Settling into a new apartment can be an emotional rollercoaster. Decorating your own space is exciting, but can also be anxiety-inducing. Well, ditch the fear because it's finally time to put all those hours scrolling Pinterest for dreamy rental décor inspiration and this season's must-haves to good use. Of course, when you’re working with a leased space, it can feel like there’s a lot more you can’t do—remove the bathroom tiles, upgrade the kitchen cabinets, lay fresh carpet—than what you can. We also know that working within a budget can be challenging, but don't stress, we've got you covered.
We asked interior designers for their apartment decorating tips so that your space looks less like a rental and more like your ultimate sanctuary. So before that where do I start? moment kicks in, read on to find 35 nuggets of wisdom from industry experts as they get down to the nitty-gritty on how to tackle this project head-on. Think of it as your affirmative guide to apartment decorating. Repeat after me: I will turn this apartment into a home.
Have a Plan
Before diving in headfirst on a spending spree, consider a few basic things about your apartment. “Taking into account where your natural light source is, circulation of the space, and [your] goals will help you find the perfect furniture orientation and make a smaller room feel larger,” says designer Marina Hanisch. In other words, outlining a basic plan about how you want to layout the space will mean fewer headaches in the future.
Know Your Specs
Possibly the most important thing you will invest in when taking on this project is a measuring tape. According to Hanisch, space planning is the number one tool for designing a small space, which means, say, knowing exactly how long that bedroom wall is. Take note of all your living space specifications before you even start pursuing those flea market finds.
Optimize Your Space
When working with a smaller floor plan, getting imaginative with how you utilize the room is key. Remember Carrie Bradshaw’s studio? With a few drapes, she divided the space into a living room and a private bedroom. It just goes to show that with a few purposeful furniture positionings, dividers, or area rugs, you can create the feeling of a much vaster space.
Spend Where It Counts
If you ask your friends or even professional designers, opinions on how you should spend your money probably vary quite a bit. But most people will agree on a few obvious splurges—area rugs, bed linens, and large furniture. These are the kind of items that get a lot of use and show wear more quickly, so materials and quality really count.
Level up With Lamps
“Lighting is key to any good space,” muses Allison Petty of Hyphen & Co. If you take anything from this list, remember that. Dispell any dark corners with the most versatile light source out there: lamps. Double and even triple up on lamps for a cozy glow that makes you feel at home.
Swap Out Light Fixtures
Petty also suggests taking inventory of your light fixtures and making a trip to the hardware store or doing some online shopping. “Switching out lighting is an easy fix to make that room feel a little less like a hospital waiting room and more like your favorite restaurant.”
Find the Right Temp
Once you've nailed down your lighting, “Take a look at your lights," urges Petty. "Are they reading too cool? The most flattering light falls in the warmer temperature range; think how you look in candlelight.” Swap out bulbs that aren't to your liking. Taking ambiance even further, Petty also prompts you to consider dimmers—a real mood enhancer.
When shopping for lightbulbs, Kelvin is the measurement that determines whether a bulb is yellow (warm), blue (daylight), or somewhere in between. Around 2700–3000 Kelvin is a happy medium.
Prioritize Your Needs
Be honest with yourself about what your needs and habits really are. For example, if you work from home and usually eat dinner in front of the TV, opt for a desk instead of a big dining table, especially if you're short on space. Make a list of what you can't live without and stick to it when furnishing your space.
Don't Waste Space
Space comes at a premium when you're renting, literally, so you can't afford to take a single square foot for granted. Get creative with wasted space—think under the bed, backs of doors, above cabinets, on windowsills, and other dead space you might've forgotten about.
It doesn't seem like this needs to be said, but consider this your friendly reminder. You'd be surprised at how much more at ease you'll feel with a system for keeping your home tidy and organized. It helps you find things faster and weed out what you don't need, plus keeps your space (and you) from spinning out of control.
Find Function in the Fashionable
Having shape-shifting pieces is a good design junkie's best-kept secret. Victoria Smith of sf girl by bay leads us to consider the possibilities before buying. “Think about furniture pieces that do double-duty—a coffee table with storage (like a vintage trunk), or one with a shelf for books and keepsakes is a good example. A sofa or trundle bed can be a great space saver. Storage ottomans are another clever solution.
Think vertical with your storage. "In kitchens, wall racks or pegboards are great space savers for kitchen tools," says Smith. "In living rooms and bedrooms, vertical bookshelves are an ideal way of storing books and treasures without taking up a lot of floor space," she adds.
Build a Neutral Base
As much as we may come to love our apartments, odds are they aren't our forever homes. If you're striking out on your own for the first time, it's smart to start with neutral base elements, especially when it comes to big purchases like a couch. Neutral colors are easy to dress up with accessories and adapt to your style and setting changes.
Lay Down Rugs
The way we see it, rugs are one of the top ways to instantly cozify a room. They add a layer of cushion underfoot, hide less-than-ideal flooring (even grungy carpet!), and visually define your space for a more intimate setup. Layer more than one rug for a little extra padding and personality.
Designer Tina Ramchandani suggests using decorative elements, like rugs and art, to help define different zones. "These items can actually create space that isn’t otherwise evident," she adds. This is especially true for multipurpose spaces like open floorplans and studio apartments.
Designate a Landing Station
Every functional home needs a landing station—somewhere to throw your keys and kick off your shoes after walking through the door. Whether you have room for one hook or a bench complete with shoe baskets, you'll be glad you put in the effort to designate an entryway, especially when you have guests over. And don't forget the doormat!
Adapt Awkward Spaces
Make the most of awkward areas by reimagining what they can be. Stretch your creativity and turn an unneeded closet into an office nook or that old ironing board cupboard into a spice cabinet. Forget any preconceived notions about your space and consider your needs.
Decorating your dream space doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Ella Hall, founder of Stitchroom, suggests a few basic accessories. “Throw pillows are key to completing any space and the easiest way to add a personal touch to your apartment," she says. "They bring in textures and pops of color that are easily interchangeable. Depending on the season or your mood, just switch the covers and experience a completely transformed space,” says Hall.
Don't stop at throw pillows—textiles are a guaranteed way to create layers of coziness in any room. Stock up on blankets, cushions, and fabric surfaces of all types to build tiers of textiles. Mix and match fabrics and textures for optimal comfort.
Dress the Windows
One thing that always, always, always enhances the homey factor of an apartment is window treatments. Curtains are the easiest to hang and come in an endless number of styles, but attractive shades like Roman or bamboo are another option. Double up with shades and curtains for a truly bespoke look.
When picking furniture for your apartment, it may be worth searching for a visual space-saver. Gregory Augustine, creative director of Lucas Alexander Collection, guides us towards the transparent: “A glass top dining table or coffee table can give a more open appearance while still being functional,” he says. Acrylic is another material to consider.
Size It Up
It’s a common misconception that you need a lot of small furniture in a small space. Hanisch tells us this is actually visually overwhelming and creates clutter. Simplify with sizes that complement the space instead. “It’s better to find a larger statement piece that defines the room and produces a maximum impact," she says.
Get a Headboard
Nothing screams college quite like a mattress on the floor. Upgrade your sleeping arrangement with a bedframe and luxurious headboard. Go the metal bedframe route and DIY a headboard out of plywood, fabric, and quilt batting, or bite the bullet and purchase a bed set to prove you're an adult once and for all.
Appoint a Feature Wall
Even renters have options for getting creative with a feature wall. Things like temporary wallpaper, DIY starched fabric, and even washi tape are totally removable ways to spruce up your walls and infuse some personality into your space.
Another way to transform walls? Hang some artwork. You'd be surprised how a well-curated gallery wall or just a few one-off framed prints can create a homey vibe. If you're not up for patching holes when you move out, look into Command strips or other removable options to spare you the effort.
Follow (Some) Rules
We tend to get a little self-centric when decorating—after all, we're the ones who will be impacted most. However, Petty suggests we follow a few of the golden rules of design when it comes to nailing it. “People tend to think that since it’s your space, your eye level should dictate the height of things," she explains. "This is terribly incorrect.” Do a little Google search for the universal standards when hanging art, shelves, and light fixtures. “This is an easy way to give your space a more cohesive look,” adds Petty.
Reflect on It
Repeat after me: Mirrors are magic—they are the actual marriage of style and function. Beyond showing you how good your hair looks, they reflect light and create the illusion of more space. They also happen to be the perfect solution for any spot where you're undecided on or just too lazy to source artwork.
Put up Some Shelves
Another way to maximize wall space is by installing some simple open shelving. Select brackets that speak to your style or go the floating shelf route for a more streamlined look. Either way, be sure to screw your shelves into studs or heavy-duty drywall anchors to keep things secure. When it's time to move out, just uninstall and fill in those holes.
Get Your Closets in Order
A closet organization system will help you take full advantage of your closet space, even if it is the size of a shoebox. Stick to low-budget options (IKEA and ClosetMaid come to mind) or go the DIY route with extra hooks, rods, and shelves. Take it with you when you move or leave it if your landlord isn't overly picky—the next tenant should be thrilled.
If you're already blessed with a decent closet setup or don't have the funds to invest in a system, make the most of what you've got using cheap closet hacks like bins, hanging organizers, shelf dividers, and shoe racks.
For those of you lucky enough to have built-ins already, consider us envious and move on to the next tip. The rest of us, however, can fake the charm and bespoke look of built-ins using some basic bookshelves that nearly reach the ceiling. Take note: Leaving the backs off the shelves really helps sell it.
Utilize Baskets and Bins
You really can never have too many bins and baskets laying around. They do it all: create storage, hide clutter, help you stay organized, and look good while doing it. They can also double as a cute plant cachepot.
Wheel in More Space
Rental kitchens are often woefully short on counter and storage space. The easiest solution is to bring in more of both with a rolling cart—the top provides extra counter space while the shelves, drawers, or cabinets underneath add much-needed storage. And if you don't have space to float one island-style, consider pushing it against the wall or tucking it in a corner.
Stock the Bar
Is it really home if you haven't hosted anyone yet? Make sure your apartment is guest-ready at any time with a stocked bar cart or cabinet. Bottles double as instant decor, plus a cute decorative tray can keep it looking chic and tidy. Thrift some fancy glasses for an extra cosmopolitan touch.
If you're haunted by an eye-sore of a bathroom like so many of us renters, we're here to tell you that, no, you don't have to just live with it. Vinyl tile decals are a thing and they'll transform your bathroom into the stuff of dreams, or close to it. They're also completely removable, though we'd wager that your landlord wouldn't mind the improvement.
Raise a Plant Baby
Breathe life into your apartment literally with a touch of Mother Nature. Cultivate your green thumb investing in a plant baby (or two, or three), or go the low maintenance route and treat yourself to fresh-cut blooms regularly. They'll make you smile daily, keeping you happier and healthier.