Design Your Rental’s Interior (w/o Upsetting the Landlord!)

The principles of interior design are simple and finite. OK, well, at least finite.

A well-designed but well-organized space.

There are quite a few things you can do with a house you own that you can’t do with a rental — at least, not without getting some serious feedback from the landlord. Fortunately, the basic rules of interior design don’t need you to do anything to your rental. You can work with whatever the rental gives you and still come out with a space that you’ll love to come home to. Let’s talk design principles:

All-Purpose Interior Design Principles for Renters

  • Step 1: Find the Dominant Wall. When you walk into a given space (from the perspective of a guest, so on the path from the front door), there’s going to be one wall you consistently see first. That wall is the dominant wall unless the room is long and skinny — if it is, the dominant wall must be one of the two short walls. Stick to the one you’re most likely to see first.
  • Step 2: Put the Focal Point on the Dominant Wall: Almost every room will have one ‘focal point’ piece of furniture. For the living room, it’s the entertainment center; for the bedroom, it’s the bed. For some rooms, it’s chosen for you: the kitchen’s focal point is the sink, as is the bathroom, and some living room fireplaces take over as well. But as long as you have the option, the focal point should go on the dominant wall. Exception: the dining room table should generally go in the middle of the room, without regard to the dominant wall.
  • Step 3: Arrange All Seating in Relationship to the Focal Point: No matter what else is going on in the room, it’s best if anyone sitting down can see the focal point without having to strain their neck to do it. If that means putting your dining room table at a 45-degree angle to the natural square of the walls so that everyone can glance easily at the cutout to the kitchen, do that.
  • Step 4: Choose an Inspiration Piece: Whatever your space, the best way to come up with a cohesive design for it is to pick something that you love, be it a stuffed bunny or a sword or a Rembrandt, and use it as your guide. The only thing that makes something an inspiration piece is that looking at it consistently makes you feel good.
  • Step 5: Brainstorm. Write down a list of every aspect about your inspiration piece that makes you love it. Then take a list at what you wrote down, and use it to create a 2-3 word title that describes your new theme. “Persian Gardens,” “Postmodern Manhattan Loft,” and “Liberace’s Paradise” are all great examples; the only requirement is that reading your title puts you into the mood that you want your guests to be put in when they sit down.
  • Step 5: Create a Color Palette. There are lots of color palette generators online that can help you pick 3 or more colors that work together. You want to choose a ‘dominant’ color that matches the walls and/or floor, 1-2 ‘support’ colors that match the major furniture within the room, and 1-2 ‘accent’ colors that add energy and pop to the room.
  • Step 6: Dealing with Patterns and Textures: It’s a good thing to have a variety of patterns and textures within the same room. But you need to follow the three rules: 1) Make sure the background color is the same across all the patterns; 2) Make sure that the foreground colors of all of the patterns fit within the palette. 3) Vary the scale of your patterns — so if your bedspread has large rectangles, feel free to put a color-matched paisley blanket down across the foot of the bed, but only if the paisleys are small enough that they don’t appear to ‘compete’ with the large rectangles.
  • Step 7: Layer the Lights: There are three kinds of lights: Ambient, Task, and Accent. A well-decorated room has all three — lights that illuminate the whole room (ambient), lights that illuminate the places where the most work gets done (Task), and the lights that call attention to the most striking details (Accent). Layer your lights well, and it  will make the room more comfortable, more functional, and more striking to the eye — all of which is important.

Follow these rules with dedication, and you can turn even the blandest, beigest rental into a space that your guests will appreciate visiting — and you will appreciate coming home to every day.