I lived in a living room for two years. I've lived in an attic overrun by ants for another two. I've lived in a space just big enough for a full-size bed and an IKEA dresser, and I've lived with three other girls in an apartment in a building that housed squatters just a few years prior. And, my boyfriend? Let's just say that in the four years he's been in NYC, he's inhabited six different apartments, and it's not because he likes to move.
Living in less-than-stellar spaces is as much a part of the NYC experience as learning how to negotiate your fare in a black cab. For this reason, you won't find anyone in the world who can be as cunning as New Yorkers when it comes to turning the squalid into something cozy, homey, and full of personality. When the real estate market gives us lemons, we figure out a way to at least make those lemons look like they came out of The Selby.
After saving and scheming for years, my boyfriend and I moved into what's basically a palace: a 750-square-foot one-bedroom in Brooklyn that we're not planning on leaving, ever. I can't even express how liberating it was to pick out furniture based on what we liked and not on what was spill-proof for the first time in our lives. But, merging our two different styles? Comic-book nerd into Explorers Club-style haberdashery versus a print-mix maven with a penchant for pop art? Oil, meet water.
However, if there's anyone who can mix Spider-Man posters with Moroccan-style rugs, it's interiors expert Gunnar Larson. With his guiding hand, Gunnar harmonized our things, gave our space a superficial facelift, and taught us how to think outside the box. Ahead, find 34 tips for making over a space, no matter if you're working with 300 square feet or 3,000.
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With lower ceilings and huge expanses of wall, our living room is shaped like a squat box. One of the first pieces of furniture we splurged on was a sectional, and we balanced it out with a large area rug from Target and two occasional chairs from a neighborhood flea market. We loved our individual pieces, but the whole thing felt a little…square. The empty white wall was also a big issue, but we didn't have enough artwork for a gallery wall yet and didn't feel like buying a ton of prints at once.
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Pretty extreme, no? Even though the change looks drastic, we didn't actually acquire much new furniture for this. The first thing Gunnar did was move the couch. Instead of facing the TV, the couch now opens up the room, which makes the space feel more intimate and also bigger (isn't it funny how that happens?).
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One of my favorite tips was to paint a dark accent color on the TV wall. When turned off, the TV blends into the background. When on, the image really pops against the deep gray.
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We replaced our vintage trunk with a circular coffee table. When it comes to making an angular space feel less so, it helps to pick a colorful piece in a round shape. This table is definitely a piece of eye candy.
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We already owned this rug that used to live in our bedroom (which is coming up in this slideshow!). It's significantly smaller, which we had originally thought would make the room look tinier, but Gunnar knew it would have the opposite effect. Fitting just right underneath the couch, the rug really sets off this area as a space just for lounging. By opening up the wood floor, the smaller, lighter hued rug made the living room feel way more expansive.
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Our apartment comes with these huge windows — and an old-school, industrial-size AC unit. To hide them while bringing some color into the space, Gunnar suggested buying four curtain panels. The ombré gradient also helps draw the eye up, which makes the ceiling feel higher.
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As writers, Nathan and I are also avid readers and subscribe to more magazines than sane people should. Before, we used to stash them all on the coffee table, which resulted in frequent glossy avalanches. With this partitioned magazine rack, we can keep each month's arrivals separated into "Have Already Read" and "Yet To Read." Or, more likely, "Fashion Magazines" and "Everything Else."
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Instead of a gallery wall, Gunnar suggested we splurge (and I mean really splurge) on two oversized pieces of art we truly love. These vintage, Audubon-style canvases feel like naturalist drawings and recall a lot of the different colors we have in the living room.
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We moved the trunk behind the chairs to create a minibar area. Sticking to one color scheme (in our case, gold!) makes mismatched glasses look cohesive. This way, when the inevitable tumbler breaks, you won't be heartbroken!
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Here's our dining area (and, as someone who's grown accustomed to eating meals while perched on her bed, this is a huge deal). Since our ceilings are cement and don't easily accommodate overhead lighting, we rigged a chandelier above our table with a big, thick wire that comes out of the center of the wall.
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To hide the wire, Gunnar cut a few pieces of plastic that he taped to the wall with double-sided adhesive. With tape, you can easily rearrange these accents so they're positioned exactly how you'd like them.
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We love the bench that came with our dining table. When we have lots of people over, it can squeeze in a couple more people, and we can move it around for extra seating in the living room, too. The main problem? It's hard. To cozy things up, we layered a soft sheepskin on top.
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We're so not into permanent table-scapes, but an empty table can make a room look sad. To dress things up without creating something fussy, Gunnar pulled an elevated fruit bowl and a big, ol' brass shofar that are visually stunning but easy to move around.
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This IKEA set of shelves was definitely a cheap thrill, but it's one of the most important pieces of furniture in the apartment. It not only doubles as a place to stash all our books, but it also functions as Nathan's primary workspace. As a freelancer, he needs easy access to his laptop, a printer, and his files. To dress it up, we dumped a ton of tchotchkes on the shelves, but the look probably was more messy than we would have wished.
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The first thing Gunnar did was cut our stuff by half. Most of the books went onto a standing bookshelf in our bedroom, and the resulting novels were ones Nathan references the most for work; we also left boxes where he can stash important papers. See what a difference a little editing makes?
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We replaced the big, solid walnut chair with a sleeker ghost Eames chair. Having one piece of trendy furniture is as important in a home as a designer handbag is in a closet. A side chair like this is on the cheaper end of the spectrum, but it's definitely still a commitment. Visually, the Lucite disappears into the background and doesn't contribute to the visual clutter.
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Gunnar replaced our smaller print with a larger movie poster. Having the top of the art extend beyond the shelves to the ceiling makes the space appear taller.
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What we do have in the bathroom is a small window. Gunnar switched out our curtain to a clear liner, which allows tons of natural light to shine through.
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Without the shower curtain, we needed some color in the room. Gunnar suggested adding in different types of towels to inject pattern. These Kenzo options are sick, and we mixed a couple of prints for a layered look. As for artwork, we were scared that the humidity might damage valuable paintings, but an inexpensive Magritte print can easily be replaced if it starts to get water damaged.
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A hearty plant like a ficus can withstand the hot and cold temperatures of bathrooms. Plus, it'll get watered with each shower! Since the windowsill isn't truly waterproof, we set our jumbo-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner on a bamboo sushi geta that'll resist water.
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We got rid of those balsam boxes when Gunnar found these amazing containers that fit and organize everything we need. Technically for baby supplies, these pods hold lotions and shaving kits as neatly as binkies and bottles. One's for Nathan, and one's for me (although, there's definitely some spillover — guess who has more products?).
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I love patterns, but Gunnar pointed out that the comforter and rug were competing with another visually. He suggested trying out dark colors and rich textures for a bedroom that feels like an escape. I'd still get to mix prints, but it'd be easier when they're in the same color family. Plus — that AC unit. The thing was installed pretty permanently by the previous tenants, so it can't really go anywhere in the winter months. What to do?
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Tada! The anchor piece was a canvas I've had for ages but never hung. It looked perfect above the bed and set the stage for the rest of the items.
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We swapped the Beni Ourain-inspired rug for the darker piece that used to be in the living room. It's nearly as big as the space, but in an enclosed area like that, a dark, large rug can make the room look deep and cavernous.
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I'm not sure what the neurotic reasoning was behind keeping Nathan and my nightstands spare and similar (too many forced instances of multi-use nightstand/dining table/accessories closet), but Gunnar gave me the okay to actually keep the side tables stocked. Nathan likes ending the night with a mug of tea and a good book, so he keeps a portable kettle, teas, and a stack of books that he reads on rotation by his side.
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Conversely, on mine, I like to run through my nighttime skin-care regimen in bed. I keep serums, eye creams, lip balms, and face mists close by (and my contact case and solution!), so I don't have to stumble around the apartment blindly.
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When it comes to mixing prints and textures, Gunnar let us know that a trick to making it feel seamless is to pick two colors and stick with those. In our case, it was a charcoal gray and a sunny yellow. In felts, furs, velvets, and cottons, our bedside setup felt lush and full but not chaotic.
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Remember that ugly air conditioner in the window? Gunnar suggested installing cafe curtains with a tension rod to hide the eyesore.
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And, there I am doing my best mermaid pose! Thanks to Gunnar, our home not only feels matched to both of our different personalities, but it's also a total collaboration. It was a dream home when we moved in, but with some smart re-organization, strategic purchases, and an edited eye, we now have a space that is perfect.