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Tips on Transforming an Unimaginative Rental, Courtesy of a Design Editor

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Tips on Transforming an Unimaginative Rental, Courtesy of a Design Editor

August 3, 2022

As the former creative director of House and Garden magazine, Gabby Deeming is well placed to share her styling know-how. Which explains why she has recently joined the cast of experts at the online creative platform, Create Academy, to offer a four-hour tutorial entitled “How to Style with Pattern and Color.”

Ahead of enrollment, we familiarize ourselves with Gabby’s style by taking a tour of her own home, a rented, 18th-century apartment in Bloomsbury.

Photography courtesy of Jasper Fry for Create Academy

Gabby&#8\2\17;s living room: &#8\2\20;I edit down my flat quite frequently to stop it getting too knick-knacky.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Gabby’s living room: “I edit down my flat quite frequently to stop it getting too knick-knacky.”

Once a grand town house, the building has now been divided into flats. When Gabby moved in seven years ago, the interiors she inherited were “ordinary and unimaginative.” On the plus side, the rooms retained many original architectural features, including generous windows, period paneling, and decorative fireplaces. Here, she shows us how she turned a “homogeneous and beige” rental into a home.

Decorate in Stages

The first thing to change was the flooring. “The kitchen/dining room was divided with a sad little strip of lino for the kitchen and carpet for the sitting room,” Gabby recalls, so she replaced the lino with wooden flooring and the carpet with seagrass throughout.

&#8\2\20;If you have things on display they need a good backdrop to show them off to their fullest,&#8\2\2\1; advises Gabby. &#8\2\20;I chose these paint colors quite carefully to make sure that I was giving my collection the best environment.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: “If you have things on display they need a good backdrop to show them off to their fullest,” advises Gabby. “I chose these paint colors quite carefully to make sure that I was giving my collection the best environment.”

Gabby also addressed the kitchen in the “first wave” of decoration “because the existing one was making [her] so miserable. In reality, the room should be the other way around,” she reflects. “The dining table should be in front of the kitchen window, not the units. That’s the downside of a rental; you can’t make those kind of big fundamental changes.”

The dining area.
Above: The dining area.

Instead, she removed a row of bulky wall-mounted cabinets and replaced them with shelves to allow more light in from the window. The units below were replaced with Ikea carcasses, and an Ikea tap and sink. The handles and worktop were sourced separately “so that it doesn’t feel particularly Ikea-y,” she says. The existing, inoffensive white tiles remained in place. “I think the whole thing cost £1,200 including labor, so that was a kind of minimum effort maximum result that completely transformed the room.”

Although both the kitchen and the flooring are large, irremovable investments, by making those decisions quickly, Gabby has already had over seven years use out of them. “Both the kitchen and flooring really altered the fundamental feeling of the flat,” she adds. “It created the basic framework for which to begin decorating the rest of the space in a gentle way.”

Adapting to Awkward Layouts

The layout of the flat is far from ideal. “As is often the case with rental flats, and especially in buildings that were once houses, you end up with these slightly odd, cut-up rooms,” says Gabby. “But what I’ve ended up with I’ve actually come to quite like.”

The library/WFH nook, featuring a made-to-measure shelving unit by Jali which was designed specifically to house Gabby&#8\2\17;s magazine collection.
Above: The library/WFH nook, featuring a made-to-measure shelving unit by Jali which was designed specifically to house Gabby’s magazine collection.

The living room has been divided in two to make a bedroom, which makes the living space much smaller than originally intended. Furthermore, the hallway has stolen space from the living room, “creating this little awkward alcove. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with it. And then finally, I got the inspiration to turn it into a library corner with bespoke book shelves. Suddenly, it gave that corner of the room purpose, which was brilliant.”

Banishing the Beige

More recently, Gabby has turned her attention to the bathroom. The lino has been covered with glossy cork tiles and an affordable wooden bath panel painted in dark gloss green. “It’s quite a smart little room now,” she says.

The Sweet Pea wallpaper is from Cole & Son; the check blind has been custom made from an old cotton lungi, which is what fishermen wear in Kerala. “You can buy these for a few pounds and they’re fabulous for blinds and cushions.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: The Sweet Pea wallpaper is from Cole & Son; the check blind has been custom made from an old cotton lungi, which is what fishermen wear in Kerala. “You can buy these for a few pounds and they’re fabulous for blinds and cushions.”

The large window and high ceilings meant that Gabby could introduce patterned wallpaper. “I knew pattern in there would be quite fun,” she says. “Especially because I couldn’t really get it in anywhere else.”

The reading nook with armchair.
Above: The reading nook with armchair.

The main living room has been painted in Caddie by Paint & Paper Library. “Painting it brown calmed some of the other patterns in the room down a bit,” says Gabby. “I’m always changing things, adding fabrics, taking things away. There are a few pieces in the room that work perfectly with the brown of the walls—my big sheepskin armchair, works brilliantly with the brown and the images in the library corner are quite monochromatic, and again, they work brilliantly with the brown.”

Tell Your Own Story

“Essentially, I wanted the flat to feel very much like my space,” says Gabby. “I wanted to create an environment that would beautifully house the things that I already owned and loved—especially in the sitting room and kitchen, where I’ve hung quite a lot of my pictures.”

A detail from Gabby&#8\2\17;s dining room.
Above: A detail from Gabby’s dining room.

The paneled wall next to the library nook has become a gallery. “The panelling around it lends itself quite well to hanging art, because each panel can hold a framed image. In a way, the panelling makes it easier than a bare wall, because you already have a structure to hang the pictures within as opposed to a completely blank space.”

A vintage kantha quilt hangs behind the sofa. “I did have some pictures up there for a while, but they just felt a bit odd and floaty so I was really pleased when I found that enormous colorful Kantha quilt in India. I knew the wall needed something quite big and solid.”

Gabby has created a scene above the fireplace with two mirrors (reflecting the kantha quilt on the opposite wall) and a wall light.
Above: Gabby has created a scene above the fireplace with two mirrors (reflecting the kantha quilt on the opposite wall) and a wall light.

“The fireplace in the living room is blocked up and I didn’t really know what to do with it,” confesses Gabby. “Ideally it would be great to open it, but I think the room is probably too small to handle an open fire, plus the sofa is a bit close to the fire, so it might all get a bit intense.” Instead, Gabby decided to paint the fireplace with a little scene of a curtain on a rod. “It’s made it a focus and now each of the four walls has something going on.”

“It can be quite hard to feel like you’re making your own individual space when we’re all so affected by what we’re seeing everywhere else,” she concludes. “I think you just have to trust in your own sense of taste and style and know that your collection of pictures, books, and objects are unique to you.”

Gabby Deeming’s online course, How To Style with Pattern & Color, is available from Create Academy for $150.

For more tips on sprucing up a rental, see:

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

Rental Rehab: The DIY New York Apartment

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