I Transformed My Apartment With These 4 Decorating Rules

It’s all about the high-low mix.

small apartment decorating tips

The first time I signed the lease on my own apartment — albeit a 300-square-foot-studio, but my own space nonetheless — I swore to myself that I’d craft a thoughtful, curated space. But, here’s the thing, curating a vibe isn’t something you can just wish into existence. When I began to brainstorm decorating ideas for my own small apartment, I swore I wouldn’t simply mass order staples from Target or IKEA, but I quickly came to realize that carefully cherry-picked fundamentals from these major retailers could actually serve as the starting point to a space that looks both luxurious and lived in. Supplemented with vintage finds and artful add-ons, it is possible to create an apartment space that doesn’t just feel like a snapshot from the seasonal catalog.

While I’ve since upgraded from my original tiny studio to something a bit more comfortable for one person, in the nine months since I moved, it’s been a slow and steady process (that frankly is still far from done), to create a space I’m excited about every day when I wake up. Especially after the last two years, I’ve prioritized the idea that home should be a space that brings you joy and makes you feel relaxed. High expectations to set for a room full of inanimate objects, I know. But, melding the practical — storage, organizational tools, and comfortable everyday pieces — with the inspiring has helped me to slowly build a space that feels like home.

Start With Inspiration

I accumulated decor inspiration to help guide my own design process. Aemilia Madden

The first step in building my own space was the data-gathering stage. I don’t have the formal vocabulary of a decorating professional, which makes creative curation an essential step in decorating. Pinterest has long been a favorite of creatives for amassing inspirational images to serve as a starting place, but I personally found myself saving lots of home imagery on Instagram and in a special album on my phone.

As someone who can’t easily articulate my decorating style, having a collection of imagery helped to define what the aesthetic of my space would be — natural materials, plenty of plants, a little bit “grandma,” some mid-century modern, a drop of colorful Scandi style. And, once I could get a better sense of what interior style I was drawn to, it made the purchasing process easier. A home doesn’t have to be so perfectly put together, but when evaluating if individual pieces fit the aesthetic, it’s helpful to have a visual reference.

Aemilia Madden
Aemilia Madden

Seek Out Essentials Second Hand

During the pandemic I moved from my studio apartment to a larger one-bedroom space in Brooklyn and immediately found myself faced with the problem that my space was now half empty, and much of the furniture I did have felt awkwardly small in my new space. It was time to level up — but as anyone who tried furniture shopping over the last two years came to realize, shipping delays meant that any new furniture came with a waitlist of months if not an entire year.

This meant relying heavily on vintage and used furniture when trying to fill in my apartment. I scoured local vintage shops, but I also spent time searching for good deals on both Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. In addition, I found AptDeco, which is currently only available in the greater New York area and the San Francisco Bay Area, but serves as a curated shopping platform that offers pickup and delivery (a blessing for those of us who consider the subway our main form of transport).

My brown leather sofa was a Facebook Marketplace find that I brought over from my last apartment. My coffee table was a vintage find I picked up from a local shop Su’juk in Brooklyn. I knew I wanted something glass and stone for the space, but it took a few months to finally find just what I was looking for. My bar cart shelving was also a Facebook Marketplace find (for $20, no less) and my dining set was from another vintage haven, Dobbin Street Co-Op.

Be Strategic With Your Affordable Finds

Aemilia Madden

A trip to IKEA is a requirement for anyone who has recently moved into a new space. Thanks to the sheer amount of items available, it can streamline the process and help make a dent in any space that needs some serious work. But, I’ve found that shopping needs to be done strategically to avoid curating a space that feels a little too sterile or catalog-y. One way I’ve successfully navigated my IKEA shopping is by using the Swedish label as a way to find similar alternatives to expensive furniture pieces I’ve saved as inspiration. They won’t be an exact replica, but if a table, light, or chairs can encapsulate the vibe I’m going for, I’m sold.

Although IKEA makes setting up furniture easy, I also try to keep an eye out for the construction of what I pick out. Having built a dresser on my own only to have the drawers be crooked for the six years I used it, I now try to avoid anything that runs the risk of functional failure. The metal shelf above is an example of a piece that’s foolproof and serves as not only storage but as a way to show off some of my favorite kitchen staples. By mixing IKEA shelving with storage boxes from Hay and pottery by ceramicists I love like Helen Levi, I created a curated and luxe space, even though a kitchen is meant to be practical.

Splurge On Statement Pieces

Spending months with gaps to fill in your decorating space isn’t ideal, but I’ve also tried to stick to the theory that curating takes time, and it can be worth waiting for items you love. In the corner of my living room, I chose to embrace color with the addition of two comfy chairs from EQ3 and a Hay lamp (which a friend kindly hung for me) in collaboration with artist Ana Kras. In a rented space, I’ve personally found myself hesitant to make more out-of-the-box styling choices like hanging a pendant lamp in the corner but, in truth the process is minimally invasive and can completely transform a room — drawing the eye and creating a sense of depth and texture.

Aemilia Madden

If splurging on a new couch or set of chairs isn’t in the cards for you, choosing a few small design-forward items can also make all the difference in terms of transforming a space. My bathroom space is fairly minimal, and not particularly exciting, but I love the way that adding a table with a Costa Brazil candle and Baina’s checkered towel added a funky element to an otherwise all white space.

In my bedroom, I added a pop of color with the addition of a quilt that again, no surprise, I bought from a vintage store. While my bedside table and the little mushroom lamp on it are both from IKEA, mixing in favorite coffee table books and the homey quilt give these pieces a more personalized feel.

The bottom line: when decorating, it’s all about letting pieces of your personality shine through. Spaces are always a work in progress, so worry less about a room looking perfect, and focus on making the pieces you do have work for you while honing in on a few specific additions that can make all the difference. Even a tiny apartment can be a place of respite when it’s full of details that bring you joy.

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