apartment—I had a vision for something that was going to be discarded or was in storage.

“I’m a total form over function person. I’m like ‘It doesn’t function at all, that’s O.K., it looks good!’ And that’s very true in everything I have. The books here, the magazines, I can’t read them. But they look good in the stacks. I mean yes, there are days when I take apart the piles, but it just feels like a mess. 

“I love a good floral pattern. I love color, especially really bold, primary colors. The walls are white, because it is easier. I painted it this color because in the end I thought it would be more peaceful. Before I moved in, I did a month of cleaning up and painting. I polished it up. The space really felt like a blank slate that I could slowly make my own.

“I like creating little moments or vignettes around my space. It’s almost like ‘merchandising’ your areas, if that makes sense. Even the bedside table has surprises. There’s an Hermes box, hidden under the ‘Arrested Development’ DVD case! Which is all under War and Peace, of course.”