Written by Rima Suqi
I considered my move to New York City a one-year experiment, a temporary detour before heading west to live in one of the Los Angeles beach communities where I believed I belonged. Twenty years later, I'm still in New York—and I've spent 19 of those years living in a 350-square-foot studio apartment that I also work from. While I do aspire to a real bedroom with a door, a rent-stabilized apartment is this city's version of a black rhino, a highly sought-after but nearly extinct treasure.
Over the years, my apartment has gone through various incarnations that reflected my life at the time. When I worked full time, I had a table (no need for a desk) and even upholstered chairs. Once I began working from home, that table became a desk, the chairs went away and Elfa shelving came to occupy an entire wall. Yearly tweaks have become a way of life. Here are the ones that have served me best.
It makes a huge difference for almost no money. The walls in my living room have ranged from deep butter yellow to various shades of cream, while my hallway (now also a lovely shade of cream) has worn sage green and once, regrettably, even lime green. Even a seemingly small change, say from white walls to cream, makes an impact and instantly warms up the space. I also repainted dingy kitchen cabinets rather than replace them.
My bed, for example, is a Flou (flou.it)—it has built-in storage under the mattress, where I keep my ever-growing collection of shoes. I would buy this bed again, but not the upholstered model. One word: dust. My bed is upholstered in cream canvas. Some parts are removable, but some are not. And those parts get dirty and gross. To fix it, I'd have to have the bed reupholstered or have a slipcover made (I'd rather spend my disposable income on Alexis Bittar jewelry).
If you're in a studio apartment, you can change the entire look of the room by changing bed linens. In summer, I'm all about white bedding; in winter, I go for natural linen, both from Area (areahome.com). I never dress my bed in patterns, but that's a personal preference. I do, however, make my bed every day. When you live in one room, messy bed = messy apartment.
For years, I lived with an ugly round fluorescent ceiling lamp in my kitchen. Finally I took it down and replaced it with an inexpensive but chic pendant lamp that actually gives off more light and looks a million times better than its hideous predecessor. I have the original fixture in storage on the off chance I move out of here and have to return the apartment to its original state before I die.
While we're on the lighting topic, put all fixtures (whether freestanding or hardwired) on dimmers. Being able to control light means being able to control mood and overall ambiance. The lighting store guy said this would be an easy task, but after (mildly) shocking myself twice trying to change my hardwired light switches, I enlisted a pro to finish the job.
This is one of the fastest, cheapest upgrades with the most impact. My kitchen cabinets had white plastic handles; now they have brushed stainless handles that I bought at Home Depot. There are tons of groovy options out there. (You can even design your own knobs at ghostnest.com!) The same goes for doorknobs.
Had I known I'd have to move out every time the wood floors had to be refinished, I would've installed Pergo floors before I moved in. Pergo is cheaper than wood and comes in a variety of colors. Finding a good installer can be a pain, but having a nice dark floor unifies my space, makes the whole place look grown-up and adds a layer of soundproofing between me and my neighbor downstairs. Note: If you're installing a Pergo floor in a kitchen, make sure the installer puts the flooring under your appliances. Mine didn't, meaning my refrigerator and stove are semipermanently wedged into place. I'm still pissed about it.
When my old, ugly refrigerator died, I bought a nice stainless-clad LG for about $600 (LG makes a narrow model perfect for small apartments). It looks better than what my landlord would've given me, and also meant no rent increase. (A new appliance from the landlord, even if refurbished and unsightly, equals a rent hike. No thanks.) In the same spirit, I switched the existing showerhead to something that looks nicer and works a whole lot better than what the apartment came with. The cost? $20.
When I first moved in, there were no neighbors. All I saw out my undressed window was the brick wall of a small warehouse building. Years later, however, I found myself staring into an all-glass, 11-story residential complex. I lost that gorgeous southern exposure and my privacy! I needed a window treatment, but didn't want curtains. So stealing an idea from a beach resort, I bought Hunter Douglas sliding louvered doors to go over the glass doors leading to my balcony. (They are attached to the existing doors by a wood frame that I hired someone to make. It was worth every penny!)
They're my new best friend. Thanks to them, everything here hides in plain sight. My sunglasses are kept in a Bigso Box (bigso.se). I have jewelry and other items in decorative boxes—some vintage—and in basic document boxes.
January 30, 2012 4:19 PM
Thanks for the ideas in the article and here's one to add:
Want the look of wallpaper on a rental wall? Soak fabric panels with starch and apply to walls with the same tools you would use for wallpaper. When you want to change the look (or move) simply dampen the fabric, pull it off the wall, and wipe down the wall. No residue, scraps of paper, or hours and hours of work involved. At the most, the landlord would have to re-paint the wall - and aren't they supposed to do that anyway??
And thanks for the link to Bigso Box - some fantastic storage items here.
January 09, 2012 6:32 PM
My old apartment had the ugliest linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom so I painted it a solid color with linoleum lacquer and it completely transformed the feel. It was the best money I ever spent! My landlord may not appreciate it as much as I do though, lol.
August 02, 2011 5:38 PM
Other ideas from our Twitter fans (@freshhomeideas): Plants -- indoors and out -- and 3M strips for everything! Also, add wall decals. Share more!
August 02, 2011 5:36 PM
Great ideas! It is SO hard to make a rental feel like your own.
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