There is this confusing gap between the time in your life when it's completely acceptable (and actually prudent) to have disposable furniture and the time in your life when you're able to have a completely furnished home that looks the "after" shots on a Property Brothers makeover. We fill this gap with particle board furniture that comes in a million pieces, secondhand rugs and antique dressers from thrift stores or Craigslist, and piece by piece we add to our homes to create a more finished space.
These tips aren't enormous life hacks. I'm not going to show you have to turn an Ikea side table into a glorious Parisian vanity. But these are all simple, small purchases you can add and changes you can make to your home as you grow into it as you inch along towards adulthood.
1. Framed art
Framing your art means you take the time to lovingly preserve something that you collected or purchased because you thought it was beautiful, and there is an inherent maturity in that. It doesn't have to be expensive, and there are plenty of frames available on the cheap that come with mats like Target and Amazon.
Even more important to me is hanging art evenly and thoughtfully. My dad is an art enthusiast and quasi-collector and has always been a big framer, but I also always observed how carefully he chose what art went where in our house, and I try to emulate that now. If your art is beautifully framed but hung off-center, too high, and crookedly, it won’t add much sophistication to your home, so break out that level and do it right.
Hot tip: there are a bunch of level apps you can download on your phone if you don’t physically own one! I use “iHandy Level Free.”
We didn’t have room for a dining table in our previous apartment, but once we got one for our new, bigger place, placemats were one of my first purchases. “Do we really need to spend $20 on placemats?” my boyfriend asked when I threw them into the cart at Target. A few days ago, he told me how much he liked them, and that he realized they proved their worth.
Here’s why placemats are great. They protect your big purchase of a dining table for a relatively low cost, and they also break up the large, empty expanse of the table top, which is especially important in a smaller apartment where a dining table can basically seem like a massive continent in the middle of your living space. We got these ones which have a natural woven feel with a gold stripe on one side. Having the gold detail facing up on all four place settings was bit too glitzy for us, so we keep three of them facing down so that only one has the gold stripe showing, and we mix up which one it is every week or so. It’s a fun, unique touch.
This is probably the #1 thing that design blogs will tell you can transform a space and make a room feel more grown-up, and I completely agree. Because we live in a high rise without much natural charm, this is especially important for adding warmth to our apartment. Curtains can be bought fairly inexpensively, but make sure to carefully assess what length works for your window because there are many different options for size. I personally like relatively sheer ones with a bit of a pattern, but there are lots of blackout curtains available as well.
I've heard friends say that they don’t have them because they don’t have curtain rods built into the windows in their apartments and don't want to make any major installations to a rented place, but this is such an easy fix. All it takes is a trip to the home store, an electric screw driver, and ten minutes to hang.
4. A paper towel stand
This is such a small thing, and ours is very a simple stainless steel one that cost $12 at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but for some reason it makes me feel like my kitchen finally belongs to a grown up. It’s probably the least necessary item on this list, but not having a nomadic roll of paper towels floating around the kitchen makes a noticeable difference, particularly because we always know where to find them when we need them now.
5. Spice organization
My love of spice organization comes from my mom, who has the mothership of kitchens. I love nothing more than having my spices alphabetized and easy to grab when I need them. In our old apartment, I had two hanging stainless steel spice racks stacked on top of each other that were screwed into the wall, and I loved that they were useful and also aesthetically pleasing. In our new place, there isn’t really a great spot to hang them so I use two drawers on either side of the stove to organize and alphabetize them, with heavily used spices like salt and pepper in the front for easy access. Either way works, and I’m happy as long I don’t have to dig through a disorganized mess of plastic bottles in pursuit of coriander.
6. A bedside lamp
I love reading before bed, but I hate getting up to turn off the light before I go to sleep. This helps save my eyes from straining at night, and it also keeps my feet safe from the monsters that live under my bed that we all know try to catch you when you return from flipping off the overhead light switch.
7. A bar cart
A bar cart might sound like a pricey item that gives you visions of Mad Men-style liquid lunches, but it actually doesn’t have to be huge purchase. There are great, inexpensive options on Wayfair and Ikea, and even a sturdy console table could serve the same purpose. Mixing cocktails and experimenting with drink combinations is one of my boyfriend’s favorite things to do at home and the basis of a regular date night for us (Negronis and American Crime Story, anyone?). He also really likes collecting and trying new types of whiskey, and since bottle designs are so elegant and unique, it’s nice to have them on display. It’s a fun conversation piece when friends come over, and an item that makes our home more fun and tailored to us.
8. A boot tray
Living in a city, a boot tray is a must. When I think about everywhere my shoes go in a typical day, I get a little grossed. Just imagine all the grime my subway-riding, NYC-street-walking shoes track into our home! This purchase is utilitarian and definitely an unsexy way to spend a few dollars, but a nice boot tray for the front door really helps keep that area neat, especially on days with bad weather. It’s easy to clean, and it also keeps our shoes organized even when they don’t make it all the way to our closets simply by creating a designated space for them.
9. A key bowl and mail basket
I bought a $10 basket at Marshall’s my first year in New York to control all the mail floating around my apartment, and man, has that thing endured. It’s our home base for mail we haven’t sorted, documents we need to hold onto but haven’t found a home for yet, cards and invitations we need to keep organized, and any other small or paper-based miscellany. We go through it every few weeks together, and then I shred the stuff we don’t need. I no longer open up cabinets and find stacks of mail someone shoved in there to get it out of the way, and I never have that nagging feeling like I missed getting an important piece of postage because of my blatant disorganization.
This year we added a key bowl to our entryway table, because keys and wallets were always ending up in the mail basket and getting buried. It’s a little wooden, pineapple-shaped bowl that my mother gave me for Christmas a few years ago, and now “in the pineapple” has become shorthand for a place to find little lost things. You can’t find your watch? Did you look in the pineapple?
10. A coffee table with storage
There are so many coffee tables to choose from these days. I picked ours (this guy right here) a year or two ago because I liked how it looked, and ended up loving it a million times more for how it functions. Being able to slide things (my boyfriend’s Xbox controller, the errant pair of headphones or running gloves, all 700 remotes required by our tv) into the shelf compartments makes our living room look much tidier, but without hiding the things we’re just tucking away for now SO well that we wouldn’t be able to find them later. Keeping the table top clear allows us to use it for so many different things, too. It’s an ottoman, a dining table, a desk, and home base for game night. I like to think Marie Kondo would be proud.
What small-scale tips and tricks do you have for making your house feel like a grown-up home base that you really enjoy?