Personalize Your Apartment With These Design Tips

New styles of wallpaper, tiles and other products make it easy to update a rental space.

Laurie Allen
Today’s rental spaces feature chic furnishings that reflect a home dweller’s sense of unique style.

Home, sweet home doesn’t have to mean a 30-year mortgage and costly upkeep. 

Using creativity and trend-setting techniques, local apartment dwellers are transforming their rentals into homes that feel anything but transitory. From removable wallpaper to sophisticated lighting, rental residents have a growing supply of tools to create spaces that are fresh, comfortable and uniquely theirs. 

When Lindsey Rutter moved into a two-bedroom Clintonville apartment after graduating from college 10 years ago, she didn’t plan to stay so long. Today she shares the 1,000-square-foot townhouse with her husband Mitch and three cats. Rutter says people she knows are “OK with being renters” and aren’t in a hurry to buy a house, especially given student loan debt. She also sees a growing enthusiasm for “embracing and treating your rental more like it is your home.” 

The couple has completed many projects to maximize space and enhance their lives in the townhouse, particularly since both are working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With a kitchen that “only a New Yorker would think is big,” Rutter says versatile storage solutions have been a top priority. 

Metal and glass shelving and a moveable stainless cart bought at a restaurant supply store offered the most bang for the buck in the small space. For a more personal, custom look, they used removable wallpaper that mimics subway tile for backsplashes and heavy-duty contact paper resembling soapstone on the counters. 

She also added shelving units on either side of the fireplace and filled them with plants, books and beloved objects, hung curtains close to the ceiling and replaced a dining room ceiling fan with a statement light fixture she found online. She also turned the second bedroom into a co-working space that has matching desks the couple bought new and vintage chairs they found on a social media marketplace. 

Rutter and a small group of friends in their 30s decorate and redecorate their apartments together, bouncing ideas off one another, especially when making large purchases. An art director at NetJets, Rutter has helped friends make mood boards of their spaces to help pick furniture and décor. 

One of her friends is Taylor Swope, a senior project manager with IBM who is also a freelance writer for Columbus Monthly. Swope lives in Clintonville in an older apartment she finds charming although definitely not modern. With help from their mutual “crowd-sourcing” group, Swope purchased a new sofa last year and also has introduced art, plants and “a funky shelving unit” in the living room. 

Though the apartment may not be her long-term home, Swope has found that patience pays off. Instead of buying items quickly, she waits until she finds exactly what she wants for a space. She had been hunting for just the right piece to act as a drinks station when she inherited a 100-year-old wooden buffet from a friend who was moving. Swope replaced the original hardware with sleek brass handles from Wayfair, which “instantly changed the style,” she says. She adorned the piece withthe piece with fresh flowers, glass barware on gold trays, a book and candles. 

A designer who worked on many prominent Central Ohio homes before moving to Brooklyn 10 years ago, Dennis McAvena has personally embraced apartment living. He and his wife Kathi live in a 1,266-square-foot apartment in a building that once was a cardboard factory. 

McAvena, who still has clients locally, stays on top of apartment trends and is pleased that Columbus is keeping up with larger cities in terms of fit and finish. “We’re finally getting away from that really, really sterile look,” says McAvena, who sees “a warming trend” in the use of natural wood finishes, better quality floors and more beiges and greiges in lieu of gray. 

The designer says repainting is the least expensive and most effective way to change a space, and it was the first thing he and his wife did when they moved into their New York apartment. For those wanting a stronger statement, “wallpaper is a huge trend, and lots of companies are doing removable papers,” he explains. “But you do get what you pay for.” 

A small vestibule is an ideal spot for wallpaper, and while McAvena doesn’t usually advocate papering just one wall, the area behind a bed is a good choice in an apartment. In kitchens and bathrooms, removable tile backsplashes provide “a little oomph,” he adds. 

He is a proponent of having overhead lights on dimmers, which are easy and inexpensive to add, but also recommends that people steer away from having all illumination coming from the ceiling. In a dining area, a couple of high quality floor lamps provide atmosphere as well as softer light. If your rental agreement allows, replacing pendant lighting with something more personal can dramatically change a room and make your apartment look different than your neighbors’. 

Renters also can redefine the notion of a dining room, as the McAvenas have done. “If you don’t have room for a dining room table, use a great big coffee table,” he says. McAvena understands a penchant for streamlined midcentury furniture, but he offers a strong recommendation. “[Get] away from having all your furniture on legs,” he says. “A good-looking sofa that comes to the ground can anchor a room.” 

A plush area rug underneath living and dining areas is another way to ground a room and add coziness and personality, says Megan Agriesti, interior and spatial design manager at The Champion Companies, which owns 23 rental communities in Central Ohio. Champion’s apartments range from about 600 square feet to more than 1,900. 

Agriesti says rental developers “have really upped their game” in apartment design, installing quartz countertops, islands with pendant lights and realistic deluxe vinyl wood plank flooring. 

With more people working from home, some developers also are responding with community-sized modifications. Michelle Yeager-Thornton, Champion’s co-founder and chief operating officer, says the lesser-used common areas are being repurposed into co-working spaces in two of its clubhouse renovations. 

Agriesti advises that renters should check with landlords and property managers before embarking on projects like changing out light fixtures. Most rental communities allow residents to paint as long as they re-paint walls back when they leave; the same goes for hanging drapes and art. 

But even with restrictions, renters have workarounds that allow them to customize their apartments. Mirrors, plants and plug-in wall sconces can open up small spaces, and simple steps like changing out bed linens and shower curtains or switching up art can refresh a rental, Agriesti says. Apartment dwellers also can add depth and interest by incorporating organic materials, a mix of textures and artisanal pieces throughout. 

“Keep things around you that you really love,” she says. 

Whether someone lives in a large, new complex or a single building without bells and whistles, apartments don’t have to feel as if renters already have one foot out the door. With patience, ingenuity, friendly advice and a few do-it-yourself videos, rental residents can renew their lease on apartment life and make it home.