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From my home, an architectural time capsule from 1995 Chicago, I’m talking about why the tear-it-out-and-start-again attitude of American interior design feels wasteful. And I’ve found a friendly ear: “Live in the space a little bit before doing anything major, and that’ll allow you to think of other ways to do things,” says designer Brigette Romanek on a call she takes from her base in Los Angeles. “I think one of the most important things you can do to make a space your own is figure out what works for you and play off of that.” Just because something isn’t being built a certain way anymore doesn’t mean it should be destroyed, says someone who remembers the glamour of a shopping mall fountain. At home, on a smaller scale, no-demo renovation solutions—like stringing up a soft wall of curtains or maximizing that sliver of outdoor space—offer stylish, flexible innovation.
Romanek’s celebrity clients like Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow have tapped her for design choices meant to make one “feel good when you come out of the chaos.” “It’s really about the feeling that something gives me, it’s not about the price tag,” she says. She’s ragged walls, she cruises eBay, she makes DIY abstract art. “For those of us who live in apartments or are in a situation where we can’t do big renovations, I’m telling you, just changing colors of the walls and fabrics or reorienting your furniture can help lead to a new feeling—and a new look.” Instead of #demoday mania, keep that green countertop you haven’t stopped side-eyeing and help it appear, even just to you, intentional. “There are different things that one can do to make those things disappear—after a while, you will not even notice them,” says Romanek (below, her tips on changing sightlines with accessories).
One thing you should pay attention to, though, is your dream. “Be your own client,” she says. I tell her about an editor who admitted that they once pictured success as a room filled with pillows. Romanek agrees that this is the kind of instinct that can act as a guide at any age. “Don’t take the formulaic way of doing things,” she insists. “Think about how you live and make your apartment or house enhance that and work for you.” It’s your world.
Below, four interior experts on no-demo ideas for bringing new meaning—and function—to OG spaces:
To reinvent the flow of a room, “change it with curtains,” Romanek says. “It doesn’t cost much, and it’s a good fix that can absolutely change the mood.” Hanging wire systems can be sized to different areas of the room to define sections, from sleeping to working, without moving walls. “Create a privacy screen around any space by mounting rods to the ceiling,” says Austin-based interior designer Erin Williamson. “Use them to envelop your bed in a gauzy tent or even to section off areas into miniature rooms.” She likes tension rods for a no-drill execution in abbreviated spaces like window seats. “Just make sure to use them with lighter fabrics,” she notes. And for a more grounded option, consider screen dividers with gentle curves.
“One of the easiest ways to transform any space is by swapping out existing light fixtures,” says Andrew Bowen, head of staging for ASH NYC, the AD100 firm known for creating custom spaces of varying grandeur from the Hamptons to Chicago. He touts Akari light sculptures from The Noguchi Museum Shop as “lightweight, easy to install, and look great in a variety of spaces.” For lower ceilings, he often chooses Schoolhouse’s minimal Alabax series. “Good lighting can disguise a multitude of architectural sins while also defining the function and perception of space,” says Williamson. “Renters may not have the option of hardwiring sconces and pendants, but there are so many plug-in options these days.” She mounts them to the side of sofas as reading lights and flanking beds to free up nightstands. Vintage finds can even be retrofitted with Color Cord’s electrical swaps. And for lighting that’s more atmospheric than sculptural, consider an inexpensive projector system to bathe walls in sunset tones.
If being surrounded by enormous cushions makes more sense than squeezing in a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table because society says that’s what real homes look like, Romanek says there are no rules to the perfect room. Experts agree. “Think outside of the box when it comes to ottomans and poufs; you can add a balanced material story to your existing furniture in the living room and bedroom,” says Manu Ruyman Santos Fernandez, a Los Angeles-based stylist and interior designer. “Pillows are the most efficient and low-cost way of adding print, texture, and color to a living space.” He likes CB2’s options (consider the giant goop-sanctioned floor cushion) in a gradient palette for “a more elevated look,” while ASH NYC ties the slogan “often imitated, never duplicated” to their industry-beloved Pillow Chair. Just last month, I spotted it, uncredited, on an Instagram mood board, and even earlier on Jenna Lyons’ Stylish HBO series.
“There are wallpapers that are peel and stick that you can take off and take with you that don’t hurt the walls of an apartment, which is a good way to go,” says Romanek. Mobility makes it a more conscious add. Williamson likes prints from Austin local Katie Kime as well as Spoonflower, where clients can upload their own designs for printing on paper thick enough to work with as a beginner, plus removable adhesive. “It’s important to plan your layout from the center of the most visible wall and work around the space,” she says of installation logistics. “If you’re wrapping around an entire room, try to hide the last seam in an inconspicuous area like over a doorway, as it’s likely the pattern won’t match where it joins.”
“Rooms should be landscaped with a variety of heights, and tall bookshelves can add that necessary architectural element,” says Williamson. “Use them to mimic an upscale library space by flanking a sofa with a pair painted to match the wall color.” She prefers a satin finish “as it hides surface imperfections and shows fewer fingerprints, especially on darker shades.”
“Obviously, a fresh coat of paint is one of the most common ways to reimagine any space,” says Bowen. “But for something a bit more interesting, we love to employ a two-tone scheme, usually with a darker color toward the bottom two thirds, and a lighter color for the top third,” he explains, adding that one should carry the color across all moldings and doors and integrate artwork like mirrors and shelving to “line up with the breaking point for a more custom look.” He loves Farrow & Ball’s eco-forward low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paints that responsibly source their pigments or Aura by Benjamin Moore in Matte.
“In many city apartments, natural light is only coming from one direction, so we use tricks to amplify the existing light,” says Williamson. “When placing mirrors, you always want to consider what will be reflected on the surface and choose the location with that in mind.” Santos Fernandez likes this Italian-inspired Villa mirror for another reason: It “would work wonders to repel bad energy at the entrance of your house, or even to enamor yourself with your very own reflection.”
Bowen believes that area rugs delineate spaces and “serve as a backdrop.” And not just in a blank canvas way. “While there are infinite solid options available, we’re leaning into more patterns as tastes evolve; people are craving the soul that vintage rugs lend to a space,” he says. For the real deal, he likes Heirloom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “For something more budget-friendly, there are contemporary options that possess some of the spirit of something that’s been loved for ages,” he says. “A personal favorite is the Iconic Stripe Rug by Sarah Sherman Samuel, available in various sizes by Lulu and Georgia.” Alternatively, Santos Fernandez likes “lavish animal print” as a way of tying in fashionable influences “for a rug that will transport you to the Yves Saint Laurent glory years and his love for decadence.” Or consider Norwegian artist Constance Tenvik, who turned her squiggly Opera Goers work into a hand-tufted rug for Layered Interiors.
“Make some room for a daybed, especially close to a window, so you can enjoy your evenings reading and napping under the warmth of the rays of sun,” says Santos Fernandez. It’s a piece to consider, offering multiple functions and various forms of repose—sitting, lounging, napping—with a low profile for rooms of any size.
“The devil is in the details,” says Santos Fernandez. For bath areas, consider every moment you could turn into a positive. The rise of eco, waterless beauty products means a swirly, hand-thrown soap dish by Philadelphia’s Louise Sullivan can make a bar of soap look aspirational. A sculptural standing towel bar means your bathroom door no longer doubles as a drying rack, while a drawer lined in scented paper starts a wave of behind-the-scenes organizational control.
Textiles And Textures
To soften hard-edged architecture or bring familiar rooms a new attitude, Romanek believes in textiles. “It could be as simple as changing a fabric,” she says, appreciating that there are always new textures and shades to examine. Bed Threads, whose French linen offerings come in hues like rosewater and terracotta, just added lilac and peach to their often-sold-out color wheel. Of course, Santos Fernandez dares clients “to spice up things by incorporating a bright color like red on your bed linens.”
“You can do things like take a huge canvas and have fun,” says Romanek of designing your own large-scale art. “Fifteen years ago, I was not in a position where I could afford things that I wanted, so I went to the art store and created a piece that I thought was super fun and very abstract. I put it on the wall, and it changed the space and the energy,” she says. “It creates such a nice feeling; it’s something that’s personal to you.” For anyone intimidated by a brush, graphic designer Milou Neelen’s Hotel Magique creations are printed by Artfully Walls onto museum-quality paper.
Functional outdoor spaces offer the kind of fresh air that design houses are breathing, too. Sarah Jessica Parker’s collection for Novogratz features luxurious outdoor loungers worthy of a landline telephone call, while Target’s Studio McGee designs offer composite planters that are lightweight enough for unfinished roofs operating as summer decks. Plus, it’s easy to experiment when boundaries disappear: “An ultra ornate Chinese Garden stool will look great as a plant pedestal on your outside area!” enthuses Santos Fernandez.
Romanek understands that some retro elements, yes, could be replaced. First, strategically reimagine: “If it’s something where you’re just adamant that it has to be changed, find ways to make it better,” she says. “There are things you can do to disguise and camouflage things that you don’t necessarily love. All of a sudden, it becomes fun, almost like this cool challenge—there are tricks to make it personal for you.” For a rogue countertop shade, you don’t love, like the aforementioned green tile, find its complement. “Put pink flowers on that countertop, get a pink vase.” Even kitchenware is now an entire category of intelligent design, she reminds me. Santos Fernandez declares that “a house without flowers is not a house,” and loves an Elsa Peretti glass dish as a “perfect pocket emptier tray” that brings sophistication even to an end-of-day tumbling of wrappers and keys.