Small apartment decorating tips that will make your space feel so luxurious

When I first signed the lease for my own apartment—although it was a 300-square-foot studio, but my own space nonetheless—I vowed to create a thoughtful, curated space. But here’s the thing, curating a mood is not something you can just wish for. As I began collecting decorating ideas for my own small apartment, I vowed I wouldn’t just order mass-produced items from Target or IKEA, but I quickly realized that carefully chosen basics from these big retailers could actually serve as a starting point towards a space that is both luxurious and inhabited. Complimented with vintage finds and artful additions, it’s possible to create a home space that doesn’t just feel like a snapshot from the seasonal catalog.

While I have since transitioned from my original tiny studio to something more comfortable for one person, in the nine months since I moved it has been a slow and steady process (which is honestly far from complete) creating a space I look forward to everyone day when I wake up. Especially over the past two years, I’ve prioritized the idea that home should be a space that brings you joy and makes you feel relaxed. High expectations for a room full of inanimate objects, I know. But fusing the practical—storage, organizational tools, and convenient everyday items—with the inspirational has helped me slowly create a space that feels like home.

Start with inspiration

I gathered decorating inspiration to guide my own design process. Emily Madden

The first step in building my own space was the data collection phase. I don’t have the formal vocabulary of a decorating professional, which makes creative curating an essential step in decorating. Pinterest has long been a favorite for creatives to gather inspirational images to start from, but I personally have a lot of pictures saved from home on Instagram and in a dedicated album on my phone.

As someone who can’t easily articulate my decorating style, a collection of images helped me define the aesthetic of my space—natural materials, lots of plants, a bit of “granny,” something mid-century modern, a drop more colorful Scandi style. And once I could get a better sense of what interior style I was drawn to, the buying process became easier. A home doesn’t have to be so perfectly put together, but it helps to have a visual reference when assessing whether individual pieces fit the aesthetic.

Look for second-hand essentials

During the pandemic, I moved from my studio apartment to a larger one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and was immediately faced with the problem that my apartment was now half-empty and a lot of the furniture I had was uncomfortable in my new apartment felt small. It was time to step up – but as anyone who’s tried to shop for furniture in the last two years has discovered, shipping delays meant all new furniture was put on a waiting list of months, if not a year.

This meant that I had to rely heavily on vintage and used furniture when furnishing my apartment. I’ve scoured local vintage shops, but I’ve also spent a lot of time checking both Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for good deals. I also found AptDeco, which is currently only available in the New York metropolitan area and the San Francisco Bay Area, but serves as a curated shopping platform that offers pickup and delivery (a boon for those of us who think the subway is our most important thing Mode of Transport).

My brown leather sofa was a Facebook Marketplace find I brought from my last apartment. My coffee table was a vintage find I picked up at a local store in Su’juk, Brooklyn. I knew I wanted some glass and stone for the space, but it took me a few months to finally find exactly what I was looking for. My bar cart shelf was also a find on Facebook Marketplace (for no less than $20) and my dinnerware was from another vintage haven, the Dobbin Street Co-Op.

Be strategic with your affordable finds

Emily Madden

A trip to IKEA is a requirement for anyone who has recently moved into a new apartment. Thanks to the sheer volume of items available, it can streamline the process and help make a dent in any room that needs serious work. But I’ve found that shopping needs to be done strategically to avoid curating a space that feels a little too sterile or catalog-like. One way I’ve successfully navigated my IKEA shopping is by using the Swedish label to find similar alternatives to expensive pieces of furniture that I’ve saved as inspiration. They won’t be an exact replica, but if a table, light or chairs can capture the mood I’m aiming for, I’m confident.

Although IKEA makes placing furniture easy, I also try to keep an eye on the construction of what I choose. Having built a dresser on my own, only for the drawers to be crooked in the six years I’ve used it, I now try to avoid anything that risks malfunctioning. The metal shelf above is an example of a foolproof piece and serves not only as a place to store things but also as a way to display some of my favorite kitchen clips. By combining IKEA shelves with storage boxes from Hay and pottery from ceramists I love like Helen Levi, I’ve created a curated and luxurious space, even if a kitchen is meant to be practical.

Treat yourself to statement pieces

Spending months on gaps to fill your decorating space isn’t ideal, but I’ve also tried to stick to the theory that curating takes time and waiting for items you love can be worth waiting for. In the corner of my living room, I went for color by adding two comfy chairs from EQ3 and a Hay lamp (which a friend kindly hung for me) in collaboration with artist Ana Kras. In a rented space, I’ve personally been hesitant to make more out-of-the-box styling decisions, like hanging a pendant lamp in the corner, but in truth the process is minimally invasive and can completely transform a space—the drawing eye and creates a sense of depth and texture.

Emily Madden

When you’re not in the mood for a new couch or chair set, picking out a few small design-forward items can also make all the difference in terms of transforming a room. My bathroom is pretty minimal and unexciting, but I love the way a table with a Costa Brasil candle and Baina’s checkered towel added a funky element to an otherwise all-white space.

In my bedroom, I added a pop of color with a quilt, which again, unsurprisingly, I bought at a vintage store. While my bedside table and the little mushroom lamp on it are both from IKEA, mixing in favorite coffee table books and the homey quilt gives these pieces a more personal feel.

Bottom line: Decorating is about letting parts of your personality shine through. Spaces are still a work in progress, so worry less about making a space look perfect and focus on making the pieces you have work for you while you work on a few specific additions that can make the difference. Even a tiny apartment can be a haven of peace if it’s full of details that bring you joy.

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