I need to decorate my apartment. How do I begin?
January 15, 2011 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Please help me decorate my home like a grown-up for the first time! Tons of details inside.

I'm a 33-year-old professional guy. I've been wanting to escape the bachelor-pad lifestyle for years, but that's been hampered by a long series of roommates who brought home furniture from other people's trash, displayed their Star Wars toys in the kitchen, etc. Well, I just moved into a new apartment, and finally—for the first time in my life—I have the place entirely to myself.

I'm willing to invest some serious thought (and some semi-serious money) to make the place comfortable and attractive.

Difficulty: it's in an apartment complex. All of the walls are eggshell white, and the floors are covered with wall-to-wall beige carpet. The windows have Venetian blinds. It's clean and well maintained, but it feels a bit like a hotel room.

Painting the walls is out of the question. I'm not even supposed to put nails in the wall, and any changes to the windows will be subject to the complex's dumb rules (e.g., the exterior-facing part of all window treatments must be white). I'm willing to bend these rules to the extent that I can (1) get away with it, and (2) repair everything before I move out. However, I just got a notice that there will be a complex-wide inspection soon, so apparently they do occasional walk-throughs. (That seems invasive to me, but that's another story...)

On the plus side, all of the major rooms have large, west-facing windows (or, in the case of the living/dining area, a large sliding double door which opens onto the balcony.) The place is technically a two-bedroom, so it's a lot of space for one person—especially the living room. It has a galley kitchen, so there isn't much room (or need) to customize there.

In terms of furnishings, I've always preferred a very clean, modern, minimalist, even severe aesthetic. However, I think I'd like to warm that up a bit with a few more natural/rustic elements (unfinished or less-finished wood, stone, textiles), and a generally more cozy/welcoming and less cold/office-like vibe. Still within a clean, uncluttered framework, mind you.

I'll also be getting plenty of plants (I want to start an herb garden, which will live inside during the winter and on the balcony during the warmer months), and some original artwork from my artist friends.

I don't have a specific budget in mind, but I'm okay with dropping a few thousand US$ on this. (It will probably be a gradual process.)

I'd even consider making a few things myself. For example, this table is roughly the kind of thing that appeals to me, but I'll be damned if I'm going to pay £296 (US$470) for a block of wood and four pieces of metal tubing.

Given the limitations I'm working with, I realize that my apartment is never going to look like the ones in the magazines. But I'd like to do what I can.

I'm really just looking for general advice—things to consider, approaches to try, items or retailers to check out, etc. But here are a couple of specific questions:

- Is there anything to be done about the carpets? Could I cover (some of) them with tatami mats, or something similar? Or is there a way to use area rugs that won't look cluttered?

- What about lighting? I can't install ceiling fixtures, obviously—which leaves table lamps, floor lamps, and (maybe?) the kind of cheap track lighting that plugs into the wall. I'm guessing that lots of smaller sources of indirect light are better for creating a cozy vibe than one or two bright, central sources, right? So—lots of table lamps, or what? Maybe rope lights hidden behind furniture and structural elements?

(I know about Apartment Therapy. The pictures are gorgeous, but it doesn't help me figure out what to do with my space. However, sites which walk me through the actual thought processes would be welcome. I'm a computer programmer, so if there's anything that approaches this as an engineering problem, that'd probably help me enormously. Pictures of similar spaces that have been decorated toward similar ends would also be helpful.)

Sorry if this is all over the place. To summarize: how can I make this place look and feel modern, classy, and comfortable?

posted by ixohoxi to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Also 3M do a range of stick-on hooks that are easy to remove when you're done with them, that don't pull off chunks of paint at the same time. I've never had any trouble with them, and they have heaps of different types, including picture hooks.

Having said that I have heard of landlords who say even those hooks are out of bounds, so check your lease.
posted by tracicle at 2:42 PM on January 15, 2011

I am not an interior designer. I am not your interior designer.

College students nationwide feel your plight in regards to nail-less decorating. There are various options, which include:

Thumb tacks - you can use the plain metal round ones or they make "designer" tacks now, found in various stores including Wal*mart.

Command 3M strips - you _MUST_ follow the instructions to remove these in order to not damage the wall.

Hercules Hooks - Bless you Billy Mays.
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:47 PM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

What if you starched fabric to a small accent wall? That would help bring in colour. How are the curtains held up? Could you extend the curtain rod beyond the window area, and hang floor to ceiling drapes in a nice colour?
posted by kellyblah at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, also meant to post that, if you're allowed to use any sort of item to hang things on your walls, consider that you can put more than just paint on the wall. There's fabric.....reed mats (it's all the rage to texture your walls now _and_ it's minimalist for most)......paper......etc. If you're looking for minimalism, you need to think about texture, how any color you put in the room will stand out, etc.

Consider googling "guide to minimalism" as I did. Nearly everything can be had via google.
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:58 PM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Relying solely on overhead lighting is death to style and comfort. I'd start with the lighting, therefore. Depending on how large the rooms are, get 2-3 matching floor lamps in a style you like (cb2 has great modern light fixtures, if you need stores) and then table/task lighting near where you sit to read/chat with friends. Those lamps don't have to match, but try to stick to similar tones - for example, if the floor lamps are chrome, don't switch to brass for table lamps.

Don't rule out changing the overhead fixtures, especially in the dining area, where the right light over your table makes a huge difference. Swapping out a fixture isn't hard or damaging, and you can store the standard fixture in the back of a closet and replace it when you move out.

You can do area rugs over carpet. It's not messy if they're anchored by furniture and set off seating, eating, or conversational areas.

Don't buy any furniture "sets" if it feels like a hotel room. Matchy matchy will only make that worse. Do you have any furniture you'd like to keep/work with? That might provide a good starting point. Failing that, go buy one really awesome piece of art that you absolutely love. Lean it against the wall until you get the hook thing figured out, and start to buy furniture that goes with it, color and style-wise.

If you post pics of the space, you might get more specific suggestions.
posted by donnagirl at 3:01 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might find ReadyMade to be useful; I have found it to be increasingly less so in recent years, as it focuses more on stuff you can buy than projects you can make, but it's still pretty neat & does take you through some decorating thought processes.

Take your time on the whole process and make sure things work together. You might start by choosing one piece you really love for each room, figuring out a color palette designed to incorporate and show off that piece, and then keeping it in your mind as you shop for other items. That will ensure that each room is coordinated and cohesive without being matchy-matchy.

& you can definitely do rugs over carpet, especially if they're not fussy pattern-y things, which it sounds like yours won't be.
posted by dizziest at 3:27 PM on January 15, 2011

Also: hooray for plants! That will go a long way. You might also think about investing in interesting planters for them, and considering that as part of your decorating scheme.
posted by dizziest at 3:29 PM on January 15, 2011

Best answer: The most important skill for design is critical thinking. If you see something you like, ask yourself why you like it. What would it look like with what you already own? What is missing from what you already have?

The more you look at interior spaces and compare them to your own, the more you will be able to judge what looks good in your place. So much of design is subjective and guesswork that you can't really use too many hard rules.

For example, it is totally possible to put a large area rug in an already carpeted room, but it is just as easy to make it look bad as good.

Tip #1: My best tip if you don't know what you are doing is to buy mostly neutral furniture (gray, beige, wood) and accent it with 2-3 colors that you like. Accents should take the form of throw pillows, blankets, vases, lampshades, artwork, picture frames, books, etc.

Tip #2: Things should be different heights. If all you have is a sofa, a coffee table, and a media console, then you will be the tallest thing in the room. Try adding in a tall bookcase, a floor lamp, a tall vase on a table, and artwork at or above eye level on the wall.

Tip #3: Don't get furniture that clashes. Clashing happens when things do not match exactly, but are just different enough to notice (like a chair and table that are both wood, but different colors of wood). Things should either match almost exactly or be very different. If you just pick lots of pieces that all look different, but you love, it is called "eclectic." It is easy to make this work, but the trick is that almost nothing can match. This is where your observation and critical thinking skills come in handy.

I hope this helps.
posted by AtomicBee at 3:34 PM on January 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: If you post pics of the space, you might get more specific suggestions.

How about a video?
posted by ixohoxi at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2011

I'd take a look at Room & Board for furniture. A lot of their stuff is a nice balance of modern and cozy.

You can definitely put area rugs over a beige carpet. This can be a nice way to define different spaces if your apartment has an open layout.

I'd stay away from cheap track lighting and overhead lighting of any kind. Floor lamps can bring some understated drama to a space in addition to providing the kind of diffuse lighting that makes a room feel like a nice place to be. And side tables with lamps on them also do a lot to make a space feel like a home.

The plants will go along way, as dizziest said, and I second investing in planters. Crate and Barrel has a pretty wide selection.

Also, if you have a book collection large enough to warrant a bookcase, I strongly recommend investing in a nice, sturdy one (Crate and Barrel has a bunch of good ones). I've noticed bookcase quality really makes a difference in the impression a room makes..

Finally, don't forget about the windows. Curtains can pull a lot of weight -- they'll add texture, color, and a sense of personality to the rooms.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by bethist at 3:56 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some commentary on that video:

Pretty much all the furniture you see is subject to replacement. It's all cheap Ikea stuff, and I've had some of it for years. I like the couch, but the cats have ruined the leather, so I'll definitely be replacing that. I'm okay with the bedroom furniture, but not particularly attached to it.

I'd be more than happy to hide the TV away inside a cabinet or something. I'm not a TV watcher. I want the option to use it for movies, but I don't want it to be a focal point in the living area. When people sit down, I'd prefer that they naturally face each other, not the TV. I might even spring for a new flat screen, if that will help the room.

I'll probably put the CDs and most of the books away in boxes.

Partly due to some strange wiring in the bedroom (the one switched outlet is in a completely useless place), there's no real lighting in there at the moment. I'm thinking about doing something similar to the clusters of globe lanterns seen here.

The window sills in the office and bedroom are wide enough to accomodate some small planters, or other accessories.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:01 PM on January 15, 2011

Best answer: I think CB2 does a great job at minimalism that doesn't feel cold and clinical. Here's their online catalog which has lots of pictures. The trick seems to be a lot of white and some bold splashes of color, and looks more fun and creative than cold. But I think this is very hard to pull off with off-white walls and beige carpet, which lends itself towards more neutral, traditional colors and furniture styles - maybe you can get around this somewhat by getting something big and white, like the couch, rug, giant picture. Another rule about minimalism is that the furniture is often low to the ground and things get more sparse as you go up vertically. This creates a feeling of upward openness rather than comfort and coziness, which is why high walls are good.

Other minimalist catalogs: BoConcept and Ligne Roset.

Removable wall decals are an option for wall decorations. I've never used them, but supposedly they come right off without damaging the paint.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:05 PM on January 15, 2011

Best answer: Video is very helpful! Yeah, it's a bit generic, but that means you can put all the personality in the stuff you own. Start with the "public" spaces first - living room and dining room. Is the red chair in your computer room in decent shape? If so, put that in the living room and go from there. Get an area rug with just a little bit of that same red in it, maybe the rest a charcoal color, and run it under the front feet of the couch and the coffee table. Put the red chair on the dining room end of the couch.

If it's not in great shape/you hate it, do something similar after you find a chair you like. Then lamp on the table by the couch, lamp on the floor near the tv, matching lamp somewhere between the couch and the wall with the balcony.

Maybe a taller, more impressive piece of furniture for your tv? Black would be fine, clean lines, something you can put other stuff on that you like, plus storage for media and electronics. The kitchen box is a little odd, but would be less so with tall furniture on that wall.

Since the rooms are connected, I would pick a dining room table that had chairs that wouldn't be weird to drag into the living room for extra seating. Maybe a warm, darkish wood tone for the seat with metal legs in some sort of silver? That would look nice with your black furniture but not be too matchy. I'd swap out that dining room light fixture for something more modern and clean.

Finally, if you think the bathroom door will usually be open, get a great, colorful shower curtain. It's all you see when you look down the hall.

Do that, then live with it for a bit before you tackle the bedroom/office spaces.
posted by donnagirl at 4:13 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and start watching HGTV. It gets repetitive after a while, but all the "sell my house" and "help me design" shows teach you a few basic techniques that can really help you make a space your own. They even have a couple shows specifically for renters.
posted by donnagirl at 4:16 PM on January 15, 2011

I like the couch, but the cats have ruined the leather, so I'll definitely be replacing that.

Before you buy anything else, I think a cat scratching post is essential.
posted by idiomatika at 4:17 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, you might want to post your question and video link on Apartment Therapy as a "Good Question."

Patrick also had a white-wall rental with a similar kitchen. You, of course, have more room to work with.

You might like this -- black and red, with white walls.

(I miss old-style AT!)

Visio can help you with furniture layout, or you can go all-out with a 3-D planner.

You can get recommendations (or this) for a color palette based on images you like.
posted by jgirl at 5:15 PM on January 15, 2011

Response by poster: I'd swap out that dining room light fixture for something more modern and clean.

Yeah, I despise that thing. In fact, I'd be happy to remove it entirely and use table lamps, etc. for that area.

Before you buy anything else, I think a cat scratching post is essential.

Hehe. You speak truth. I did find a scratching device they actually use, so hopefully that will distract them from any new furniture.

Is the red chair in your computer room in decent shape?

Not really, and it's not the style I'm going for—but your walkthrough of the general thought process is helpful!

Lots of good stuff so far—keep it coming!
posted by ixohoxi at 5:22 PM on January 15, 2011

Fuck landlords who say you can't hang anything on your walls! I understand they don't want people messing up their precious investment property, but you live there and a nail is not going to kill anything. If you have standard issue rental white walls, toothpaste will magically fill in those gaps without needing to be repainted and no one will ever notice.
posted by bradbane at 5:34 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was totally going to look for the apartment jgirl linked (Patrick's)! I think it's probably less minimal than you want, but it's a great color palate to work with. Adding in texture is a good way to warm up minimalist spaces.
posted by grapesaresour at 6:04 PM on January 15, 2011

Best answer: One thing you can pick up at Home Depot, Lowe's, etc., are dimmers for your plug-in lamps. You plug the dimmer into the wall, then the lamp into the dimmer, then just leave the lamp on all the time and switch it on and off via the dimmer. Lifesavers for people like us who like mood lighting but can't install anything.

I agree on the shower curtain thing. I'd for something understated/elegant, not showy like bright red.

The best way to warm up a modern space is with texture. You can certainly do area rugs on top of carpet. One per room/area is best, so limit yourself to two, one for dining and one for living. Although I might skip the dining area rug. Make sure you get one large enough to really define the space. It would be ideal if you could find one that stretched from the "corridor" to within 2 feet of the wall with the sliding door. So, 9' x 12'?

If at all possible, hang curtains by your sliding doors. They don't even have to be "real"/functional. But some texture/color hanging on the walls on either side of that would be great. I'd even consider trying to get the stackback to almost cover the entire area to the right of the slider. You may need to shorten that depending on how much room you have to the left before you get to that air return. You don't want to cover that with a curtain.

Another thing that makes a space feel cozy is furniture placement. You might consider further defining the living room by placing a chair or two with their backs along that corridor. Not a couch, since the opening isn't that large. You still want people to feel "invited in". You also might do a "foyer table" or "sofa table" on that corridor wall with a small lamp or two on it and a bin for keys/mail/etc. I would definitely put it near where you have the book case now, NOT in the skinny area by the kitchen.

I am an interior designer, so if you really want to work through this together, just memail me. I'd be happy to put together some ideas for you :)

Leave all overhead lights OFF when entertaining!
posted by wwartorff at 6:06 PM on January 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

My husband and I are in the process of doing the same thing to our apartment. We're replacing one piece of furniture at a time with stuff from Room & Board (which is high quality, and hand crafted!) or vintage pieces from Craigslist. If you find something you like on Crate & Barrel, you might find it Craigslisted. I was very lucky to find a desk I love love loved at CB2 new on Craigslist for 1/2 price. Just view everything, and haggle!

Also, removable wallpaper! Removable wallpaper!
posted by santojulieta at 6:58 PM on January 15, 2011

Roman Shades is a nice way to bring color and texture into a room. You could always reinstall the blinds when moving out.

A nice large mirror with a console on the far wall of the dining room will open that area up and could serve as an overflow buffet when needed.

As long as you fill the holes in the walls before you move, that shouldn't be a problem; it never has for me.
posted by JujuB at 7:20 PM on January 15, 2011

Best answer: CB2, Craigslist, and carefully chosen Ikea, and Pier 1 are your friends.

Landing strip: Find a narrow--no more than 12" deep and not too long console type table with simple lines--Parsons style, maybe--and put it over the cat bowls. Lean a cool tall mirror you find on Craigslist/Pier 1 on that table. Place a small wooden/earthenware bowl on the table for your keys and a woven basket for your mail. Put a small table lamp there, too, with a base that has a color you will have in artwork, pillows, rug in living room. This is your hello/goodbye space when you or guests come in or leave your pad. A great coat rack, Craigslist again, or CB2 would be neat with a nice umbrella a vintage hat hanging from it if there's room--couldn't tell from video. Hang guests' coats and bags when they visit, but don't clutter it up. Pier 1 used to sell glass "busts." If you can find one or even one from an antique shop, put it on the console table and stick one of your hats on it.

Living room area: Buy a new small-scale neutral colored couch that doesn't clash with the carpeting but turn the couch perpendicular to where you have it now so that it's "floating" and facing the wall with the sliding glass door. The back of it should line up perpendicular to the wall edge of the living room/hallway area. Put the coffee table in front of it. Get at least one, preferably two, small-scale modern club chairs to face the couch with a small clear Lucite table between the chairs for people to put down their drinks/food. Add a great area rug underneath this furniture configuration. Place a cool looking CB2 lamp in the corner. This is your entertaining, conversation space. Add some pillows on the chairs and couch that pick up colors from the rug or some great piece of art that you put on that far wall. Against the wall where the TV is, you need a not-oo-bulky buffet type cabinet that exactly fits the space. Use it as a bar, serving buffet, etc. Lean another mirror on it that will pick up the light from the sliding glass doors. Place a nice table lamp on the buffet. The TV, obviously, is banished to your second bedroom where your old couch is going, too (if it fits) or just treat yourself to a comfy small-scale leather chair that flips up--modern-day Barcolounger.

Dining area: Get a small modern round table. The Filsen table at CB2 is good or something comparable at Ikea--simple, simple with modern chairs of the type shown with the Filsen table in the CB2 catalogue. Keep checking Craigslist for those. Get rid of those existing chairs in the dining area as well as that rolling thing. Put the microwave on top of the fridge and the toaster oven on the counter if you absolutely must have that oven. You can put it against the side of the fridge. It would be nice to define the dining area with an area rug that coordinates with the living room area rug. Can you swap up the existing ceiling lamp for the medium Ikea white Filsta lamp--only $39 and so cool?

Den/Man Cave: If you're going to build anything, then just run a block of wood across the entire far end of this room with some simple Ikea type file cabinets or regular drawers to hold up the wood. Put the computer on one end and the TV on the other. Hopefully your old couch can face both or get that Barcolounger--small scale only. Keep all your tech toys in the Ikea drawers/filing cabinet. Have at least one table lamp on the wood desk. Can you fit your weight bench in here?

Bedroom: Simple platform bed with two low, modern bedside dressers on either side with great table/reading lamps from CB2. Big art over the bed. Buy Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein linens or Ikea linens. A wall of bookcases looks great in a bedroom, too, but paint the ones you have white.

The apartment needs some great graphics. Think about how you can do that per others' suggestions for mounting art without nails. If it's lightweight enough, some art can hang on simple pin hooks. There's incredible affordable art online. Check Apartment Therapy for that. Find a few pieces or art/photographs that you love and figure out a way to put them on the walls without violating your lease.

Before you spring for couches, tables, and chairs, measure your place exactly and bring the measurements with you. Keep the scale of your furniture small. Apartment Therapy probably has some bible for buying furniture to scale so that you have room to maneuver, push back dining chairs, etc. That's your takeway from AT or other decorating sites.

Not sure where you live, but there are decorators just starting out who can give you a fee-only consult where they tell you what to buy, but you do the all the legwork. It's not that expensive. Have fun with this.
posted by Elsie at 7:44 PM on January 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

Head smack! On preview, it's the Facil dining table at CB2, not Filson.
posted by Elsie at 7:51 PM on January 15, 2011

The Job Lot will have artist's easels. Cheap, minimalist, wood so they're warm. One or two per room. On the easels go either artwork you've procured from the local art faire, or from FLICKr, printed and mounted on foamcore. Kinkos will do this for you.

Also, you're a nerd. Don't hide it. Got a favorite and recent comic? Buy an extra copy, and put it into a frame, and hang it on the wall (using the new adhesiveless nail-free hooks). Got a favorite vintage computer, console or graphics card? Get a broken one on ebay, take out the circuit boards, and hang them together tastefully as an art installation.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:34 PM on January 15, 2011

I did find a scratching device they actually use, so hopefully that will distract them from any new furniture.

I urge you to get several more -- at least one in each room with soft goods!

What is this miraculous device, by the way?
posted by jgirl at 7:51 AM on January 16, 2011

Response by poster: Many thanks to everyone! This is terribly helpful.

What is this miraculous device, by the way?

It's just one of those flat pads of corrugated cardboard that lays on the floor. My cats won't touch sisal or carpet—it has to be cardboard. Which is ugly and makes a mess, but I guess it's better than shredding the furniture.

Modern Cat has some interesting stuff, though :)
posted by ixohoxi at 5:12 PM on January 16, 2011

I'm very excited to look at all of this, but first:

No nails in the wall? REALLY? Is that even legal?

In a previous life I owned and managed a bunch of apartments in HISTORIC homes, and my only requirement was no nails ever in the gorgeous old wood trim around doors and windows and for plaster walls that the tentants either knew what they were doing or had me install their nails/hooks/hangers for them.

It's mind-boggling that a tenant can't hang things on drywall ... it is very easy to patch. Is this common?
posted by cyndigo at 12:29 PM on January 17, 2011

Oh and, those are very handsome cats! I'm a big fan of leather upholstery for the catted among us as it is hair- and puke-resistant.
posted by cyndigo at 12:42 PM on January 17, 2011

Response by poster: It's mind-boggling that a tenant can't hang things on drywall ... it is very easy to patch. Is this common?

I've never encountered it before, but this is also my first time living in an apartment complex.

Oh and, those are very handsome cats! I'm a big fan of leather upholstery for the catted among us as it is hair- and puke-resistant.

Thanks! Yeah, that's definitely true about leather. Although I'll have to be more vigilant about trimming their nails if I get nice new leather stuff.
posted by ixohoxi at 6:26 PM on January 17, 2011

Oh, and here are a couple of tricks to keep bookshelves looking neat.

1. Organize your books by the color on the spine. You don't need to put them in rainbow order, but grouping them by color just makes everything look cleaner. You can break it up by putting some groups on their back and some upright.

2. Turn all the books around so the pages are facing out. Then everything is one color, the color of the pages. Not such a good idea if you actually want to find something, though.

3. If all else fails, make matching jackets for all of them. I saw this done once in a Designer Show House. It looked awesome, and like an awesome pain in the ass.

And never stack stuff on top of the shelved books.
posted by wwartorff at 6:48 PM on January 17, 2011

I second finding something you really like for each room then selecting a color palette; this will make shopping for additional furniture/accessories much easier. For my dorm room, I found a quilt I liked, then bought lamps/clocks/fan and such in colors that matched it, so everything just goes.

To showcase things you like, try framing posters or record album covers or whatnot. Clipboards can be hung above a desk to hold to-do lists, receipts, and shopping lists. Plastic tubs or bins can be stashed under a bed or in a closet to store out-of-season clothing and reduce clutter.
posted by cp311 at 11:21 AM on January 31, 2011

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