For many of us, decorating an apartment feels more like a chore than an opportunity. Moving into a new place means an obligatory trip to IKEA, rounded out by a few impulse purchases on Amazon. A couple years later, we swap out the sheets and repaint the walls, and slowly accumulate books, bedding and DVDs, which accidentally become part of our ad-hoc interior design.
But decorating — and redecorating — can be so much more than that. And it should be: Design isn’t just about what “works,” but about who we are. What we put in our apartments is one of our greatest act of self-expression. Think back to walking through someone’s doors for the first time, and remember the flood of impressions you drew from the decor. A living space speaks volumes about the person who lives there. As Virgina Postrel writes, ‘I like that’ becomes ‘I’m like that.’
Interior design expresses who you are.
Think about the coolest apartment, house or even bedroom that you’ve been in. What you remember probably isn’t a huge flat screen television or the world’s best steak knives. What you remember is the overall style, or some individual expression of that style. You remember the coolest couch you’ve ever seen, an original piece of art, or a bookshelf arranged in a memorable fashion. More importantly, you remember the feeling it left of the person who lives there.
The reason you remember that impression rather than consumer electronics is that, just like the clothes you wear, good design communicates something about the person through their space. The best living spaces, like the best wardrobe, reveal our inner selves in a powerful and interesting fashion.
To a lesser extent, design, like style, should be aspirational — it should also display who you want to be. The books you want to read, the movies you want to watch, the lesson plans from the side classes you’re taking — these are as much a part of the decor as your IKEA couch and your Pulp Fiction poster. That doesn’t mean you should pretend to be something you’re not, but you can and should make your apartment represent both your best self and the self you’re in the process of becoming.
Good interior design is brave interior design.
Some guys are worried about showing too much of who they are with their apartments. They think that if they display the “wrong” parts of themselves, they’ll turn people away. For example, your instinct might be to tear down the vintage beer poster on your wall, when the problem isn’t the content, but the presentation. A nice frame can turn a juvenile impulse purchase into a solid piece of Americana.
The same object in your apartment can also communicate something completely different to different people. For example, action figures can be seen alternately as “childish,” “playful” or “nerdy,” depending on who’s looking at them. A trophy from your high school football team can lead others to believe you’re athletic, proud of your achievements or clinging to your glory years. The quality of your decor depends on how, and how well, it reflects your true self at the moment. It also depends on who’s observing it, which you have far less control over.
The bolder you are in your design, the better your decor will play with other people. Only by being an honest and deliberate decorator can you reconnect with who you really are and authentically present it to your guests.
Work with what you already have.
Any sort of overhaul, whether it’s your wardrobe or your apartment, needs to begin with where you are now. If you look around your place, it’s already showing something about who you are at this moment. Some of these possessions still reflect your true self, and these are the things you’ll keep. Many will feel obsolete, and those will go.
A lot of what you already own might be perfectly functional for what you need, while also expressing what you want about your personality. Don’t feel the need to chuck everything out just because you want your apartment to have a “new look.” Even a few new pieces can have a powerfully transformative impact on your current living space. Your couch might be functional, but a new coffee table will bring it new life and tie it into the living room. Your current poster collection might feel lackluster, but some good frames will turn it into a collection.
Resist the urge to hold onto possessions out of nostalgia. Some items have sentimental value, and many of these are worth storing. But items kept for the sake of keeping them quickly become clutter. They can also distract from the elements of your apartment that are working nicely. Deciding what to keep and what to toss can be a fun and liberating process.
Redesigning your place isn’t about erasing your past and replacing it with a new model. It’s about giving your past some better presentation and combining it with your present and future.
Know your needs.
Before you start filling your apartment with new stuff, consider what purpose those items will serve. Which means that before you head to Pier 1 Imports, take a moment to think specifically about what you want and what you need.
Decide which kind of living space you want to have in terms of pure functionality. For example, do you plan to entertain a lot? If so, you’ll need to have a space that’s conducive to socializing. If you want to have friends who stay with you from out of town, you’ll need a place for them to sleep, even if it’s just a comfy futon and some closet space. If your place is doubling as a home office, it might need to look professional. In that case, you might want a separate area for working and a functional table for clients and guests.
Use your wants and needs to redecorate. It will help you to build the right place from the ground up, rather than selecting what seems nice, or having to fit your life into an unhelpful design.
Creatively fantasize about your dream apartment.
Daydreaming is an important part of redecorating. The final stage of planning your new space is using your personality and your needs to creatively daydream about how to best express them.
So think about how the best possible version of your apartment would look. If you had a million dollars to spend just on decorating your place as it is now, what would you want to put in it? (Of course, most of us probably don’t have a million dollars to spend on decorating, but this is just an exercise.)
Once you’ve dreamed, bring your dreams down to earth. Based on where you are in life, how close can you get? There are probably cheaper versions of your million dollar apartment that you can craft. You can express yourself similarly on a budget. Garage sales and estate sales are where flea markets tend to get their wares, so look for pieces in those unexpected places. eBay is also a great marketplace, especially for decorations. And while a certain Swedish furniture store isn’t exactly making stuff that lasts forever, you might be able to find excellent facsimiles of the next period of your life.
Whatever you want to express about yourself with your million dollar dream house can be expressed on a fraction of that budget. It’s just a question of distilling your vision and finding a cheaper way to express it. If you’re really on a budget, it might make sense to rank your wants and needs by importance. Needs come first, then desires, and some wants will be more compelling than others.
Put your decor to good use.
The best part of redecorating? Settling into your new place, and making the most of it.
As you decorate, make sure that you use the pieces you’ve purchased. Have people over. Celebrate the changes you’ve made in your living space and use their utility and comfort to guide your future decorating. Great design isn’t just a private experience.
And redecorating isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a dynamic process — one that, if done well, can become part of your lifestyle. Sunday trips to the flea market can be a great way to spend an afternoon or get to know a new partner, and moving pieces around can turn into a great Saturday night. Slowly evolving your place as you evolve yourself can also reduce costs. Rather than buying everything all at once, you pick items up here and there, and get more mileage out of your possessions.
Which is one of the best ways to rekindle and communicate your identity, using your home as a canvas.