Rent Like You Mean It is a series all about giving our rental spaces a new lease. We’ve rounded up a whole host of refreshing spruce-ups (and cover-ups), impactful DIYs (plus how to get them back to square one when you leave), and peeks at real-life rental transformations. Because a lease should never stop you from having a space that feels like yours—even if it’s only for a year.
Annie was my friend before she was my client.
A newly minted doctor, she unwittingly rented an apartment down the street from the home her grandmother lived in 70 years prior. One of the few possessions that survived her protracted and dorm-heavy academic journey into the medical profession was a wooden dresser inherited from that grandmother, which made its homecoming to Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street in the back of Annie’s station wagon. Apart from her clothes, her books, her bike, and a few personal effects, Annie moved in with almost exclusively antique wooden pieces, passed down through generations.
Occupying the third floor of a brownstone, the apartment’s architectural features—exposed brick walls, cast iron radiators, original hardwood floors, large arched windows—appealed instantly to Annie’s sensibilities, and suggested a fitting home for these family heirlooms. But once the lease was signed, the charm and light belied a space that was challenging to furnish.
Sensing that navigating these challenges might be hard with her hospital schedule, she hired my design firm Common Bond Design. The necessary intimacies of residential design (I’d need another hand to count the number of times I’ve asked a relative stranger how many children they intend to have; or on what side of the bed they sleep) could be skipped—I knew the habits of Annie’s daily living, and her aspirations for the future, as well as I knew my own.
More to the point, Annie is my aesthetic twin. She is the woman I text for a recommendation whenever I need a haircut, a sweater, a pair of hiking shoes—a decade plus of friendship has slid the Venn diagrams of our respective wardrobes into a nearly overlapping circle. I could decorate her home as though it were mine and know that my choices would suit her.
Like me, Annie likes a restrained and modern interior. Yet, also like me, she was committed to incorporating her heirlooms, both to save money and to introduce a sense of personal history and character to the space. I understood that blending the two cohesively would be key.
That left only the space’s peculiarities to wrestle with…
Problem: The bedroom was twice the size of the shared living, dining and kitchen space. Though the kitchen was simply and thoughtfully renovated with easy-to-maintain high-gloss Ikea cabinets, those cabinets were limited in size and number. Counter space for food prep was even more scarce than storage.
Solution: We considered treating the large bedroom as both a public and private space, with a sofa and chairs arranged opposite the bed. The idea was to dedicate the other room, a significantly smaller space with a kitchen, to cooking and eating only. But Annie was adamant that the bedroom remain a private refuge from 80-hour work weeks. (As simpatico as we are, I did occasionally run my ideas by her. She occasionally pushed back.) Annie also wanted to be able to offer friends their privacy when they crashed on her couch.
Her decision meant that the smaller room would need to multi-task with expert level efficiency. We found a vintage farmhouse table petite enough to sidle up against the radiator adjacent to the kitchen, where it supplemented counter space. When she hosted dinner parties, the table slid in front of the sofa to become a dining table. Her heirloom bench— typically a coffee table—could be re-tasked as a dining bench. Occasional chairs were commandeered as dining chairs, including the ladder back chair that alternatively served as an apron hook and grocery bag rest. We sourced the sofa, a one-armed number from DWR’s Bantam Collection, specifically for sleeping. In addition to accommodating tall overnight guests, the single arm sofa created the feeling of a more open space.
Since the kitchen cabinets could accommodate either dishware or pantry goods, it was an easy choice to display her enviable pottery collection, much of it vintage, the rest of it sourced from Chilmark Pottery in Martha’s Vineyard. To balance old and new, we sourced a bright white bookshelf from IKEA that also incorporated drawers for flatware and napkins. Attractive and economical cardboard boxes on the lowest shelf store office supplies.
Problem: A spacious foyer gobbled square footage, but offered no storage.
Solution: To convert the foyer into a functional entry—more akin to a mudroom—we rimmed the walls of the entry with inexpensive hook racks from Home Depot. A handyman mitered the racks that met in the corner to imitate a custom look. Annie’s heirloom trunk became a utility closet, storing her vacuum cleaner and space-efficient cleaning supplies, like a collapsible Swiffer. We left one wall clear, so Annie had a spot to stash her bike.
Problem: The apartment’s only closet was narrow and deep—the inverse of a closet’s ideal proportions.
Solution: A trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. First, we added an additional hanging rack to the closet, mounted parallel to the first, but behind it. (Peeling back the first row of most often worn clothes reveals the second, off season or less frequently worn clothes.) Next, we sourced a canvas hanging organizer for sweaters. Finally, we introduced simple wooden shoe racks.
Even augmented with interior organizers, the closet wasn’t large enough to hold clothing and linens. Again, we turned to Annie’s family heirlooms to do double duty, assigning a dry chest the role of linen closet, and placing it beside the bed for convenient sheet changing. (The top lifts up to reveal a storage compartment.) An Eames side table on the opposite side of the bed is a modern counterweight.
Problem: Although a few interior walls allowed for nail holes, many of the old building’s party walls were masonry. As a renter, Annie wasn’t allowed to drill holes into the masonry, limiting our options for artwork.
Solution: To skirt the restrictions on drilling into the masonry, we used washi tape to display lightweight photographs and paper goods, including two vintage anatomy charts. Echoing the approach we took with her collection of vintage dishware in the living room, I encouraged Annie to treat her beauty products as objet d’art in the bathroom, displaying the more attractively packaged items. Where a party wall prevented us from hanging a photo over the toilet, we leaned it, using command strips designed to adhere to bathroom tile to keep it from tipping forward.
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