Published on March 2, 2020

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Courtesy of Sarah Sherman Samuel

The process of finding your first place is stressful, but decorating it can be even more so. If you’re living with roommates, your choices are guided by compromise. If you’re in a rental, they 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—which is why a first apartment is mostly 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, they were once in your exact situation, too. We tapped a few of them to learn about their first apartments. From the good to the bad to the errors that turned into lessons, there’s something to be gleaned from every rookie mistake.

Tali Roth

The lesson: Recent grads, be warned: You have more options, decor-wise, beyond the realm of flat-pack furniture. 

The apartment: Roth’s first digs was a one-bedroom in New York City’s West Village. “We loved the front stoop and were deliberating the insane rent, when one of the tenants opened the window and invited us in for a dance party and a drink,” she remembers. “It sold us!” What she didn’t find as appealing were her furniture choices. Most of her seating, like a wood spindle chair and a leather sling armchair, was extremely uncomfortable. “While a Scandi interior is pleasant and airy, some of it can be impractical—I learned that, ultimately, I’m a colorful and quirky person, and my home should represent that,” she explains. 

The way to bring it home: Going with something vibrant and inviting doesn’t have to set you back a ton—retailers such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters have lots of maximalist-friendly options that won’t break the bank.

Anita Yokota

The lesson: Never rent outside your budget.

The apartment: Yokota’s first flat was in a building in the heart of the University of Washington district, full of old-world charm. “My first DIY occurred there!” says the designer. “The cabinets were old but had an inset, so I added corkboard and nailed them in.” But while it fulfilled Yokota’s design dreams, it was super-pricey: “Eventually, it got too stressful to enjoy,” she remembers. 

The way to bring it home: Pick something you can afford, then make it your own through DIY and personal wall art. 

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 Los Angeles was a mishmash of flea market and big-box discount store finds,” says Henderson. “I had no money but a lot of time and a deep desire to thrift.” Learning to keep major pieces simple and incorporating color and pattern in smaller ways, she honed her style to what it is today—though she admits some things never change. “Even then, I adhered to a 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 scheme will always make a room feel pulled together.”

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 is not a limitation.

The apartment: True to form, the Jungalow blogger and designer’s first place was just as pattern- and plant-filled as her designs are today. “It 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 your own. Landlords often find ways to eat away at that deposit anyway, so I’m a fan of letting it go from day one. Feel free to paint, switch out lighting, and implement other improvements that make the living experience a whole lot better.” 

Plus, who knows? You might end up with a design-driven manager who’s totally on board with your experimentation. Blakeney says she’s had landlords thank her for making improvements she wasn’t technically 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 room is undoubtedly by dressing up the walls. Choose something in bright hues so you forget you ever had a whitewashed space.

Sarah Sherman Samuel

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

The apartment: Samuel started out in 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 wood floors and white walls that expertly lent themselves to customization—though the result was less than perfect. “I painted them all green, which was not ideal. It was more of a saturated pea green than the olive 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.” 

The way to bring it home: Choose an elegant olive green to mimic the stylish vibe that 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 in shape. “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 provide a 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, $78) 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 will 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 spruce 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

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