New rental? How to turn a bland space into a personal refuge

Even as she moved into a rental apartment, Alexa d’Argence was keen to put her personal mark on it.

“Loving my space is more important to me than my security deposit. So I got started with paint, shelving, window treatments and upgrading the medicine cabinet,” says d’Argence, who, as a senior designer at BAR Architects in San Francisco, knows something about creating a stylish space.

“My landlord really appreciated the upgrades. I would say, consider changes that add value, and that wouldn’t be taken away if you moved,” she says.

Non-designers might not feel as comfortable doing this, as most leases say you can’t change anything permanently. Another approach: Strike up a conversation with your landlord to talk about potential changes, and maybe even offer to foot the bill.

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

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


Jessica Shaw, director of interior design for 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, offers prints, murals, and custom options. At the end of your lease, you can gently remove it without leaving any residue,” she explains.

And don’t forget the ceiling. On one project, she created a wow factor by placing a colorful, removable geometry of Flavor Paper on a bedroom ceiling. Night sky patterns or photo murals of forests might be especially nice for city dwellers.

Denver designer Rachel Hoback laid an eye-catching star mosaic wallpaper on her 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, for its part, offers a range of designs, including those that resemble painted ceramic tile, terrazzo, marble, or embossed metals.

Liz Morrow of Tacoma, Washington temporarily lined her fridge.

“A fridge can be ugly or boring, but removable wallpaper can easily turn it into the most interesting part of the whole kitchen,” she says.

Dodell-Feder agrees: “It’s a fun, no-commitment solution for a blah kitchen.”


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

Install custom closet organizers to efficiently store wardrobe and household items. (You can even find some great stuff on Amazon) Coordinating bins and baskets are inexpensive and ubiquitous at home decor stores.

Or create a spacious closet against a wall. You can take a rack with you when you move.

In a small kitchen, shelf risers and pull-out bins that fit on cabinet shelves increase your storage capacity. And adhesive hooks are perfect for hanging not only artwork, but also pots and utensils.

Metal utility carts are available in a range of colors; if you can paint, stencil or decoupage yourself. They are handy for frequently used kitchen items or bar equipment.


New York public relations manager Gita Mirchandani 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 serves as an important landmark for moments in my life,” she says.

She 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 did not exist. Murphy-style beds fold up into a wardrobe, with options like a sofa or table attached. Tables like the ones from Resource Furniture convert to dining, office or cafe tables, or console tables.

And a simple room screen can be a workhorse. There are rigid frame panels and room dividers in colored canvas, weave, paper, metal and wooden slats.


Curtains or blinds can add texture, color and privacy.

If there are no rods already installed, spring-loaded or twist-and-fit rods fit different window sizes and have protective rubber ends. Kwik-Hang brackets can be pressed into window trim without a drill. Or look for peel and stick window treatments from Redi-Shade; some also offer better light control.


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

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

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

Brighten up your bathroom by replacing your shower head with a colored shower head, or a shower head that sprays like rain or in colors.


New York writer Kim Cook regularly covers design and decorating topics for The AP. Follow her on Instagram at @kimcookhome.

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