If ever there were proof that a rental apartment is not a design death sentence, Arlyn Hernandez’s space would be it.
The California transplant (who happens to be Emily Henderson’s editorial director) knew she was going to overhaul her Los Angeles apartment from the get-go, starting with the living and dining rooms. The goal? To emphasize some of the architectural details of the home, like the archway separating the two rooms and the coved ceilings in the dining room. “I came from South Florida, where I lived for almost my entire life; there’s very little architectural detail in buildings there,” says Hernandez. “When I moved into this apartment, it was like my L.A. dreams were coming true.”
Hernandez opted for a dramatic hue (Farrow & Ball’s Inchyra Blue), which creeps all the way up to the ceiling and completely transformed the space with just a lick of paint. The dining room sits in stark contrast between the lighter, airier living room; an intentional juxtaposition, according to Hernandez, who wanted the drama of the dining room to act like a siren call.
As a result, the home is very much a lesson in modern opulence. There are the more luxe touches, such as the blue velvet sofa or the gilded mirror above the bar cabinet, but the silhouettes are clean, striking a perfect balance with the more contemporary pieces. “I always love those modern Victorian spaces, where everything is super-lush and glam without being gaudy,” says Hernandez of her style inspiration. After scouring Pinterest for inspiration and turning up blank, she started playing around on Photoshop, mixing patterns, colors, and styles until she came up with a design that felt uniquely her own.
All this—in a rental apartment. We spoke to Hernandez to get more tips on how to make a temporary space feel anything but.
“The power of a curtain panel is magical and will instantaneously make your room feel homey,” says Hernandez. Opt for something simple, like a linen material, to spice up boring windows and still allow for maximum natural light to flow through. It’s as easy as spackling some holes when you pack up and leave, and it’s totally worth it.
It’s all about paint
Yes, this means going all out with dramatic hues if that’s your thing—but it also means giving lighter walls a refresh. Here, the living room used to be a basic beige that looked really dingy against her furniture, so painting the space a warm white totally updated it. One caveat: Be sure to check with your landlord before you do anything. “I asked my landlord, which was really scary, because I had already built my design around these colors, and if she said no it would have really sucked!” says Hernandez. “Asking just takes off a layer of stress.”
“The power of a curtain panel is magical and will instantaneously make your room feel homey.”
Don’t stop at the walls
Speaking of paint, consider splashing a color onto your ceiling. “People are super-afraid, for whatever reason, to paint their ceilings,” says Hernandez, acknowledging that she used to be part of their ranks. “It’s just like painting a wall; there’s no difference. Adding unexpected little moments like that will make your space feel very custom.” Go for a color-blocked look by painting your ceiling a different hue than your walls, or continue all the way up with one color. The latter is a great way to heighten ceilings in a smaller apartment; the paint draws the eye up, enlarging a tiny rental.
Flex your DIY muscle
Hernandez’s space is chock-full of DIYs. The crown jewel has to be the bench by the window; a simple plywood base topped with a rusty terracotta pillow. “I had always dreamed of being one of those people who would sit by the window on a bench drinking coffee,” she says. She and her husband (who, conveniently, works in architecture) measured the plywood to size and picked up Baltic birch slabs from Home Depot for around $40 each; then she sewed up the pillow herself. “Don’t look at it too closely!” jokes Hernandez.
The dining room cabinet is also a DIY. Originally an IKEA media cabinet, she put new doors from Semihandmade on it to elevate the piece. “Thinking through what those opportunities are to take something basic and make it a little more unique is what makes your home extra-special,” she says.
Swap out your light fixtures
It’s a tiny change that makes a big difference. “I was always terrified of changing out hardwired fixtures, but it’s actually so simple, and it completely alters the space,” explains Hernandez. There are tons of great lighting options available at a really inexpensive price (she scored her dining room sconces on Etsy for $100), and you can even choose a plug-in fixture if you’re nervous about touching electrical cords. Just be sure to keep the original lighting somewhere safe so you can replace it when your lease is up.
“Thinking through what those opportunities are to take something basic and make it a little more unique is what makes your home extra-special.”
Bring in personality through art
Elsewhere, she custom-made a lot of the artwork. The hanging above the sofa is comprised of small 4-by-4 photos she had printed out from her phone. “It’s a graphic punch, but it’s also the faces of people I love that I see when I walk through the door,” says Hernandez.
The dining room’s gallery wall is a mix of purchased art and created art, which lends a bespoke feel to the space—as Hernandez points out, no one can re-create it. “If it was just a bunch of art that we bought, it could have been anyone’s gallery wall. But it has photos of me, of my husband; there’s a piece that has all these little papers on it that are compliments of the Emily Henderson design team (a birthday tradition we love!). I took all those papers and taped them to the frame,” she explains of the custom art piece. “Especially in a rental, where you have very little control over anything, lean into those moments, because they’ll really make it feel like home.”
See more rentals we love:
An NYC Rental That Looks Straight Out of LA
A Colorful Rental Transformation That Will Make You Rethink Temporary Living
The Backsplash DIY That’s the Answer to Our Rental Kitchen’s Prayers