Dear Apartment Newbs, Please Stop Making These Design Mistakes

I never looked forward to something quite so much as my first “adult” apartment.

You know, the one where you don’t have to negotiate design decisions with that roommate who would rather bring home the couch they rescued from the curb… claiming that the stain “adds character.” Filed under: NOPE.

As someone who loves interior design, but didn’t do my homework before diving in, I cringe a little when I remember that tiny Berkeley studio I lived in years ago. So much potential… squandered because I mistakenly believed that all those years of watching HGTV had prepared me for this moment. Clearly.

Friend, learn from my mistakes. If you’re designing your first new space, heed this advice from my older, wiser self. These are five of the big design mistakes I wish someone had schooled me on.

1. Designing purely for looks, rather than your lifestyle

Real talk: You’re not designing your apartment for a catalogue. Nobody actually lives in showrooms. So why should your place look like one?

When you’re creating and curating your space, you need to imagine yourself living in it. Walk through your day-to-day — can you navigate your floor plan with ease? Does it lend itself nicely to how your ideal routine might look?

Where are you setting your morning cup of coffee? Do you prefer to sit by the window when you read? What’s the view like from your bed? Will the sun hit your eyes too early in the morning?

Here’s a recent example: I bought a really, really nice rug about a month ago. But when I put it in front of the couch, just as I’d imagined it about a dozen times before, I realized my door couldn’t actually pass over it without getting stuck.

For a couple weeks, I insisted on keeping the rug there. It looked great! It just… also made it hard to open my door. When it was time for me to practice yoga, I had to roll it up and move it to the closet.

After one too many times tripping over this rug, I relented and moved it to under my dining table.

Not only did it look unexpectedly awesome there, but it allowed me to put my gorgeous cork yoga mat in that place instead.

With the mat set out and ready to go, I started practicing yoga more frequently! And? My door wasn’t getting stuck on it, either.

I could’ve been stubborn and stuck to the aesthetic I had in my mind. But when I actually designed for my lifestyle (i.e. opening doors like a normal person and practicing yoga every day), I wound up a lot happier in the long run.

A little creativity wound up boosting the functionality AND beauty of my space. Seriously, how gorgeous is this yoga mat?

2. Trying to decorate your place all at once

This is obnoxious advice that no one likes to hear. I certainly didn’t want to. In the golden age of Extreme Home Makeover, with 30-minute transformations that make designing seem as easy as ordering fast-food, you’re bound to get impatient when a space feels incomplete.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: Part of the joy of designing your space is that it’s never actually done.

You’ll keep “discovering” (read: inventing) new projects, uncovering little nooks, and getting swept up in new trends that will keep you reimagining and reinventing your place over and over again.

In my first studio, I more or less tried to do everything in one swoop. It didn’t work for a lot of reasons.

For one, it put a strain on my budget, which led me to cut corners and choose the “second best” option instead of the pieces I truly loved. It also meant that rather than waiting for the right piece, I went on a shopping blitz to acquire everything at once, which backfired when I inevitably found things I loved even more later on.

So what should you do? As a general rule, you should buy things that you love.

Or as Marie Kondo puts it, the stuff that sparks joy. The couch that you can’t stop daydreaming about. The duvet that you have bookmarked that you keep coming back to. Buy the pieces that you’re drawn to, rather than the “good enough” pieces.

This means waiting for those pieces to appear (and yes, you’ll know them when you see them). And if you can’t do without a couch or dining chairs in the meantime? You get thrifty to keep room in your budget for The One. Minus street furniture, because seriously, bedbugs are a thing.

A lot of places also offer payment plans, so if you’ve stumbled upon your dream rug sooner than you were prepared for, you can always spread out the cost. Waiting for the pieces you love will also mean buying them when you see them — because they may not stick around for a long time.

3. Not knowing when to splurge and when to save

For those of us who are committed to saving money where we can, there’s a general rule that I go to when I’m deciding if I should splurge on an item or try to find a cheaper alternative.

Consider: If the object in question is something you’ll touch for more than 5 minutes in the course of a day, you should probably spend a bit extra on it.

So the super expensive vase is probably not as important as your dining chair. Of course, if you can afford the vase, by all means, go for it. But if it’s between the vase and the chair? The chair is the obvious pick.

This applies to things like bedsheets, pillows, and kitchenware, too. Since usage also means wear and tear, it makes sense that you’ll want something higher quality.

So yes, go for the 600-thread count. Get the nice set of knives. These are investments, and as such, you want them to last longer than 6 months if you can swing it.

4. Letting a lease limit your imagination

For literal years, I was afraid to put anything on my walls for fear of violating my lease. I have two words for you, my friend: Removable. Wallpaper.

Two more: Command. Strips.

And another for good measure (pun intended): Wall. Patching.

There are so many ways to spruce up your walls without destroying your apartment. Adorning our walls and adding color are such an important part of making a place feel like home, and nowadays, there are plenty of low- to no-risk ways to do it.

If you’re not sure where to start, Chasing Paper is a personal favorite of mine for removable wallpaper and creative wall decor.

5. Picking one specific style rather than a mixture

Incoming: cliche design advice. But the truth is, trends fade. And if you fall out of love with the style you used for your whole freaking place? That means you’ll become disenchanted with your entire home instead of just a few pieces.

The other thing — and this is just personal opinion — is that sticking to one specific style makes a home feel more staged than lived in. Some of the best spaces I’ve seen are those that mix and match different pieces; they feel cozier, more eclectic, and are way more exciting to look at.

Mixing styles also allows your personality to shine through, rather than making your place look like a cut-out from a magazine. The pieces you’ve gathered in your travels and unexpected gems you’ve salvaged from a thrift store will help to create a space that’s distinct. When you put your own creativity behind it, your space becomes a unique reflection of you.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what this home design stuff is about?

As 90s fashion icon Ms. Frizzle (yes, of “Magic School Bus” fame) says, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.”

This is your place now. Go and make it your own!

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