Fresh Start Week

7 ways to redecorate your apartment—WITHOUT buying new furniture

By Virginia K. Smith | January 5, 2017 - 8:59AM 

Besides the urge to embark on a strict new diet and budget, for a lot of us, the new year brings with it the yearning to overhaul our apartments. Though spring cleaning is often the main event that's best left for warmer temps (perhaps because it requires lots of schlepping cast-off donations to willing recipients), something about January hibernation makes one turn a critical eye on everything that's less-than-perfect in our homes.

Mercifully, giving your apartment a facelift doesn't necessarily mean splashing out thousands of dollars on new furniture and hiring a professional decorator. For most of us, simply re-shuffling our current furniture, clearing clutter, and other minor tweaks can make a drab apartment feel like new.

Here, seven strategies for giving your apartment a new year's makeover—without blowing your new year's budget:

Come up with a game plan

Though there's something to be said for diving in and seeing what works, depending on your personal preference and the scale of what you're doing, it can be helpful to devise a strategy before you start shifting around heavy pieces of furniture.

"You'll want to measure and make sure that things are going to fit where you're planning to put them," says Caleb Anderson of interior design firm Drake/Anderson. "You may have a great idea to move things around, but maybe this thing from the living room won't fit through the bedroom door. So you need to check room openings, stairs, etc."

And while you certainly don't need to draw up complex blueprints, creating a visual of your new layout can be a helpful first step, to help you visualize the layout and how items will fit in your space. Anderson suggests "mocking up" furniture placement on the floor by taking "painter's tape and mark off in the room where they want to put something. It gives a to-scale sense of how things will feel and fit into the space."

Barring that, says designer Mark Cutler of NousDecor, "Play around with it on a napkin first. Make sort of a diagram, and let that be a guide."

Either way, it's smart to take preventative measures to keep your furniture, walls, and floors from getting scuffed up in the process. "Personally, I like to start moving [furniture] around to see how it feels and what works," says designer and stager Meridith Baer. "To avoid breakage, first move all of the lamps and accessories on the kitchen coutner or in a corner, and work on placing the largest furniture pieces first." To protect your floors (and prevent annoying your neighbors with noise), Baer recommends putting felt pads on the feet of any furniture you plan on moving.

Toss the junk

In the age of Marie Kondo, you knew this one was coming. Besides the emotional catharsis, getting rid of extra junk or unwanted pieces really can work wonders for the overall look and flow of your apartment.

"I think one of the biggest things people can do is really just clearing out clutter," says Anderson. "It's amazing over the course of the year how much can accumulate in our space. And just clearing out those unnecessary items can give a room a fresh feel."

This is true of outifts you'll never wear and books you'll never read, sure, but it also applies to furniture that you don't enjoy or that doesn't really work in your home. "So many times we see people who say, 'Aunt Sarah gave me this sofa, and I've had it for 15 years,'" says Cutler. "But it's the wrong size and color, so why are you holding onto it?" Instead of hanging onto old pieces out of a sense of obligation, Anderson recommends donating them to Housing Works or another similar organization.

"People have a very difficult time parting with things, but what we've found is that when they do get rid of them, they appreciate how much better it is, especially in a small space, where you want less furniture hanging around," adds Decor Aid CEO Sean Juneja.

Make room for more space—and consider unconventional layouts 

Particularly in cramped New York apartments, anything you can do to create the feeling of extra space is key. "Try not to be tied down to the floorplan you were given," says Cutler.

One counterintuitive tip: In your living room or main entertaining area, resist the kneejerk urge to position all your furniture against the walls. Instead, consider creating clusters of seating to create more intimate gathering spaces, and the feel of open air in between them. "I walk into a lot of homes and the furniture is just arrested lined up on the walls," says Anderson. "But a sofa, for example, looks great 'floating' in the room, particularly if you have a large desk or a console in the back that can ground it."

Decor Aid lead designer Alex Caratachea concurs, "When you push the furniture up against the walls, it makes the room not feel very welcoming." Instead, he recommends "creating an intimate space where you can sit down and have a conversation and not be too far from each other. Once you have a seating arrangement clustered in the middle of the room, it creates a great entertainment environment as well."

As far as the layout of that seating area, it should hinge on where the couch is facing. "Have the seating face a point of interest, such as the best view, or the fireplace," says Baer. "Arrange the furniture to invite a conversation."

In the bedroom, says Baer, "Make sure you don't place the bed too close to the closet, because you'll be going in and out of there a lot."

And if it all possible, she recommends adding in some seating, even if it's just a small table and chair. "The room will feel much larger," Baer exlains.

Move smaller furnishings room to room 

Other than major pieces like your bed and sofa, most of your furniture can likely work in any room, and you should use this flexibility accordingly.

"Just because this chair has always been in the living room doesn't mean it might not be a better chair for reading a book in the bedroom, and vice versa," says Caratachea. Similarly, he says, if you have two nightstands on either side of your bed, consider moving one so that it's a side table in the living room, then bringing in an extra lamp, or if you need it, a small stool as a replacement stand for your personal items. "That gives you an extra 20 inches of resting space, so then in your bedroom you have more space to walk around and change."

Caratachea also suggests moving around the artwork and mirrors that are hanging on your walls for a quick refresh, while Anderson suggests making the most of any clutter you haven't cleared out. "You might have a pile of books tucked in a corner," he says, "Maybe put them on the coffee table, make them feel more styled and homey."

Reshuffle rugs

As with seating clusters, rugs can easily create the illusion of less or more space and light in a room. "You can rotate your area rugs around your apartment or home, and that really does change each room because you see the rug in different lighting, and the colors will pop differently in each room as well," says Caratachea.

And if you have the option, now might be the time to upgrade to a larger rug for your living room. "If you have a small rug just floating in the middle of a seating group," says Anderson, that will make the room feel smaller. Though not every piece of furniture has to fully fit on the rug (for instance, he notes, it's not the end of the world if the back legs of the sofa are placed outside the area of the carpet), a larger rug will give the room and seating area a more spacious, cohesive feel.

Fine-tune the lighting

As anyone who's suffered under harsh fluorescent glare can tell you, lighting will easily make or break the feel of a room. Instead of overhauling your entire apartment's lighting scheme (or springing for the installation of new recessed lamps), focus on simple changes and maximize natural light.

"Remove heavy draperies and replace them with simple sheers," suggests Baer. 

"Window treatments are a great way to change the mood of your apartment," adds Cutler. "Whether you have blinders or draperies with sheer, this way, you can have them fully open, or just have some light coming in. Try to give yourself options."

As for the rest of the lighting, Anderson suggests adding a dimmer switch to give you options for adjustments, while Cutler recommends swapping out transluscent lampshades for opaque ones, which create more light on horizontal surfaces, the kind you would otherwise get from recessed lighting. "If you have a sofa that's just a little ratty, in romantic lighting, it can look fantastic," says Cutler.

And if you don't want to buy any new shades or fixtures, Caratachea suggests switching out the sconces and ceiling lights between rooms, as they're likely the same size, and can go a long way towards giving the room new life.

Consider a fresh coat of paint

If you've got the time and budget for a slightly more intensive project, a fresh coat of paint can brighten up a space like nothing else. But don't limit yourself to white and eggshell.

Instead, says Cutler, consider changing just the color of the ceiling. "Especially if your apartment is a little all over the place or you don't have money to refurbish, you have to find something to unite the unit, and painting the ceiling might tie all the space together," he explains. "I love a dusty pale pink ceiling, since the light it reflects is so romantic and flattering."

"Ironically," Cutler adds, "If you have a low ceiling, a deeper color like olive green or chocolate can make the ceiling disappear in a way," creating the feeling of more space.

And ultimately, there's no need to sweat it too much, as most of these changes are easily reversible. "Move your stuff around, let it sit for a few days, and see if you like it," says Caratachea. "If you don't, you can always move it again."


Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.