How to Develop Your Personal Decor Style, Even in a Rental

The answer is *always* an accent wall

A millennial girl lounges in a nicely styled bedroom reading a book in bed.

In partnership with Surex

Everyone remembers their first apartment. Boozy sunsets on the balcony, the sketchy elevator, your first clogged toilet—all inevitable rites of passage on your way to adulthood and independent living.

“My first apartment was this amazing four-story walk-up that reminded me of New York,” says interior stylist Stacey Lipstein, founder of Tiny House Mama. “I desperately wanted to put my own spin on it, so I painted the kitchen bright orange and the bathroom a deep purple. It was the early 2000s.”

Finding your personal aesthetic on a budget is the inevitable struggle of any first-time (or long-time) renter. With 40% of Canadian millennials currently renting their place, knowing what to invest in, where you can save and where to score the best finds is key to apartment living. Here, Lipstein shares her best tips and budget-friendly décor hacks to make your temporary space feel more like home.

Let your style evolve over time

Though you may be tempted to fill your new place with chic throw pillows and vases galore as soon as you get the keys, give yourself time to build up a personal style. “You should buy things that you love, not just pieces that will work,” says Lipstein. “This may mean it will be a slow build in the space.” Take your time to accumulate items that are special to you—that’ll buy you time to find good deals before rushing into big commitments purchases, too.

And don’t expect to purchase your dream sectional sofa, coffee table and area rug all in one shop. Searching a variety of sources is good for your wallet and the environment, notes Lipstein, especially if you extend your hunt to smaller local shops, garage sales, and even Facebook Marketplace. This approach can create a more thoughtful, curated collection of pieces you actually treasure. “A lot of the time, you think you have to stick to one particular ‘style’ but blending looks personalizes a space and makes it unique and yours—not just IKEA,” Lipstein says.

Find a healthy mix of high-low items

Avoid the temptation to buy everything brand new—especially if you’re on a short-term lease or planning to move again in the near future. “I think we underestimate the power of vintage resale and curbside finds that can be DIY’d and made to feel new and fresh,” says Lipstein. But what about that rustic mid-century-inspired bed from West Elm that costs more than three months’ rent? “We are in a time when pretty much every great design piece has a cheaper, more accessible version online.” Check out destinations like Wayfair and Etsy for everything from bright artwork to whimsical accessories that won’t break the bank, or hit up your local flea market or antique store for one-of-a-kind budget finds—many of them have online stores running while physical locations are closed.

It’s always a good idea to invest more in the items you can take with you to your next space. You never know if that big sectional couch or full patio set will fit into your next home, but portable, space-friendly items like beautiful art and unique lamps can always work in any place.

Go ahead and break every design rule you’ve heard

“I love to put big pieces of furniture in small spaces,” says Lipstein. “I’d rather have a ‘wow’ piece than a bunch of smaller-scale items. I also don’t shy away from dramatic colours in small rooms,” she says. “I am all about making a space feel unique and special.” And while lots of designers will recommend clear glass wherever possible to open up small spaces, if your wallet and tastes draw you towards rustic wood tables or all-white everything, go for it. Basically, just do you.

Stock up on double-duty accessories

Efficiency is key for small spaces. “I love [using] baskets, they always add great storage as well as design,” she says. “Utilizing space under the bed is a whole untapped area to place storage bins and seasonal clothing.” Lipstein also recommends finding an armoire or dresser you love that can double as a spot for your TV and a storage space for blankets and accessories.

Make your home your safe haven

Though you may be a transient soul at heart, design your home for how you live your life now. “Focus your energy on making the spaces that matter most to you special,” she says. “If you love to sleep, make your bedroom your haven.” Invest in cozy blankets, warm textures and drapery, and soothing scents for your room. If cooking sparks joy, arrange your kitchen accordingly, showcasing your cookbooks and displaying your spices, oils and dried goods neatly in clear dollar store containers. “Making your apartment feel like a safe space will make you love it, as our home is a refuge from the outside world.”

Add an accent wall

A fresh pop of colour can do wonders for your wellbeing. “You never know how long you will be in a space,” says Lipstein, so make the most of it with exciting décor choices that you can look forward to living with. Paint makes a big impact, and it can be a cost-efficient change to make if you use sample size paint cans on a small wall. (Be sure to check with your landlord before making any permanent changes to your rental, and you may need to paint the walls back to their original colour before you move out.) For a temporary solution you can take with you, use peel-and-stick removable wallpaper in a bold pattern—this stuff will leave no trace, no sticky residue and you can use it again!

Bring some Hygge to your home

Embrace this Danish philosophy for making your place a cozy and inviting space, and it will instantly feel like home. Opt for a soft, natural palette: Think pastel walls and neutral area rugs. This will give the room a sense of airiness, so it never feels cluttered or cramped. Introduce comforting elements like candles, throws and romantic twinkle lights that create a soft glow. Plants make a huge impact, too. “I would invest in some greenery, which always make a space feel bright and alive,” says Lipstein. Holed up in a space with limited windows? Try low-light plants like ivy or Lucky Bamboo that fare well in a basement apartment.

Inject style and personality with budget-friendly art

You don’t have to invest in super expensive art to add some creative energy to your home. Instead, get resourceful and look to the beautiful everyday items around you that inspire you. Fill your walls with prints you’ve picked up on your travels, framed stationary or magazine clippings, or artwork you can print from well-priced services like Society6 and Printable Concepts. It’s the perfect way to personalize your space.