The first apartment: We all have one at some point, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to move straight into a well-equipped home. Furnishing an apartment and making it homey and personalized is never easy, exactly, but it’s never quite as difficult as it is in that first apartment, when all you have is empty space to fill and a first-apartment checklist (and probably not a lot of spending money).
Even with those limited tools, there are ways to make your first apartment shine and feel like home practically from the start. It just takes some smart apartment-decorating ideas and easy-to-follow guidelines that will keep your apartment on the right side of the thrift-store-chic line.
These first-apartment tips and decorating guidelines come courtesy of Alessandra Wood, vice president of style at the design service Modsy. Following these tips may not get you the farmhouse kitchen decor of your dreams, but it will set you up for decorating success in the first space you can properly call your own.
1. Pick appropriately scaled furniture.
Save your dreams of a giant, cozy sectional for future homes. For a first apartment, big pieces may not fit into your new space, and too-large or too-small furniture could also throw the balance of the room off-kilter, giving your decorating efforts an amateurish look.
2. Find furniture that multi-tasks.
Wood recommends dual-purpose furniture to get the most bang for your buck in your (probably) small space. “I am a big proponent of storage ottomans and benches,” she says. “If you’re short on closet or shelf space, you can store books, blankets and towels in these pieces, all while using them as extra seating when friends come over.” Other great picks include pull-out sofas and dining tables that can double as work-from-home desks.
3. Focus on storage.
If it comes down to picking between a cute furniture option and one that has a ton of storage potential, go with the latter. Wood suggests looking for beds with built-in storage or space beneath for storage containers, clutter-managing baskets that can double as decorative accents, and bookshelves for organizing and displaying books, magazines, games, knick-knacks and more.
4. Start with found art.
Your first apartment isn’t the place to collect top-dollar prints or pricy decorative mirrors (unless you have tons of extra money, in which case, go for it). “Instead, display unique art and decor that you collected in your travels, put photos of friends and family into new frames, and hang your diploma and other accolades front and center.”
These accents function well as decor, but they’re also super affordable, so you can put your funds toward other purchases (or just toward rent).
5. Resist the allure of freebies.
“While it’s super tempting, don’t only take free items from family or Craigslist,” Wood says. “Be picky with those hand-me-downs and be sure to make your own choices, so your space feels like a reflection of you.”
If you really have no choice but to take your great-aunt’s old sofa, Wood suggests looking for new (and low-cost) pillows and throws that can freshen up your inherited piece. A new coat of paint can help other key pieces, such as bookshelves, coffee tables and the like, feel new. “Cover any dents or scratches with fresh flowers or small decor pieces,” Wood says.
6. Lean into removable wallpaper.
Many rental apartments discourage painting walls, but you can still dress up those white walls with removable wallpaper. It’s moderately affordable (especially if you just do an accent wall), and so many options are available that you can really show off your personal style.
7. Go green.
An assortment of greenery — faux or real — can bring life into your first apartment, no matter your budget or design style. “Place plants on shelves or bar carts, or even hang one from the ceiling to add texture everywhere you look,” Wood says.
8. Pick one investment piece.
If your budget allows for it, invest in a statement piece that helps drive the look and feel of the whole space. “What do you want to be the topic of conversation when guests enter your home? Is it an inviting velvet sofa for wine and cheese nights? Is it a well-styled bar cart, or is it a luxurious, cozy-looking bed? Invest in one high-quality piece that you can take with you to your next apartment and beyond,” Wood says. “If you’re really unsure where you’ll be in a few years, pieces like this often have a high resale value, so you don’t have to stress about moving it.”
9. Add layers.
Layers help your space feel lived in, Wood says, and are a great way to help your first apartment feel truly yours. “Pile pillows and throws on the sofa for a comfortable feel,” she says. “Layer rugs (especially if you have carpeting) to bring in color or texture to the floor. Add a curated gallery wall to add pops of color. Mixing different textures and materials will make your space feel designed and well-thought-out.”
10. Put lighting to work.
The right lights can help your space feel homier, especially if it’s windowless or a little drab. Task, overhead and table lighting all have different intensities and can help the space feel less stark; layering in candles adds a little mood lighting.
(Real Simple magazine provides smart, realistic solutions to everyday challenges. Online at www.realsimple.com.)