7 Insider Tricks I Learned From an Apartment Stager

When I invited Decorist Creative Director Jessica McCarthy into my newly redecorated apartment, I'll admit I was a tad nervous. It was the day before the crew arrived to photograph my living room for MyDomaine, and as the company's creative "eyes," it was her job to evaluate the space and make sure it was up to scratch. What would she think of my home? I wondered.

I partnered with virtual interior design service Decorist to make over the small space, and when the lighting and furniture were installed, it looked incredible—but something was still missing. That's where McCarthy came in. "Guests notice how a space makes them feel: the mood it evokes and the impression it leaves on them," she explained. Too often, people forget this final step. Once the layout has been chosen and furniture is in place, it's important to ask, how does the room make you feel? "These feelings can all be achieved by successful styling. Your space doesn't have to be perfect, but the way you style can make it appear that way."

Over the next few hours, McCarthy worked her magic by grouping accessories, adding greenery, and reassessing every vignette. The result? With only a few minor tweaks, she managed to transform the character of the room. It felt complete—something I'd struggled to achieve on my own. Whether you're staging a home for sale, redecorating for fall, or expecting guests, take note: This is how a stylist and apartment stager transforms a room in a matter of minutes.

Consider Levels

Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Jeremiah Brent for Decorist

Surprisingly, one of the most challenging aspects was styling a West Elm marble console, which was placed against a blank white wall. In theory, it should be simple, but accessories looked scattered, and I couldn't find a way to fill the vast white wall.

When McCarthy assessed the vignette, she knew what was missing right away: Height. "Balance is key when styling and can be created by combining objects at different heights," she explains. An easy way to achieve this is by following "the rule of three," which encourages styling accessories in odd numbers. "The brain is comforted in finding the center point of objects, and the rule of three makes this so easy to achieve. Styling with odd numbers is guaranteed to create success." She chose three types of acessories—artworks, beads, and the decorative horns—all of which added height and dimension to the blank surface.

10-Minute Trick: Update a tired space by restyling your console. It takes moments and involves home accessories you already own. McCarthy followed these simple steps: "I started with a large painting, which became the jumping-off point and the anchor of the vignette," she says. "I then layered a smaller horizontal painting in the opposite color to create balance and contrast. The art pieces had sharp lines, which I softened with natural horns, organic beads, and wispy branches."

Laura Naples of NG Collective Studio Lamy II $850

Balance Straight and Curvy Lines

Rikki Snyder ; DESIGN : Tamara Magel

One of the most unexpected items that changed the space were beads, a signature item of Decorist celebrity designer Jeremiah Brent. "Jeremiah sourced many pieces for your space that had angular lines and structural elements," McCarthy explains. "It was so important that we created balance by adding [curved lines]. The softness of the wooden beads created the perfect amount of contrast and grounded the space."

10-Minute Trick: Glance around your living room, and take note of the number of harsh lines. If like me, you love the contemporary minimal design, it's likely that the majority of furniture has sharp lines and a boxy silhouette. Adding curved, organic objects like a string of beads or handmade pottery can work wonders to visually balance the space.

St Frank Glass Beads From Ghana $75

Consider Branches If You Don't Have Plants

Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Jeremiah Brent for Decorist

Adding a vase of fresh flowers is a pretty but predictable way to liven up a room before guests arrive. To change it up, McCarthy recommends greenery, like large branches, if you don't have houseplants. "If I were to choose one item to invest in, I would recommend an indoor plant such as a rubber plant, fig, or olive tree, [but] it is easy to achieve the same look with branches or even garlands at a lower price point," she says. "I'm loving the look of eucalyptus leafs with organic wild flowers or simple branches for a minimal look."

10-Minute Trick: If you don't have time to drop by a nursery to buy a plant, venture into your garden for foliage. A large, leafy branch has the same impact and will last longer than cut flowers.

Menu Échasse Vase $550

Group Items Together

Maree Homer for MyDomaine Australia

One of the most effective ways to make a room look considered (not cluttered), is to group small accessories. A tray or stack of coffee table books can be used as a base, which gives order to stray items like candles or vases.

"My rule of thumb is to lay out all the accessories and start playing around without too much thought and letting instinct take over," says McCarthy. "Once I have all my items in groupings, I always edit down one to three pieces. It is so easy to over-style, so forcing yourself to minimize will work in your favor."

10-Minute Trick: Tidying up before guests arrive? Give your room a quick facelift by removing the accessories from a surface, and then grouping them together before placing them back on shelves or tables. "Once again, following the rule of three, adding layers, creating height by stacking books, and choosing items with contrasting shapes and colors will lead to a successfully styled vignette," she says.

Atipico Kora Ceramic Vase $294

Review What's Visible When You Enter the Room


When you spend every day in the same house, it's easy to overlook some of the smaller details visitors notice when they walk in. This was the case when McCarthy entered my living room. One of the quickest but most effective changes she made was to flip the West Elm Bower coffee table so that the circular end didn't block the line of sight. It took minutes and opened up the room.

"I noticed the view of the door was being blocked, so shifting the coffee table was such an easy way to create balance," she explains. "Always keep perspective in mind when styling and the different ways everyone visualizes a space."

10-Minute Trick: Next time you enter your home, try to view each room through the eyes of a guest. Ask yourself, what do you notice first? Pay attention to furniture that blocks the flow of the room. "It is so important to look at your space from every angle—sometimes I even lay on the ground!" she says.

Bower Coffee Table
West Elm Bower Coffee Table $599 $419

Add Curios, Not Clutter

Lu Tapp for AllModern

One of the most common mistakes when cleaning and organizing a room is over-editing. Yes, having fewer items in a space might make it look more open and clean, but don't overdo it, says McCarthy. "Your space should be a true reflection of you, including family photos, items from travel, and objects that have true meaning to you will never go out of style," she says. Without those items, your home will lose its soul.

"The key is about decluttering and finding purpose within each particular item. Do you need six throw pillows on your sofa, or do three create just as much of an impact with less clutter? Do you need your collection of magazines from the past several years, or do a few simple coffee table books achieve the same goal?" she asks. "If it feels good to you, go with it."

10-Minute Trick: Reevaluate the social areas in your home, like the living room, and take a closer look at the accessories you have within hands reach. There should always be a few personal items that spark conversation, like pottery you brought on vacation on the bookcase or a favorite coffee table book by the sofa. Add curios to the room, not clutter.

Rebecca Atwood Living With Pattern $22

Think About Time of Day

Kid & Coe

Light sources dramatically impact what's visible in your home, which is why it's important to think about the time of day guests will arrive if you're entertaining or staging a space for sale. If you're hosting friends for brunch, think about the windows that let light in, and give them a quick once-over with glass cleaner. If you're hosting at night, dust light bulbs and the top of lamps, which are more visible when switched on.

10-Minute Trick: If you're expecting guests in the morning, set aside 10 minutes to wipe down surfaces, clean window panes, and give everything a final dust at the same time as the event one day prior. That way, you'll be able to see what guests do when they walk in the door.

No Corner Un-Spiffy Cleaning Kit
Williams Sonoma No Corner Un-Spiffy Cleaning Kit $100

Next up: Here are the final shots of our editor's living room makeover after McCarthy staged the space. 

Related Stories