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‘Own’ It Like You Own It: 8 Ways to Personalize Your Rental, Designer Edition

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‘Own’ It Like You Own It: 8 Ways to Personalize Your Rental, Designer Edition

May 25, 2018

Rental spaces can be a challenge for designers, who often cannot exercise full creative license over features, fixtures, and hues. That’s why it’s all the more impressive when one is able to fully realize their design vision in a rental.

When I recently visited designer/architect duo Cheryl and Jeffery Katz of C&J Katz Studio mere weeks after they’d moved into their new South End home, I was astounded by how personal and put together the space felt. Impressed, I asked Cheryl and Jeffrey to share some of their tips for making a rental one’s own.

Photography by Justine Hand for Remodelista.

Cheryl and Jeffrey are big believers in love at first sight. Features such as the marble fireplaces sold them within the first few minutes of entering the South End space.
Above: Cheryl and Jeffrey are big believers in love at first sight. Features such as the marble fireplaces sold them within the first few minutes of entering the South End space.

Empty nesters Cheryl and Jeffrey had only begun to think about selling their Beacon Hill home (see Improper Bostonians: Jeffrey and Cheryl Katz at Home on Beacon Hill), when an offer from a neighbor forced the issue. Suddenly the two had to find housing, fast. No longer interested in the deferred maintenance that comes with a vintage home, they still wanted that old-world architectural charm, for which Boston is so famous. It was their son, surfing the Web from all the way across the country in San Francisco, who found a listing for a thoughtfully renovated space with “nice finishes, a great floor plan, terrific light.” Several months later, their new place felt like they’ve lived there for years. Here’s how they did it.

1. Give the entire place a fresh coat of paint, preferably white.

Light, reflected off the white walls and ceiling, gives the spaces a fresh, open feel.
Above: Light, reflected off the white walls and ceiling, gives the spaces a fresh, open feel.

For obvious reasons, most landlords are not willing to refinish the floors in your desired Scandinavian whitewash, so Cheryl recommends concentrating on the walls instead. Cheryl is an advocate for all white, at least at first. White’s neutral background helps one get a sense of the place, and it’s easy to change later. White also opens up smaller spaces, like apartments, making them feel more generous and less cluttered. To unify their own rental space and take maximum advantage of the light, Cheryl and Jeffrey chose their go-to color: Benjamin Moore’s Snowfall White.

2. Make a furniture plan.

A furniture plan helped Cheryl and Jeffrey visualize their old living room furniture in a new space.
Above: A furniture plan helped Cheryl and Jeffrey visualize their old living room furniture in a new space.

To more quickly realize your design vision and avoid the back-breaking effort of moving furniture around, Cheryl and Jeffrey recommend making a simple floor plan. Floor plans help not only to determine where your existing furniture will go, but also what you may need—a new runner for that long hall, for example. As designers, Cheryl and Jeffrey use CAD for their plans, but free sites such as Homestyler are available to nonprofessionals. You can even use washi tape or paper cutouts. Whatever your method, a furniture plan will help you settle into your new space that much faster.

In the move to a rental, Cheryl and Jeffrey lost a dining space. No problem. With the help of their floor plan, they were able to repurpose the old dining table as a library/work space in the larger living room.
Above: In the move to a rental, Cheryl and Jeffrey lost a dining space. No problem. With the help of their floor plan, they were able to repurpose the old dining table as a library/work space in the larger living room.

3. Swap out standard ceiling lights.

When Cheryl and Jeffrey first looked at the apartment, the landlord had yet to install a ceiling light of the dining table. Luckily, she asked Cheryl to weigh in. Cheryl recommended something with a strong sculptural character like a knock-off Serge Mouille Three-Arm Ceiling Lamp. She was happily surprised when the landlord installed the real thing.
Above: When Cheryl and Jeffrey first looked at the apartment, the landlord had yet to install a ceiling light of the dining table. Luckily, she asked Cheryl to weigh in. Cheryl recommended something with a strong sculptural character like a knock-off Serge Mouille Three-Arm Ceiling Lamp. She was happily surprised when the landlord installed the real thing.
One of the best ways to personalize your rental space is to swap out standard ceiling lights in favor of design-worthy pendants. In the living room, Cheryl and Jeffrey added a bit of exotic texture with a series of paper Formakami Pendants; $319 each at Danish Design Store. In the dining room they opted for a midcentury element that complements the industrial cabinets and Salt Chairs; $150 each at DWR. In the entry, the pair used a custom fixture, made by Jeffrey (you can’t get more personal than that).

The entry hall is illuminated by a playful light that Jeffrey made from Home Depot parts.
Above: The entry hall is illuminated by a playful light that Jeffrey made from Home Depot parts.

4. Treat those elements you can’t change as the ultimate design challenge.

Complementary accents such as a wooden bowl and coordinated art unify the space in a way that minimizes the less attractive elements.
Above: Complementary accents such as a wooden bowl and coordinated art unify the space in a way that minimizes the less attractive elements.

The shiny granite kitchen counters were the biggest challenge for Cheryl and Jeffrey. Rather than fight or try to ignore them, the couple painted the kitchen cabinets a dark gray/blue, which both offsets and complements the warm countertops. To make their pairing look even more intentional, they added industrial pendants with a similar color scheme.

Above: A close-up of the pendants (L) and the stove area (R).
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Further unifying the space, a pair of industrial stools and a movable metal worktable (not pictured) echo the steel appliances and hardware.
Above: Further unifying the space, a pair of industrial stools and a movable metal worktable (not pictured) echo the steel appliances and hardware.

5. Invest in high-quality shades or curtains.

The apartment’s light and window proportions were so beautiful that Cheryl and Jeffrey were loathe to cover them with anything but the most minimal solar shades.
Above: The apartment’s light and window proportions were so beautiful that Cheryl and Jeffrey were loathe to cover them with anything but the most minimal solar shades.

In apartments, shades or curtains are very important—especially if your place has a lot of direct sunlight. But nothing makes a rental feel more temporary than cheap window treatments or shades that don’t work well. Cheryl recommends getting the right window treatment for the space, even if it’s a just a good-quality shade. Among Cheryl’s favorites are MechoSystems Solar Shades. If you move around a lot, curtains may be a better option for you. (For a more affordable version, try Meredith’s easy curtain hack: DIY: Raw-Edge Linen Curtains, Budget Edition.)

6. Be flexible, respond to the space.

The sitting room enjoys views into both the living and dining rooms. To emphasize the seamless flow between spaces, the design duo hung a continuous line of art leading from room to room.
Above: The sitting room enjoys views into both the living and dining rooms. To emphasize the seamless flow between spaces, the design duo hung a continuous line of art leading from room to room.

Over the years Cheryl and Jeffrey have amassed a sizable collection of art, much of which is Jeffrey’s own work. In their former home, the couple developed a habit of grouping their art, salon-style, on one wall. The new rental begged for a different approach. Cheryl noted that a more gallery-like display “emphasized the spatial quality of the rooms, kept them open and airy, and helped us see work in a new way.”

The view from the sitting room into the living room.
Above: The view from the sitting room into the living room.
An artistic vignette in the sitting room.
Above: An artistic vignette in the sitting room.

7. Embrace Ikea for creative storage options.

Cheryl was pleased that, with her plan, almost all of her former furniture fit in the new space. The one exception was a large wardrobe. A quick trip to Ikea to purchase two Lixhult cabinets presented an easy, budget solution. (See the Lixhult line here.)
Above: Cheryl was pleased that, with her plan, almost all of her former furniture fit in the new space. The one exception was a large wardrobe. A quick trip to Ikea to purchase two Lixhult cabinets presented an easy, budget solution. (See the Lixhult line here.)

Though she designs spaces for many of Boston’s top restaurants, Cheryl is never too proud to go to Ikea. “They just have great stuff!” Don’t just look in the department that corresponds to your room in need, though. Cheryl found these bedroom storage units in the office section.

A mesh Burberry bag provides a dash of color.
Above: A mesh Burberry bag provides a dash of color.

8. Add elements of wit and whimsy.

Just one unexpected piece can be enough to transform a space.
Above: Just one unexpected piece can be enough to transform a space.

Cheryl warns her clients not to be too calculated or consistent in their design schemes, as it creates an environment that is too static and lifeless. When thoughtfully placed, elements that surprise and delight—a personal memento from a trip, something your kids made for you, that odd flea market find—can be the most effective way to personalize your space.

Cheryl and Jeffrey&#8
Above: Cheryl and Jeffrey’s favorite vintage finds both complement the classical features of the apartment and add a whimsical touch.

Make the most of your rental with these creative solutions:

Product summary  

Dining Chairs

Salt Chair

$150.00 USD from Design Within Reach

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