Home Decorating for the Transient

How to make your living space cozy, even if you aren't staying long.

The very phrase “home decorating” seems a bit biased toward those who own homes. It neglects the nomadic renters, those who are more likely to call their place of residency “the place by which I am staying right now, temporarily, for a brief length of time.”

Are renters doomed to avoid home decor purchases, preferring instead to store clothing in old boxes? Will plastic bags always be garbage bins, and the floor our bookshelves? Will rooms always be left to become so blindingly uninteresting and impersonal?

There’s too much trendy, portable, functional home decor out there to let that happen. May every time one stumbles upon a luxurious, but abandoned, piece of furniture on the street be seen as a sign: Be sensibly, logically adventurous with what you buy. You best be able to take it with you to your next apartment. Decorations are reusable, but money is less so.

For renters, walls can be a problem — and not just because you share them. They can also pose challenges in terms of decorating options. After all, tacks and nails may threaten your deposit, and no one wants to paint a masterpiece on their ceiling just to be told to paint it back to white. To make your walls stand out, Jennifer Kaplan, owner of Rockridge Home, recommends Wall Pops. They’re removable, re-usable decals with styles that range from high-art patterns to athletic logos. Stickers, once a pleasant reward for an A on an exam, are now functional home decorations.

Tangerine Tango, a reddish orange, may be the Color of the Year, according to Pantone 2012, but interior decorators and shop owners in the East Bay have been turning to white lately. “My bedroom has white dressers. It’s clean, and it creates a sense of continuity. You don’t need to change,” said Jill McCoy, creative decorator of Visual Jill, an interior design firm in Berkeley that promotes colorful interior decorating. “Not completely, anyway. You just need to add elements of white and color. You can make things new.” Try adding colorful pillows, rugs, plants, photographs, or candles, like the popular taper candles offered at the Oakland-based home store Nathan & Co.

Instead of purchasing artwork, frame your favorite photographs and create a mini exhibit by grouping similar pictures together, spaced two inches apart. Nathan Waldon, owner of Nathan & Co., recommends beginning by laying the frames on the floor and arranging them. Once you’ve got your desired layout, trace it onto butcher paper, and use that as a template to transfer the design to the wall, he said. He also suggests using chalkboard paint to make bubble quotes, such as “Luke, I’m your father” or “Luke, I’m awesome,” to create a look he calls “edgy and modern” and “homey and whimsical” — or, potentially, very personal.

Poufs are becoming fairly trendy lately, and, fortunately, they’re extra portable. They’re like miniature ottomans that look like marshmallows, and they could be the dash of color your room needs.

For small spaces, Waldon also recommends bars. “You don’t have to hide all this stuff; you can display it instead,” he said. “It’s functional. When you have a bar, you’re always ready to party.” You can set up a bar in the corner of a living room, a dining room, or, if you really want to look like you’re committed to spontaneous partying, in your bedroom. Just neatly stack sparkling glasses and bar accessories on a vintage, repainted side table.

For the ultimate in portability, put heavier furniture on wheels. “You can put wheels on anything,” said Linda Levitsky, executive director of The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. “I got wheeled furniture for my grandchildren who went off to college, and they actually kept it.”

Reimagine old pieces in news ways: Take the yellow vase from your past-self’s kitchen and put it in the living room of your present-self. Turn your ottoman into a coffee table. Suddenly, the universe will feel different. “Moving furniture is very cheap — it’s free!” said Anna Jacoby, the director of Anna Jacoby Interiors, an interior design and decorating service in Fremont. “The key is to take everything out of the room, and then start from scratch. It will help you look at everything with a new eye.” Start by figuring out where to put the large pieces, and then work on the small accessories.

The hardest part of decorating a new apartment will most likely be getting started. After all, didn’t you just finish decorating your last place? One way to begin would be to look to a treasured item you already own, something that you’ve taken with you everywhere, from apartment to apartment. Use that as the starting point for the design. Take a lamp, pillow, rug, mirror, or whatever, and base everything off of that one item. Take a picture and bring it into a home decor store, and ask, “What would look good with this?”

Even if you don’t own your living space, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own. “Don’t be afraid,” said Waldon. “Don’t just go to one store or admire one designer. It’s like getting dressed. You have to own it. You have to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ and then do it.”


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