Q. Dear Jordan,
My elderly grandmother offered to let us rent her house. It’s a great house and it will come fully furnished, which is a bonus since we won’t be bringing a lot with us…but I’m wondering how we can make the place feel like our own.
We don’t have a ton of money to completely redecorate the place, so I’m interested in small changes that will make an impact. How can I work with the vintage feel but still add our own elements to make it feel like our home?
A. This is such a fun challenge: you have the opportunity to do lots of exciting decor stuff without making any major financial investments. The keys: you’ll need to 1) Streamline, 2) Brighten, and 3) Get Personal. (Of course, before you do anything at all make sure you clear the changes with your grandmother – since she owns the home and everything in it, she’s technically your landlord and needs to be consulted before you make any alterations that may later have to be reversed.)
- De-clutter. The Number One thing you’ll need to do to start making the place feel like your own is to pack away what’s not needed. Of course you should ask your grandmother before moving any of her things, but if she gives you the go-ahead *carefully* pack up her knicknacks in boxes and replace them with some of your own framed photos and a striking decor element or two (maybe a couple of aluminum letters or a pretty tray). When you look around the room, the spots where your eye comes to rest – the top of coffee table, the mantle, etc – should display things that remind you that you’re in your home…not someone else’s.
- Find storage space. If putting a couple of pieces of furniture into storage will help the place feel more open, ask your grandmother if she would mind if you paid for an inexpensive storage unit for the duration of your stay. For smaller items that you want to stash out of sight, try these storage solutions.
- Paint the walls. To keep things feeling fresh, I’d go for a light color (choose a paint swatch one to two shades lighter than you think you “actually” want – colors always look more intense spread over large surfaces) – changing our living room walls from yellow to pure white did wonders to brighten the space. You might also want to consider painting an accent wall – just make sure that you choose a shade that pulls out one of the colors in the existing decor.
- Bring in plants. I try to incorporate at least one bit of greenery into every room. I go for fake over real because I have a Black Thumb…but whatever you choose, it’ll go a long way towards making the apartment feel warm and homey.
- Add light. Bring in lamps to brighten dark corners, swap out heavy curtains for airier ones that let in the natural light, and replace dark lampshades with lighter versions.
- Move things around, with an eye towards creating a more open floor plan. Do those end tables work better pushed together as a TV console? Would you prefer the coffee table sitting at the foot of the bed? Rearranging the space so that it suits your needs and feels easier to navigate will do wonders to make it feel like your own.
- Update the furniture. If the furniture feels very dated to you (and your grandmother is OK with it – of course make sure you triple-confirm with her before altering any of her possessions), you might want to consider reupholstering a piece or two. Those chairs pictured above belong to my friend Francesca, who inherited them from her grandmother and then recovered them in a graphic black-and-white fabric that perfectly offsets the retro bamboo frame – so cool, right?! Reupholstery is easier when pillows are removable (e.g. not incorporated into the frame), so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to take on the challenge…and if you don’t want to or can’t reupholster…
- Add some cool pillows and a throw. If the couch has matching pillows, swap in your own finds (like I did with my grey couch and pink, gold, blue and rainbow pillows). If certain spots on the furniture look worn, toss over a blanket (go for light solids on patterned furniture and vice-versa to keep the look feeling uncluttered).
- Mix up the vibe. Even if you’re grandmother’s pieces are all from, say, the 1950s, that doesn’t mean that you have to stick exclusively to that era: adding in contrasting items can make a vintage space feel less like a soundstage for The Wonder Years and more like a modern home.
- Refinish old wood pieces. Refreshing an old coffee table or dining room table is easy (click here for some tips on rehabbing vintage finds) and is a great way to make even decades-old pieces look brand-new.
- Consider a decal or temporary wallpaper. These are great ways to add personality to walls without commitment – try Blik or Ferm Living (where we bought the gold branch design we had in our old bedroom, pictured above) and Tempaper for wallpaper.
- Swap out old hardware. Try replacing ordinary handles on cabinets or dressers with pretty crystal ones (Anthropologie has the best selection out there) for a quick style update (just hang on to the old ones in case you need to put them back when you move out).
Good luck, and have fun!