Published on March 25, 2019

FEATURED_sarahshermansamuel Pin It
Courtesy of Sarah Sherman Samuel

The process of finding your first apartment is stressful, but the process of decorating it can be even more so. If you’re living with roommates, your choices are guided by compromise. If you’re living in a rental, your choices often feel limited. More often than not, our inaugural forays into decor are as much an exercise in discovering what we like as they are in learning what to avoid. For this reason, a first apartment is very much a crash course in the world of interior design. And while it may not seem like it when you examine your favorite designers’ perfectly curated portfolios and lust over each glossy interior, they were once in your exact situation, so we tapped a few of them to learn about their first homes.

From the good to the bad to the mistakes that turned into lessons, there’s something to be gleaned from every first apartment story. Even if you’re a house-hunting pro well past your first place, there’s some actionable advice that’s sure to be useful. Happy decorating.

Emily Henderson

The Lesson: Keep your base layer simple and timeless, and then accessorize with crazier trends and unexpected color pairings.

The Apartment: My first apartment in LA was a mishmash of thrifted, flea market, and big-box discount store finds. I had no money but a lot of time and a deep desire to thrift,” says Henderson. Learning to keep major pieces simple, bringing color and pattern in through smaller ways, she honed her style to what it is today—though she admits, some things never change. “Even then, I adhered to a color palette that was full of mostly whites, blues, woods, and golds with hints of pink,” she continues. “It’s changed over time, but a consistent color palette will make a room feel pulled together whether it’s your first apartment or your forever home.”

The Way to Bring It Home: Try a neutral sofa with a classic silhouette to anchor your living room.

Justina Blakeney

The Lesson: A rental apartment is not a limitation.

The Apartment: True to form, the Jungalow blogger and designer’s first place was just as color-, pattern-, and plant-filled as her designs are today. “The first place I lived alone was a tiny bungalow in East Hollywood,” says Blakeney of the Spanish-style spot. “One thing I learned was not to be afraid to make a rental my own. Landlords often find ways to eat away at that rental deposit anyway, so I’m a fan of letting it go from day one so that I feel free to paint, switch out lighting, and make other improvements to the space that makes my living experience a whole lot better.” Plus, who knows? You might end up with a design-driven landlord who’s totally on board with your experimentation. Blakeney says she’s had landlords thank her for making improvements she wasn’t allowed to make: “Sometimes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission!”

The Way to Bring It Home: The easiest way to make a splash in any space is undoubtedly by dressing up the walls. Blakeney’s wallpaper collection is perfect for making a bold statement.

Sarah Sherman Samuel

The Lesson: Test-drive paints before taking the plunge.

The Apartment: Sherman Samuel’s first place was a small studio in Miami Beach. “It was on the second floor of a two-story Art Deco apartment building that looked like the ‘before’ photos of a great renovation story, except I think it’s still waiting on that renovation,” she jokes. What it did have was simple wooden floors and white walls that expertly lent themselves to experimentation—though the result was less than dreamy. “I painted them all green, which was not ideal. It was more of a saturated pea green than the olive green I was looking for,” explains the designer. “It was in that apartment that I learned the lesson to always paint a few large swatches in the space before committing to a color.” By all means, go ahead and personalize your rental, but if you’re willing to risk losing your security deposit, just be sure you like the final result.

The Way to Bring It Home: Choose an elegant olive green to mimic the stylish vibe that Sherman Samuel was striving for.

Whitney Leigh Morris

The Lesson: If you’re in a small space, think vertically.

The Apartment: Morris’s Tiny Canal Cottage is the stuff of small-space dreams, and the creative director’s knack for crafting beautiful tiny homes may have begun with her first place, which was 300 square feet and mostly resembled a bowling lane–like corridor. “I learned that a long, narrow hallway can be put to excellent use—particularly in a tiny apartment,” says Morris. “By mounting hanging cabinets from the ceiling or by outfitting the upper perimeter with a line of shelving, the vertical space can be both practical and beautiful.” If you don’t have room to build out, build up. You can pack in a ton of style without taking up precious floor space.  

The Way to Bring It Home: Floating shelves are the solution to most small-space woes, and these simple hangers will bring a rustic edge to your space. Pick up the accompanying oak board (Oiled Oak Shelf, $77.88) to start organizing your entry or bedroom.

Nate Berkus

The Lesson: Don’t rush the decorating process.

The Apartment: “When I moved into my first apartment in Chicago, I had four pieces of furniture in a 30-foot space,” remembers Berkus. “It was a whole year before I was able to afford to buy the sofa I wanted, but it was worth the wait.” Knowing that most people who move into their first apartment aren’t going to be able to splurge on their dream interior right off the bat, Berkus recommends taking your time with choosing furnishings. “I knew over time that the interior would speak to the person I was, and the person I hoped to become. Your space should always be evolving,” says the designer.  

The Way to Bring It Home: Not only do you get a better sense of what your style is when you slow the decorating process but you also save a sizable amount of money. Splash out on an investment piece that’ll last you for years to come; we’re loving this chunky coffee table.

Leanne Ford

The Lesson: Embrace your creativity and get thrifty.

The Apartment: While most people might not look lovingly upon a space described as a “dump,” Ford’s story is a reminder to stay positive. She rented a Pittsburgh apartment right above her brother’s in a walk-up building, and while the space was less than ideal, its sorry state came with a huge plus. “Because it was so dumpy, the landlord let me do whatever I wanted to it,” says Ford. She used the space as an opportunity to flex her DIY skills, removing the kitchen cabinets and replacing them with crates, painting the walls and floors a clean white, and scouring Goodwill for furniture. Her coolest project? “I hung these spools of fabric I had in the hallways as ‘wallpaper’ and did a large gallery wall of thrift shop finds and cool art or pictures that I would rip out of magazines and frame,” she remembers.

The Way to Bring It Home: Set the scene for your budget-friendly gallery wall by picking up a slew of inexpensive frames in a simple silhouette and material that you can easily jazz up with a coat of paint.

See more rental apartment ideas:
The One Thing I Wish I Knew Before I Moved Into My Rental
Easy, Affordable Swaps That Will Transform Your Rental
Found: The Easiest Way to Bring Charm to Your Rental