New rental? How to turn a nondescript space into a personal haven

Although she was moving into a rental apartment, Alexa d’Argence was eager to put her personal stamp on it.

“Loving my space is more important to me than my security deposit. So I went with the paint, the shelving, the drapes, and the medicine cabinet upgrade,” says d’Argence, who as a senior designer at BAR Architects in San Francisco knows a thing or two about creating a stylish space.

“My landlord really appreciated the improvements. I would say, consider changes that add value, and that would not be removed if he moved,” she says.

Non-designers may not feel as comfortable doing that, as most rental agreements stipulate that nothing can be changed permanently. Another approach: Strike up a conversation with your landlord to discuss possible changes, and maybe even offer to pay the bill.

Or just make a few temporary tweaks, little personal touches that can turn simple and basic into modern and homey with just a trip to the hardware store.

“Customizing a rental is really easy these days; there are so many great accents that are designed to be temporary,” says Jessica Dodell-Feder, executive editor of HGTV Magazine.


Jessica Shaw, Director of Interior Design at The Turett Collaborative in New York, is a fan of removable wallpaper. “I have used it in my own home. Etsy, where I found mine, has prints, murals, and custom options. When your lease is up, you can gently remove it without residue,” she says.

And don’t forget the roof. In one project, he created a wow factor by placing a colorful removable geometric Flavor Paper on a bedroom ceiling. Night sky patterns or forest wall murals can be especially pleasing to city dwellers.

Denver designer Rachel Hoback put up an eye-catching star mosaic wallpaper on her stair risers. “This was a very quick and affordable project that made a huge difference in the look of our staircase,” she says.

Removable wallpapers can also add pizzazz to kitchen backsplashes, bathroom walls, and cabinets. Tempaper, meanwhile, offers a range of designs, including those that look like painted ceramic tile, terrazzo, marble, or embossed metallics.

Liz Morrow of Tacoma, Washington temporarily wallpapered her refrigerator.

“A refrigerator can be ugly or boring, but removable wallpaper can easily transform it into the most interesting part of the entire kitchen,” he says.

Dodell-Feder agrees: “This is a fun, no-compromise solution to a boring kitchen.”


“We don’t tend to consider customizing our rental storage spaces,” Shaw says, “but there are ways to improve its aesthetics and functionality.”

Install custom organizers in closets to store your wardrobe and household items efficiently. (The Container Store and California Closets are among the largest retailers with options.) Matching bins and baskets are inexpensive and ubiquitous in home decor stores.

Or create a spacious closet against the wall. You can take a coat rack with you when you move. Rebrilliant’s Liddle Heavy Duty Adjustable Rack, for example, has rubber feet that anchor against the floor and ceiling.

In a small kitchen, shelf risers and slide-open bins in cabinet shelves increase your storage capacity. And the sticky hooks are good for hanging not only artwork, but also pans and utensils.

Metal utility carts come in a variety of colors; if you can paint, then stencil or decoupage yourself. They are useful for frequently used kitchen items or bar equipment.


Gita Mirchandani, a public relations executive in New York City, has gradually added colorful and meaningful pieces from her favorite designers to her all-white apartment. There are Eames chairs, a George Nelson bench, Jonathan Adler screens and Philippe Starck dining chairs. “Each one serves as an important milestone for moments in my life,” she says.

She has also personalized her bedroom and honored her heritage. “My headboard is a colorful, hand-painted Indian screen that reminds me of my fascinating past every day,” she says.

Convertible furniture allows you to create defined spaces that weren’t there. Murphy-style beds fold into a cabinet, with options like an attached couch or table. Tables like the ones from Resource Furniture transform into dining, office or coffee tables, or console tables.

And a simple room screen can be a workhorse. There are rigid framed panels and folding screens in colored canvas, fabric, paper, metal and wooden slats.


Curtains or blinds can add texture, color, and privacy.

If no rods are already installed, the spring tension or twist and adjust rods fit various window sizes and have protective rubber ends. Kwik-Hang brackets can be inserted into window trim without the need for a drill. Or look for Redi-Shade peel and stick window treatments; some also provide better light control.


Paint, especially spray paint, is an affordable way to enhance a space. Some types can be used in rugs and decorative fabrics on furniture or curtains. (Glidden’s Max Flex is a brand name.)

Buy some basic construction cabinet hardware or switch plate covers at a hardware store and paint them your favorite hues. Follow product instructions on how to prepare and test surfaces before painting.

Changing knobs and handles is another easy way to change the look of a room, and there are plenty of creative options.

Liven up your bathroom by changing the shower head for a colored one, or one that sprays like rain or colors; Sproos!, SparkPod and DreamSpa are some brands.

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