How do I decor?
September 17, 2020 6:32 PM   Subscribe

I recently(ish) moved into a new apartment. It's kind of bare bones right now, and I have no eye for decor. Really, zero. And no idea where to start. Halp.

So my husband and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment last August. The previous owners did a decent job on the paint and kitchen and so on, but other than that, it sort of looks like, I don't know, a college dorm suite? We have some nice pieces of furniture, I guess, but also a lot of crap furniture that's a zillion years old (not antique, just old crappy stuff) that I'd love to lose. We also have waaaaaay too much furniture (the place we lived in before, a rental, was a lot bigger).

The trouble is, I have absolutely no idea where to even begin. How do people do this and make their apartments look nice? Seriously, I see documentaries and things where the people are being interviewed in their apartments and they all look great, and to me it just seems unattainable. I know the traditional advice is "Look at Apartment Therapy," but I just feel overwhelmed when I look at that site and it's not at all helpful. (Same goes for Pinterest or what have you.) I can look at photos of an apartment and say, "Oh, I like that," but that's about as far as I get, because the people who live in those places look they have good design sense and can see in their minds' eyes what they want and how to get there. I don't have that ability, and that's the problem. I can't even really articulate what I like much past "I like dark wood" and "I don't really like a minimalist look." People talk always about "mid-century modern" or whatever as though everyone knows what that is, and I have no clue what that even would look like.

The one thing I do know we'd like is built-in bookcases, because we have a lot of books. We were all set to have someone come in and build us built-in bookcases, but then Covid happened.

So where do I start? Should I just bite the bullet and hire a designer? (I don't have a huge budget.)
posted by holborne to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Re bookcases, a lot of people hack Ikea Billy bookcases to make them look built-in. Apartment Therapy has a book that you might find more useful than the website. It walks you through understanding the style you want and how to implement it.
posted by pinochiette at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Count the maximum number of people you ever have over, if it's less than, oh, let's say a dozen, get rid of all your not-great seating until you have exactly 12 sitting surfaces, fewer if you are a sit-on-the-floor crowd. Old crappy furniture is not worth keeping around, and while the best time to get rid of it is before you move, so you don't have to move it, now is the second best. Don't worry about Apartment Therapy, I only ever look at them if I want ideas for something specific, like having 80,000 books in a small space.

It's good that you have a sense of "college dorm" interiors, because that's the most common thing for people to carry through life (I still have a bit of it, decades later). For instance, if you have the space, don't push everything against the walls. Put a couch between the dining room and the front room (or whatever), like right there in the middle of everything so people have to walk around it (point the couch away from the dining room ;). It splits things up.

Figure out what you want the focus of the main room to be, a TV room, a look-out-the-window room, The Library, a wall of cat tree...whatever, but start thinking in those terms. For books, they don't have to all be accessible all the time, so have a wall of bookcases and put a couple chairs in front of it as if it's wallpaper.

It's a matter of taste, but making a place look good is about making it about you more than covering up the walls, making sure there's space for the XBox, and just kinda packing everything else in (college house style). Some like less, and some like little shelves all over the place, filled with...stuff, the tchotchke collector look, but you're the best judge of that. I'd start out with as little as possible and see what you just gotta have. The 110lb walnut octagon side table that is the only faux-Chippendale piece you have? Not unless you know what you're doing.

Make a list of what has to be used.
posted by rhizome at 7:19 PM on September 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

The set dressing on those shows are exactly to make people feel like they need to spend a lot of money on stuff that doesn't really matter.

Who do you want to décor for?

Are you anticipating impressing guests?

Do you want to craft a home that you feel comfortable and live effectively in?

Are your and your spouse's answers to those questions identical?

Form or functionality (or where to strike the balance) is another consideration.

You mention built-in bookcases; do you want something to show off storing and displaying books or do you want something to store and display books efficiently?

Also, don't feel like needing to Do It All At Once. =) Settle in, get comfortable with your home. Identify deficiencies, keep an eye out for ameliorations/ upgrades.

In my 20s, I got that nesting instinct but personally settled on utilitarianism and minimalism starting in my mid 30s. Got rid of a lot of stuff over the last few years.

Luckily, I never got into the "keeping up with the Jones'" thing; my (potential) "status symbol" durable goods were all chosen from function with form being a minor consideration.

You do you.
posted by porpoise at 7:58 PM on September 17, 2020

Here is a step by step guide that will walk you through a designer’s approach to it, by Emily Henderson. I really like her blog for explaining the how and why of design concepts (like mistakes people make when hanging curtains) and helping me find words to describe my style (this style quiz is fun!).

And, please know that every well-designed room you see on tv is either professionally done or the cumulative result of years of styling, learning, editing, re-styling. Time and effort are the secret ingredients to any well-designed room!
posted by stellaluna at 8:06 PM on September 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

Modsy has basically been my hobby for the past few months. I've found it more useful for furniture and furniture layout than for decor, so it may not be what you need. Basically, you send Modsy pictures of your room(s) and they build a 3D model of it. (The process of getting the photos the way they wanted was torture due to the layout of my studio. No idea if that's typical.) You take some style quizzes, check off some lists of what you're looking for, and then a designer sends you a couple of designs. You can request revisions.

There are two ways you can interact with your designs. First, you can swap out what the designer put in your room. You click on the couch, and it shows you other couches you can swap. Click on a throw pillow, swap for other throw pillows. You can't move things around to change the layout in this view, just swap them in their existing locations. That's super easy. The second way is that you have access to the 3D model and there you can move furniture around, add new pieces, and remove things completely. The 3D model is kind of rough and hard to get smaller things, like decor, placed precisely, which is why I said it's better for furniture than decor. But once you've moved or added something in the 3D model, then you can go back to the first view and swap things.

You can also ask the designer for changes, and once you're happy with the layout, you could just swap decor and ignore the 3D model. I didn't ask the designer for many changes because I assume it's like a design sweatshop and didn't want to take up too much of their time (but that's just me). Plus I really enjoyed tinkering with it. I have virtually and endlessly redecorated my apartment in the past few months. It's been a great quarantine distraction.

You can buy the things you put in your design, but you don't have to. (I assume the company makes their money through getting a percentage of the sales because I don't see how they can possibly make money otherwise.) They also only have certain companies and not everything from those. I would often look elsewhere online for something I liked better than what Modsy had available, and then put the closest thing I could find in my design to see how it might look. It really helped me figure out what I like and don't like. I know the names of lots of different furniture styles now.

I hadn't bought new furniture in 15+ years and still had all my post-college cheap crap and I hated all of it. I also had no idea where to start and no eye for decor. After months of messing around with my designs, I've finally started buying stuff (not through Modsy, sorry Modsy) in the past couple of weeks and feel really good about it. This sounds like an ad for Modsy, and I'm honestly a little embarrassed to be this enthusiastic about a company, but I promise it isn't.
posted by Mavri at 8:50 PM on September 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Maybe hire Havenly? They design rooms for $80-$130, and I believe they create mockups and pick pieces for you based on your budget. My friend used it, and her place looked great! They incorporated some of the pieces she already had and helped her pick a paint colour, too.
posted by saltypup at 9:06 PM on September 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

i personally think that the best way to design a house is to figure out what makes YOU happy. If you have a few hours one evening, join pinterest and search, like, "cozy living rooms" "spacious living rooms" "modern living rooms" "traditional living rooms" "colorful living rooms" and then see what your heart says. save the stuff you like to a board, don't think too hard about it. then at the end of the evening (or when you have a bunch of things), scroll through your board and say "hmm i kept liking these really dark scenes with brown leather couches" or "the images that make me happy all have yellow window sills". This way you start to discover a little bit about what you like.

I would try to figure out the "vibes" you like rather than "how am i going to fix this living room". go with your feelings to get a sense.

If it's helpful to see an example, several years ago when we first got a place my partner and I did this just to see. Here's our board (Warning: turns out we are maximalists.) I had no idea what kinds of spaces I liked to be in before this. (Your board will likely not be as bananas, but I put my board here because there is a strong through-line of "lots of color, sort of intense choices, geometric designs, patterns in particular colorways, sense of humor." Fast forward a few years and our all-white house has been transformed into a weirdo wonderland of color and we love every single day that we wake up here. But we couldn't have gotten to this feeling if we had started with buying a sofa (unless it was, like, an incredible sofa that we wanted to build our lives around.)

Good luck! Paint is cheap and paint-over-able! Have fun!
posted by andreapandrea at 9:20 PM on September 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

We did the opposite of andreapandea, because we did start with the sofa.

We started with specific pieces of furniture (a nice couch and a recliner) and built the living room around those by gradually picking up art, lamps, curtains, and bookshelves that fit in, one thing at a time. In your case, I would get that bookshelf that you really want. Have someone come in, if you can do it safely. Get that in place, and then see how the rest of your furniture looks around that. Get rid of the pieces that you don't like. See where the gaps are. Go from there.

We're not that great as at picturing a cohesive look or even deciding on a style, but I'm happy with the way that our space has evolved over time. We've gradually gotten rid of many of the hand-me-downs and cheap furniture that didn't fit our style and decided that many of the others are worth keeping.

You don't have to do it all at once, if that doesn't work for you.
posted by oryelle at 5:18 AM on September 18, 2020

I think you need to have a layout (driven by the size/shape of the room and what you will be using it for) and a style+colour palette (driven by your tastes).

If you don't want to use a designer then for style, you probably lean more towards one of the following: traditional, transitional, or modern. You could do a google image search for each of them, see which one you like the best and then hit up Houzz for that style plus your city plus type of room and see a bunch of photos of real rooms to give you some inspiration. I find Houzz less intimidating than pinterest or apartment therapy because it has a bunch of filters so you can narrow down more.

For the layout, I would recommend measuring up the room and planning out the space on paper or a free online planner. I use the Ikea kitchen planner for living spaces as it is easy to use, has a dining section (tables, chairs, sideboards) and an office section (desks and office chairs, but also sofas, loveseats, armchairs, bookcases, coffee tables, and lighting) and I don't hate Ikea furniture. The Ikea planner allows some customisation of floors and wall colours.
posted by plonkee at 5:21 AM on September 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

i personally think that the best way to design a house is to figure out what makes YOU happy. If you have a few hours one evening, join pinterest and search, like, "cozy living rooms" "spacious living rooms" "modern living rooms" "traditional living rooms" "colorful living rooms" and then see what your heart says. save the stuff you like to a board, don't think too hard about it.

Seconding this almost word-for-word. People get too caught up on trying to find a style for themselves and figuring out what theme they match with most closely, and then they try to find things in that style - but if you just pick what you absolutely love, then you are the unifying theme in your home, and everything you pick will reflect you.

And Pinterest is a great way to figure that out. Whatever you search for it will show you many photos that relate to it (many, many, many photos) and whatever ones you like and save, it will tailor the algorithm and show you more like that.

And you can literally search for anything. "Cozy living rooms" is an option, but so is "blue living rooms" or "sunny living rooms" or "star wars living rooms" or whatever.

Often, too, the photos they show you are related to articles, and you can click on the photo and it will take you to the article - which often is about home decorating, and may even have links to the exact items you see in the photos if you fall totally in love with it. Or, you can just make a note that "ooh it looks like I really am into a pink throw blanket, but the one in this article is like $100 because it's cashmere - lemme just go on ebay and find a plain wool one for like ten bucks instead".

And yes, taking your time is absolutely fine. I don't consider myself "done" with my home decor by any means - I just up and changed up the bathroom a few months ago, and when and if my current roommate moves out I'm gonna change up a bunch of things again. I'm changing, my life changes, my home changes with me.

Go with your gut. You got this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on September 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think one of the things that starts to make a home look less like a dorm room is the window treatments. Add some curtains. Swap out the standard issue mini-blinds. Add a valence. Do something with your windows, and then go from there.
posted by hydra77 at 9:26 AM on September 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

My philosophy is that outside of the kitchen, hallways, and some bedrooms, it's always going to look like a twentysomething's place until you install drapes, and drapes that don't sag or look like a dog's bed.
posted by rhizome at 2:43 PM on September 18, 2020

Sounds like you have two issues here: too much stuff/clutter and inexperience with home arrangement and design.

Address the clutter first. You'll never be able to design around too much stuff. I personally think people don't emphasize how much lack of clutter and functional spatial arrangements make a comfortable home. Think of every space you've ever been in and found pleasant - usually a trait that is consistent across all of them is cleanliness, order, and not feeling overly stuffed/cramped. This doesn't mean minimalist, it just means not having too much stuff to fit in the space you have. You'll find tons of advice on how to do this across the internet, but I'd start with asking yourself simple questions. Things I using this item for a functional purpose now, or am I trying to figure out how to make it functional whenever I interact with it? What do I want to be doing in this room, and does this item fit into that intended use? If this item wasn't here, would I miss it or would it make using this space easier? Am I using these two items for a function that I only need one of them to do? etc etc etc. Some examples of how these issues manifest - having too many chairs in a room, having a table that you pile papers on and forget about, things you keep "in case you need them later," and items you have to move often to get to another item you actually want to access.

Once you've tackled the clutter look and feel like your space is functional, start trying to make it aesthetically pleasing. Pinterest can be helpful for this. Just start searching rooms and saving things you like, and see if patterns emerge. After that you'll start to understand things like if you like dark wood over light wood, and you can see what styles are called to know the words to search for or say when shopping. Once you have a sense of what you like, you can try to match it with your space. Functionally, this really just means trying to find rooms that mimic the layout of your home and attempting to copy them. No shame in that, that's what inspiration is all about! The key to doing this successfully is being aware of things you can't match or recreate. Be aware of the color of your walls and floors and fixtures - if they are very different, it won't work out.

Be prepared for this to be a long iterative process to get good at. You will make mistakes. You will buy things that you hate a year later, and give away things you'll wish you had in a few months. Be prepared to get it wrong a few times, because there is no way to avoid it, and not accepting the flubs will stop you from actually getting where you want to go.

Finally, HAVE FUN! This is about figuring out what you want your home and space to be like to live your life in a way that brings you joy. It's not about impressing other people or matching their sensibilities - it's about creating someplace you wake up and love being in every day.
posted by amycup at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Fix my 'phones   |   ISO: picture books where a character takes... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.