8 Decorating Rules When You've Got A Roommate

Photographed by Anna-Alexia Basile.
I met Blake the day I moved to New York, in May of 2012. We were subletting a mutual friend’s apartment, and though we’d heard of each other over the years, we’d never crossed paths. We lived in our Chinatown sublet for three months, before (somewhat impulsively) deciding to move in together more permanently — to a dysfunctionally small SoHo apartment.

This was a big decision, given our conflicting tastes. Blake is traditional, and I’m the opposite. He’s set his iPhone display to grayscale, and I’ve categorized my apps by color. He organizes the contents of his closet by color; the contents of my closet are usually strewn across my floor.

After three years and a cockroach infestation, it was glaringly obvious that we needed more space. In June of 2015, we migrated to Carroll Gardens. Our apartment is four times the square footage of our SoHo apartment, and we basically decorated the space from scratch. After four years of living together, Blake and I love each other dearly, but we still don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to home decor — yet our apartment today is the perfect combination of our competing aesthetics. Somehow, it works.

Ahead, our eight tips for decorating with your polar opposite, whether you’re living with a random roommate or your soul mate. You might not always get what you want, but you’ll find yourself in a home you both love.

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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
Since moving, we’ve grown fond of the neighborhood’s collective habit of abandoning perfectly good furniture. Almost every day, the streets around us are peppered with functional chairs, tables, and lamps. An easy way to facilitate compromise is when we come into free furniture. The stakes are low: If one of us dislikes a piece, we can return it (to the streets!) without feeling financially strained. And we’ve found some great pieces — that we both like — along the way: nesting tables, dining room seating, and chaise lounge chairs for our roof. The hunt itself is always exciting, and everything we’ve found is put to practical, everyday use in our home.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
In our SoHo apartment, we had a single small wall to decorate. I insisted on executing an art display that I’d come up with: I wanted to put up a collection of Maira Kalman illustrations from The Elements of Style. With dorm-room life top of mind, I thought that taping up the pages of the book would be adequate.

Having lived in an apartment for his final three years of college, Blake was far past wall posters. While he appreciated the art I wanted to hang, he encouraged me to frame the drawings. I loved the idea (the way a retriever loves being trained), and spent an afternoon in Target’s frame aisle, curating the installation.

Over the years, Blake and I have continued to collect pieces of quasi-art. (Our tastes here are predictably different; while Blake holds a vintage Barbra Streisand record sleeve near and dear to his heart, my collection includes a humorous pizza-box lid that I shlepped home from a trip to the south of France.) Both Barbra and the pizza box lid are safe behind glass; they are displayed with intention and grace rather than with scotch tape and sticky tack. And the Maira Kalman gallery wall lives on in our new apartment as an homage to both our former apartment and our first joint effort.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
The most significant lesson I’ve learned is how to recognize my shortcomings, and how they relate to Blake’s complementary strengths. He has a better eye for the big picture. While his taste is much more traditional than mine, it’s ended up being a benefit for the basics in our apartment.

When we first moved to Carroll Gardens, we settled on a neutral color palette for our shared space. Our kitchen — reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld’s — bleeds into our main space, so we had to keep its earthy colors in mind. By agreeing on a corresponding color scheme early on, we automatically had guidelines for the rest of our furniture and decor. This simplified the shopping process and any disagreements we had around color.

We stuck to four colors, and they informed the larger items in our space. We inherited a dark brown leather sofa from Blake’s mom that we set on top of a tan jute rug to anchor the room. Blake took those colors into account when staining the dining room table; our bar stools fall into the same color family also. By sticking to less dramatic colors, our space became a blank canvas off of which we could riff with colorful artwork and accessories.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
Furnishing a large-ish apartment from scratch can of course be financially draining. We both wanted to avoid that Ikea-chic look, despite living a 20-minute walk away from Red Hook’s Ikea (where we occasionally brunch).

We turned to Craigslist for these decor needs. Beyond finding affordable furniture, picking up pieces together has been a nice bonding experience (we recommend taking a buddy along with you to gather any finds). Blake (and Blake alone) spent countless hours searching for the perfect bar cart. After we agreed on one, we headed to Molly-from-Craigslist’s apartment in Gramercy to pick up this holy grail.

Molly greeted us by aggressively informing us that we’d have to sneak the bar cart out of the doorman-manned apartment building (only professional movers were allowed to handle furniture, and even they were confined to the freight elevator). She then tried to sell us the rest of her furniture, which we pretended to consider out of politeness and fear. We exchanged cash for cart and ran for the elevator, squeaking loudly along the way.

Sneaking a bar cart out of any building is obviously impossible; fitting a bar cart into a sedan is almost impossible; carrying a bar cart up four floors is definitely possible though it necessitates post-move alcohol. Today, the bar cart acts not only as a functional fixture, it also represents a shared silly memory.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
As we built out our apartment, finding a dining room table proved to be one of the most difficult tasks. Blake had a particular size and aesthetic in mind, and after some fruitless Craigslist options, he heroically accepted the carpentry challenge.

Known by some (read: none) as the Bruce Springsteen of DIY, Blake took a day trip home to New Jersey, where he spent 12 hours sawing, sanding, soldering, and staining lumber and pipes, which finally took the form of a table. Today, it sits proudly as the centerpiece of our living room and acts as a base for brunches, Friendsgivings, and our annual latke dinner.

This wasn’t the only DIY project Blake tackled. Armed with spray paint, he breathed new life into two side tables, a lamp, and a set of storage cubes abandoned by the previous tenant. Not only were they fun projects, they also helped us lock in a consistent color scheme: We now have a collection of home goods in the same color (thanks to our limited spray paint collection), spread throughout our apartment.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
Blake and I often come to a natural consensus about interesting lighting. To add some dimension to our overhead fixtures, he installed four dimmer switches. Whenever guests notice them, they’re always impressed by our (Blake’s) handiness, which is a nice bonus, because everything in life is a competition.

We’ve since expanded our options with an assortment of table lamps to enhance the apartment’s eye-level lighting (yes, this is a thing, according to Blake). Still riding the dimmer train, Blake swapped in dimmer switches for these lamps, too. We can now change the ambience of the room at the drop of a dime. (Oh, Miguel’s coming over? Dim the lights.)

But because we’re greedy, greedy people, we wanted more. More ambience! More mood lighting! Today, our apartment is sprinkled with candles of all shapes and sizes. We’ve splurged on just a few scented ones and have filled the rest of the space with cost-friendly tea lights, dropped into empty jam and salsa jars.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
As a comedian, my sense of humor informs all woks of my life. I have a surplus of humorous home goods, from my collection of faux taxidermy to my vintage Rosenthal Hafner tableware.

When Blake and I had to first decorate our SoHo apartment, he had no idea what he’d be up against. He was horrified when I texted him a photo of a mustache shower curtain while shopping for bathroom essentials. The episode sparked a somber conversation on the topic of Humor And Household, and it was a milestone in my understanding of How To Decorate Your Home Like An Adult.

Blake has taught me that, design-wise, hints of humor say more than odes to humor. Together, we’ve found a distinct balance between personality, form, and function. This trifecta makes our apartment unique: If you look around our space, you’ll notice playful winks, though they are subtle enough to go unnoticed. My collection of French children’s tins, for instance, adds hints of color and humor throughout the apartment. But, the tins are intentionally spaced out from one another so as not to overwhelm any one corner with too much character.
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Illustrated by Natalia Spotts.
Blake and I recently entered our fifth year of living together; we’re now pros at handling differences of opinion about our apartment. Neither of us are timid when we disagree, and we know each other well enough to predict when a conflict will arise. While we both understand the necessity of compromise for our shared space, we keep a strict division between church and state (if bedroom = church; shared space = state, duh)

My church resembles the room of an eccentric toddler. The faux taxidermy extends past the living room and onto my bedroom wall, which also hosts an illustrated portrait of Larry David. There are hints of my various adventures around the room, including a flamenco shawl, ceramic figurines, and an enormous collection of mardi gras beads draped across my footboard — to curtail any misconceptions that I don’t enjoy a good time.

On the other hand, Blake's abode is void of color and recalls a stark townhome in the royal borough of Kensington. I’ve watched him master the art of the personal gallery wall; he recently executed a gallery corner above his leather swivel chair. (This isn’t to say that the little color that lives in his room isn’t extremely organized. It is.)