Zach Motl ’07 skyrocketed his design career when he transformed his tiny room into a stylish house. Now he creates living spaces that can always evolve.

By Sherrie Negrea

Zach Motl ’07 arrived at Geneseo as a musical theater major with plans to launch an acting career after graduation. But after taking a sculpture class his junior year, his passion shifted to the visual arts. 

Outside of class, Motl experimented with interior design by transforming his single room in Monroe Hall into a colorful studio apartment, with separate zones for sleeping and studying, each decorated with an assortment of lamps, area rugs and artwork. During his senior year, he turned his apartment above the old Palace Theatre into a chic space for cocktail parties and impromptu concerts. It even had a piano.

When Motl moved into a 178-square-foot studio in Brooklyn a few months after graduating, he used his talent to make the tiny space feel bigger than it was. He grouped the furniture into a “bedroom,” “living room” and “home office” and added eccentric collections of objects to brighten each area — a set of bronze pineapples, a handful of ties swirled in a bowl and a shelf full of Penguin paperbacks from the ’40s and ’50s that he had found in a student lounge at Geneseo.

After a friend showed photos of his studio to a reporter at the New York Times, the newspaper featured his apartment under the headline, “A Roomy 178 Square Feet.” The day it was published, people from all over the world contacted Motl.

“It was crazy,” says Motl, then a junior designer at Robert Coutrier Inc. in Manhattan. 

The experience bolstered his confidence, leading him to a position designing window sets for Ralph Lauren’s Madison Avenue flagship store. “It was very much like theater in a window,” Motl says. 

As people continued to contact him to work on their homes and apartments, he launched a design firm, Zach Motl Interiors, while at Ralph Lauren. In 2015, he began focusing exclusively on his company, working from a new 450-square-foot studio in Brooklyn and a house in his hometown of Bellport, Long Island.

Since then, Motl has redesigned a coffee shop in Manhattan as well as apartments and homes throughout the New York Metropolitan area. What characterizes his style is an emphasis on making spaces utilitarian and livable while using furniture from distinct periods.

As he begins transforming a space, Motl encourages his clients to experiment with unique furnishings he often finds at auctions. “I enjoy the creative process — where there are so many different things that I can get my hands dirty with, from fabrication and design to creating a custom piece of furniture to finding something and repurposing it and putting life back into it,” he says. “The beauty of redesigning a room or an entire house is that it’s a process that doesn’t end. There are infinite ways to rearrange a space.

“I feel like a house is never really done, and especially as a designer, the place where you live is always changing,” says Motl, who is again renovating both his apartment and house. “You will define something and then think, ‘What if I took this and moved it from this room to that room?’”

Motl draws his inspiration from working with people and designing spaces that are tailored to their styles. Then, they can live in the art they create.

“It’s really personal,” says Motl. “When you’re able to create something with somebody else, and then they say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that,’ my eyes light up.”

How to: Make the Most of Your Space

DESIGNER Zach Motl ’07 shares tips to infuse your personality and style into a house, apartment or a single room.

  1. It’s all about you. The space should reflect the personality of the people using it. Think about color palettes, textures and how you see yourself using the space. Sometimes a fun exercise is working from a memory that might inspire the direction for the design.
  2. Be cautious about scale.When shopping for furniture, it is often staged in a large space where it might be difficult to conceptualize how that big cozy sofa will look in a home. It’s great in the showroom, but chances are your living room isn’t the size of a West Elm store! Be sure to take accurate measurements of the room before selecting pieces and creating a layout. And don’t forget to take a tape measure when you shop.
  3. Never underestimate the power of light.A well-designed space isn’t any good if no one can see it. The best lighting plan is one that gives you options from many sources. A few small lamps here and there are a personal favorite.
  4. Most important: Don’t forget to have fun!