‘ve moved 14 times since I was 18. I’m only 28! I think that makes me antsy. But I’m also a nester, which means I’ve deposited time, money and energy into making each place I’ve lived feel like home, length of stay notwithstanding. Over the years I’ve made every cliche decorating mistake in the book: impatiently buying everything at once from IKEA; investing in nicer pieces only to sell them a year later; finding “temporary” solutions upon move-in that never change. I’ve also learned some important lessons: lighting changes everything; centered beds feel grown up; every item needs a proper, put-away spot or things get messy, fast.
A couple days ago, I moved into a sunny one-bedroom apartment where I’ll be living alone for the first time. That means no roommates with whom to split a whatever coffee table, no partner with whom to compromise on design decisions, and not a single pot or pan to my name! I’m a mixture of excited and nervous and antsy to get settled. To the latter point, I’ve been unpacking unusually slowly in an effort not to rush the process.
When I was mulling over the best approach to this whole endeavor, it struck me that Man Repeller’s Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments franchise is chock full of wisdom on this very subject. Almost every interview includes a question prodding for advice for young people decorating their first apartments on a budget. Below are all those answers, pulled together in one convenient spot. A lot of them hit on the same ideas, which I found oddly satisfying for no other reason than it felt like proof that they were true. If you happen to be decorating a new spot or have advice for those who are, take a scroll! I’ll meet you at the bottom.
“Learn how (or find someone who knows how) to build out your furniture designs or install floating shelves (for books and objects), research and ask for several quotes (locally, Task Rabbit, etc.) until you find someone who can meet your budget. Nice, talented people are out there who aren’t looking to take advantage. Invest in many books and read them — they are beautiful and make any environment warm and inviting. Look for light, wood floors and make sure the shell of the home feels good, and only then bring in things that complement the space and inspire you. Otherwise keep it minimal. Invest in one really special thing like a nice lamp that has a story, rather than cheap things you will eventually throw away. Quality over quantity. Invest in frames and frame artwork you’ve saved: art from friends, children (they always make the best art) and letters… Support emerging artists you admire. Buy their work and hang it on your wall.”
“Absolutely buy what you love and whatever gives you a thrill when you look at it. Don’t worry if it’s cheap or not from a well-known brand or store. I have a theory that if you shop for your home similarly to how you shop for your wardrobe, you will probably be happy with what you buy. If you have a modern, minimalist personal style, you’ll likely enjoy a minimalist look in your home.
Lastly, I’m a huge believer in form and function. If it’s just pretty but doesn’t really do anything, I stay away from it, especially if it’s a big-ticket item. That’s why I’m drawn to benches and sectional furniture.
I also think it’s important to think about what you will actually be doing in the space and decorate it with that in mind. Spend the larger part of your budget on seating and lighting and less on the rugs and decorative items.”
“Find meaningful art, plants that bring life and a statement item in your favorite color — ideally a chair or couch.”
A Noho Loft With Great Light and Perfect Plants
“1. Rent as long as you can. What you can rent in NYC will most likely be much more affordable than what you can buy.
2. Make small vignettes around the apartment and focus on styling those small spaces. The more intimate the better. Small areas with charm and character are better than bigger spaces with no charm.
3. Remember that your first home is not your forever home in NYC — it’s a place to start.”
Start with the things you love most, then add layers and textures. I personally love a monochromatic aesthetic with lots of different visual layers.”
Rebecca Hessel Cohen
A West Village Townhouse With the Best Walk-in Closet
“I vividly remember my first apartment where I lived alone. It was a tiny studio on the Upper East Side, and I could barely make the rent by myself, but I took such pride in making it my own. I went down to Soho on a special trip just to find a few things to ‘anoint’ the space. I bought a hand-carved wind chime and a gray soapstone bowl, and I remember how empowering it felt to decide where to put them. These two small purchases showed me the value of living with intention and approaching home decor from a thoughtful, conscious mindset, which has never failed to guide me to the right things. I still have both items.”
Go with your gut. And take some time to look through photos of cool places and homes around the world. I love old copies of home magazines like World of Interiors or Nest. Decorating isn’t always about a new sofa or an extra room — sometimes a simple stack of books in the right place with a cute vintage lamp sitting on top can make you feel newly inspired.”
Tour Christene Barberich’s Colorful, Maximalist Apartment
“Flea markets are the best way to go. New York also has amazing furniture on the streets. My parents found an incredible Finn Juhl chair on the curb. There’s also always IKEA which, if you mix with your flea market finds, doesn’t look so bad.”
Phoebe and Annette Stephens
An Apartment Tour That Might Convince You to Invest in Art
“Take some time and ask yourself the following questions:
1. How do you want to feel in your home?
2. Where have you felt that before?
3. What about that particular space made you feel that way?
4. Then think budget: Prouvé or CB2?”
Apartment Tour: Cult-Favorite Jewelry Designer Roxanne Assoulin
“Decorating can be pretty daunting and overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to copy an image you pulled from Pinterest. Hone in on special items you know you want and build around them. A mistake I think a lot of people make is thinking that they’re going to set up a new room in one go — they buy all this stuff thinking that’s it, but a room is hardly ever completed at its initial set-up. Also, don’t just buy things because you have a space you need to fill up. Be patient and eventually your home will be filled with only the best stuff.”
An East Village Apartment That Isn’t All IKEA
“90% of the things in my home are from my travels, Craigslist or the flea market. I would say take your time. Search keywords on Craigslist when you’re looking for things and always head to the flea market early. Get crafty and experimental. Little things like vintage wallpaper from eBay can totally transform your space.”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments: Aurora James
“Craigslist, Craigslist, Craigslist. You can search by brand. Furniture does not hold its value, so a two-year-old fancy couch is a fraction of what it costs new. NYC has an amazing Craigslist because people are moving in and out every day! Sudden job transfer? Guess you have to sell that amazing mirror and TV stand. Breakup? I will take your fancy dining chairs. People can be grossed out by the concept of CL, but I have lived in nine different apartments in NY and used Craigslist every time!”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments: Katie Sturino
“Start with a single piece like a nice sofa or a credenza and then use textiles and accents to add personality. You can find great decor in flea markets or on Etsy — focus on pieces that are handmade and that are ‘found’ as opposed to pieces that come from a mass retailer and that are made in China. These pieces really tell a story and are authentic, and they’re not always expensive. Having a beautiful ceramic vase or woven wall hanging that’s actually handmade by a person and not a machine really adds a lot to a room.”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments: Lizzie Fortunato
“Check out thrift stores and yard sales. You can often find furniture that was made well, that just needs some TLC. Look on Pinterest for inspiration/DIY tricks. And check out IKEA… just don’t fill an entire space with IKEA furniture or it will look sterile.”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments: Nicole Chapoteau
“Save and buy special things because you love them and feel they will be with you forever, rather than because you require something to fill in an empty space. That is the best way to build a home of treasures that are unique to you.”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments: Azede Jean-Pierre
“Buy old stuff. And ideally, buy it outside of a major metropolitan city like New York. Going just an hour outside — to New Jersey or Long Island or Columbia County — will save you so many dollars. But worst case, you can still find deals at places like the Brooklyn Flea. You just have to look. I recently bought this big, weird, woven carpet-y wall hanging (now hung above my bed) at the Flea for $20.
Also: shop the kids’ section! I have three lamps from PBTeen. It’s just as good as the Pottery Barn mainline stuff but always cheaper! And! PAINT. Yes, it costs some money. And if you’re renting, you’ll have to paint it back later, but it’s so worth it. A little color goes a long way to making a place feel like it’s yours.”
Verena von Pfetten
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments With Verena von Pfetten
“1. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, search for it on Craigslist or eBay. 2. Look for gems at flea markets and second-hand stores like Housing Works. 3. Go to Home Depot for plants and succulents. SUCH good deals.”
Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments With Christina Conrad
“Put all your favorite things all over your walls! You can find old frames for cheap and put art or magazine pictures you like in them. I once found a gold, baroque frame on the street and put a picture of Björk and her son in it. We had it on our mantel as though they were part of our family. If you don’t have frames, you can use T-pins — they look chic, like an architect’s office. If you’re a maximalist and visual person like me, having lots of images up is a great way to be surrounded by the abundance of life.
Paint your walls a color. It makes a huge difference and can completely change the mood of your space. If you don’t have any art, you can paint shapes onto your wall. In my old apartment, I used tape to paint stripes on a wall and it looked rad and everyone thought it was so super fancy.
Mix old and new together. Old things have the most character but sometimes IKEA is the most convenient to meet your needs. Having pieces that look brand spanking new next to patinated vintage things can look very intentional and keep your IKEA stuff from looking generic.
Get creative. A coat of paint or a switch-a-roo of drawer handles can totally transform the furniture that you have access to. I’m all about the hack.”
Inside the Apartment of Refinery29’s Creative Director
“1. Fall in love with every piece you buy, as you will have to look at it every day. 2. Don’t buy anything just because you need it. Keep looking for the perfect piece. 3. Make sure it is comfortable and cozy above all. Home is meant to be your happy place.”
A London Apartment That’s Unabashedly Pink
“Invest in one classic piece of art or furniture or create something on your own for a sweet, personal touch. Pick up interesting items along your travels to add a storytelling component to your home. Collect favorite books to add to a library, floating shelf or coffee table — or stack them to double as an accent table or nightstand. Chic, purposeful and wallet-friendly!”
Mignonne Gavigan Smith
This Downtown Apartment Has the Biggest Windows You’ve Ever Seen
“Take your time. If you can, try to invest in versatile pieces you’ll want to keep and that aren’t too apartment-specific. For my first tiny New York apartment, I got a pair of trestle legs that were definitely a little pricey, but at that point, I was just tired of getting cheap, disposable furniture that would always eventually break. In the small flat, they worked perfectly with a glass table top to create the illusion of a bigger space, and once we moved into this bigger apartment, we used them to make a large, long dining table with a longer plywood top.”
This Brooklyn Apartment is Just One Massive Sunny Room
“Go to flea markets and antique shops outside of NYC. I always find cheap gems when I shop vintage. Don’t copy someone else’s style, just get inspiration from it. You want your home to be yours. Don’t go with a trend. Go with your gut.”
“Don’t rush. No one finds everything for their home in one day. Don’t rely on big box stores. Look for meaningful and thoughtful pieces. If you’re unsure of your aesthetic, get inspired: Pinterest, decor magazines, Instagram, etc.”
A Harlem Apartment Where Neutral Doesn’t Mean Boring
“1. Mix and match. 2. Fresh paint can bring things to life. 3. Only spend money on a few nice items that will last you a long time, such as a couch or a rug.”
Enter: The Colorful Soho Apartment of Your Dreams
“Don’t be afraid to do things. I go into so many apartments where no one wants to make a hole in the wall or paint or buy something they might not want to move to their next apartment. Who cares?! You live there now! If buying something or working on your apartment solves a short-term problem or makes you happy immediately, it is worth it. Don’t be a martyr about where you live!
But seemingly contrary, do have some patience. When it comes to bigger purchases, be willing to wait it out. Don’t just buy everything at IKEA in a Swedish meatball-soaked haze. Get one piece at a time. I ate pizza on my bed for several weeks when I moved to the city so I could save up for a desk and then a chair I liked, rather than just buying a bunch of stuff from one spot at the outset.
New York City lighting is awful. Get some lamps, put a dimmer switch in, take down the garbage overhead, replace it with something you like, and put the original under your bed until you move out. Bonus: if things are dimmer, no one will know how sparsely decorated your place is.”
“1. Buy plants! You can find them for very good prices and they liven up any space.
2. Picture frames are a great way to add character to your apartment. The Anthropologie sale section always has great ones.
3. Cover your walls with posters or cheap framed art! It’s a great way to refine a room.”
This Apartment Has a Literal Cloud Couch
“Don’t spend money on anything! Do it yourself! Find it cheaper! Do it better!”
Sarah Maslin Nir
A Genius Way to Make a Studio Apartment Look Bigger