You’ve signed on the dotted line for your first apartment and finally have a place to call your own. But as you look around, staring at the blank walls and empty space, you might find that excitement fading and the nerves kicking in. This is a big milestone — where do you even start?
The good news is that your apartment is a blank canvas, and you get to unleash your creativity on it however you wish (as long as it’s renter-friendly, of course). The first step is just a matter of figuring out what you need — and getting a little help along the way certainly never hurts. So, instead of having to learn it all on your own, read on for two experts’ ideas for what your first apartment must have so that it’s a stylish, comfortable, and functional haven for you.
With all the bustle of the outside world, your apartment should feel like a retreat. “Relaxation and sleep are so important to a happy life. We all need balance, and you should make sure you have your designated sleep and relaxation spots in your apartment,” says interior designer Anthony Gianacakos, founder of Anthony George Home. “This can be as easy as using room dividers or floor-to-ceiling drapery panels to help define the space.”
Tiffany Encarnacion, home Instagrammer and TikToker (aka Orlando Plant Lady), suggests embracing hygge and a bit of fantasy when styling a soothing spot. “My current job is very demanding, and I look forward to lighting candles and cuddling up in a cozy sofa or bed with a good book. It’s important to have a space that is free from all the stressors,” she says.
For Gianacakos, few interior design ailments can’t be solved by looking up. “Make sure you’re using all the vertical space you have, whether that is suspending shelving floor to ceiling, mounting a desk to the wall to allow for space below, or even lofting your bed,” he says. That’s not to say you need to feel like you’re in a dorm again — “you can find beds that are not fully lofted that also allow you to create a hangout area or main storage space underneath,” the designer says.
Encarnacion agrees, finding that the simple addition of a shelf can work wonders for storing and displaying smaller items. “Installing floating shelves in a bathroom will add an area to keep towels and toiletries,” she offers as an example.
When furnishing an apartment from scratch, the costs can add up. So, if you want to style your apartment on a budget, Enarnacion recommends perusing antique and secondhand stores, “as there may be treasures at a deeply discounted rate,” she says.
It’s also an easy way to continually edit your home, since most people’s decor preferences naturally evolve. “I learned to incorporate old and new furniture to achieve my current style,” Encarnacion explains.
If you’re short on square footage, a kitchen or dining table can easily become a luxury you envision purchasing down the line, rather than a current necessity. But a designated dining area can be helpful to intentionally enjoy your meals, Encarnacion notes. A dining “room” doesn’t have to be a major splurge or space-taker, either — just create a cozy, casual nook that suits you. Think: a small circular table and compact chairs to tuck into a corner.
It’s certainly something Encarnacion wishes she had had in her first apartment. “My husband and I used to sit on the couch in front of the television for all our meals,” Encarnacion recalls. “It would have been nice to have a dining space away from distractions — and also a space to entertain!”
Entertaining in a small space can feel like an impossible task. But, with a few hacks, you can still invite people into your home and live out your host dreams. “For example, I have a few small ottomans that have storage space inside, which can be used as additional seating. When I’m not entertaining, the ottomans are used as plant stands,” says Encarnacion. You might also opt for a couple stylish folding chairs that can be tucked in a corner when not in use, she says.
Another must-have when you’re dealing with stark square footage? Organization. “All the places I’ve lived in have been under 1,000 square feet, and we’ve had to get creative with storage,” says Encarnacion. “A rule we have in our house is that everything must have a ‘home.’”
Her fix? “We have a system on how we store our possessions: Items we use frequently are stored on shelves that are easily accessible (middle shelves and below), items we use quarterly go on higher shelves, and items we use once a year are stored on the highest shelf,” she shares. She’s also all about labeling bins and storing similar items together.
The way a houseplant can upgrade the look and feel of a room cannot be overstated. “This will bring an earth element into your home, add color, add life, and make you happy,” says Gianacakos. “There are many low-maintenance options out there if you don’t quite have a green thumb.” (Seriously, there’s one for everyone.)
Filling your space with furniture that serves multiple functions is practical, sometimes necessary, and, as Encarnacion notes, can be aesthetically pleasing, too. “Couches that are sleeper sofas can double as a guest bed. A nice drum coffee table with a lid can be used for storing additional items. And storing linens in tall baskets can be used as decoration,” Encarnacion says.
One thing Gianacakos often notices that first-time decorators overlook is window treatments. They are important functionally to give you privacy and shade, but also aesthetically, as they can add character, flair, and even symmetry to a room. They don’t have to break the bank, either. “IKEA has some great window treatment options, and Home Depot offers really nice bamboo shades at affordable pricing,” Gianacakos says.
Struggling with awkward lighting? Whether it’s because of low-light, minimal windows, or even boob fixtures, awkward lighting is a common problem in rental apartments. You’ll just want to get creative. “Add multiple light sources, such as table or desk lamps, floor lamps, pendants, and chandeliers, depending on the size of the room,” Encarnacion suggests.
You can also brighten up a space with decor, she notes, whether it’s using a mirror to reflect natural light, opting for lighter colored rugs, or going neutral with your wall paint and bedding. As for those who are plant parents? “Utilize grow lights!” says Encarnacion. “It’s another source of light, and it helps your plant babies stay healthy.”