Where I Live

I Live in a Rental—Here’s How I Transformed Our 350-Square-Foot Space Into the Apartment of Our Dreams

Tip #1: Create a design dialogue.

By Sacha Strebe
small living room—sacha strebe

Luxury linen brand Bed Threads takes us inside the homes of top designers and creatives around the globe. Up next, discover small apartment decorating ideas from our deputy editor Sacha Strebe’s European-inspired rental in Los Angeles. 

How do you feel when you’re handed a blank canvas? Does it light your creative soul on fire or does it evoke a knot-like feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach? Well, I feel both of them, equally. But here’s why I’ve learned to embrace it. When I first dipped my toes into the design world it was with great trepidation and self-sabotaging thoughts—I’m not a designer, who do I think I am?—but after about six years as a design editor and decorating my own apartment twice now (this was my first attempt), I’ve honed my eye and developed confidence around what I like and just as importantly, what I don’t. I’m very instinctive now—I know immediately when I see something if it will work in a space or not. And going back to my question earlier, I’ve really come to love both the excitement and the dread at the beginning of a new project because it’s that tension between the two that really drives me to create something special. Of course, this self-assuredness in my design decisions didn’t happen overnight (and I’m still learning) but, today I’m going to share some of the tips and small apartment decorating ideas I learned through my most recent makeover to help you in yours.

First of all, let me give you a quick background. Our little family—my husband, Troy, 12-year-old son, Neon, and 2-year-old Frenchie, Cosmo, and me—relocated from Australia to the hip Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles around six years ago and we’ve been in our small apartment ever since. As soon as we laid eyes on the modern rental we knew it was meant to be. It was the perfect stage to flex my budding designer skills—white walls, concrete floors, and loads of natural light. The living/dining area amalgamates into one open-plan space with the kitchen measuring up to be about 350-square-feet. Yes, the small space definitely presented a challenge but I love to work within constraints—it pushes you to think outside the box! 

small space decorating ideas—Sacha Strebe

Not unlike millions of other Americans, I’ve been working from home since the onset of quarantine which means I spend all day at my dining table. So, for this recent redesign, I really thought about how I use this area and what I can do to create an inspiring space that truly fuels my creative process. My husband and I met backpacking in Nice, France around 20 years ago so that memory combined with the covid-induced travel ban drew me to European influences. This culminated in the form of sculptural pieces, gilded framed artwork, vintage vessels with timeworn patina, and handmade objects like our dining table with its unique knotted base, porcelain pendant lamp by Crosland Emmons, and custom birch bed frame.

So, keep reading to learn more about the design process along with some small apartment decorating ideas to help you create the home of your dreams, too.

Images by Jenna Peffley for Bed Threads. Styling by Brady Tolbert

small apartment—Sacha Strebe

Set a Budget

First things first, we had to set a budget. Of course, this is never the fun part of any project but outlining the maximum dollar amount you’re willing to spend decorating the space is critical. Thankfully, we already had most of the foundational pieces from our first makeover—dining table and chairs, sofa, rug, accent chairs, coffee tables—so this time we searched for decorative objects, artwork, vintage vessels and vases, and sculptures that would add warmth, depth, and texture while also tapping into that European old-world style we were hoping to achieve.

Our biggest budget allocation went to our master bedroom. This space had been left untouched since we moved in and was in desperate need of an overhaul. We knew we wanted a custom bed with luxury linen sheets (thanks, Bed Threads) and eventually decided on a custom bookshelf too after not being able to find one we liked—more on that later! The custom items ended up pushing us way over our budget but we knew these investment pieces would last forever so while the initial outlay stings, its value will continue to increase over time. living room design ideas—Sacha Strebe

Create a Design Dialogue

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from the incredible Athena Calderone of EyeSwoon is to create a design dialogue within your home. What does this mean exactly? Well, you want each piece in your home to have a voice so that when they’re all styled together, they sing—or at the very least, have an interesting conversation with each other. As an editor, I’m in the business of making stories come to life—storytelling is really at the heart of everything I do whether it’s in the literal sense of putting words down on a page or it’s in the physical realm telling stories through design. So, it makes sense that I would want every piece in this space to weave a narrative about our lives and who we are as people, and as a family right now.

On one of our many sourcing trips, we stumbled upon an antique store that was crammed with trinkets (both good and bad), and my husband and I were immediately drawn to this incredible painting. It had flaking paint from age, a tiny hole, and the gilded ornate frame had seen better days with cracks and chips but we both took one look at it and agreed unanimously that it had to come home with us (it’s rare for us to both agree on something like that!). When we hung it up in the dining room it changed everything about the space. It was truly transformative. I felt like it was the missing piece that really tied all of the others together—the room was singing!

decorating on a budget—Sacha Strebe

Make It Personal

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I are travelers at heart, and after meeting in the romantic city of Nice, France, and later falling in love in Venice, Italy we really wanted to bring that European sentiment into the space. But also, who wouldn’t want to feel like they’re in Italy while they’re working from home in Los Angeles? #amirite? My husband is also really big on bringing in pieces that have meaning or add context to the space based on travel or emotional connections. Essentially, they have to have a reason for being there and marry with the existing décor. So, this meant spending our weekends searching local antique stores or hours diving into Etsy and eBay keyword holes—more on that in my next tip! 

You want to design a space that feels instinctively you so that when someone walks into the room, they immediately get a sense of who you are, what you love, and what you stand for. Of course, when you love as many styles, eras, and designers as I do, narrowing down and editing your space can be challenging. I like to create mood boards on Pinterest along with saved folders on Instagram and collect as many images as possible. This helped me get clear on my direction because I could see patterns emerge around textures, tones, eras, and moods. 

small living room—Sacha Strebe

Scour Resale Sites

A big part of making it personal is finding pieces that tell your story. That’s why I love vintage so much. From furniture to décor and even clothing, I love nothing more than diving down the rabbit hole of resale sites to find those one-of-a-kind pieces. In fact, Facebook Marketplace has become one of my favorite places to search for unique finds since my beloved flea markets have been closed during covid. It’s not featured in these photos because I found it afterward, but I scored the most incredible vintage teak ball for $100 there and a Greek-inspired plaster pedestal for $30. You just have to be willing to dig around and use multiple keyword variations to find the treasure.

After reading Athena Calderone’s tips on keywords, I have developed a mild obsession for sourcing clay, pottery, and terracotta vessels. In fact, both of the vintage vases on our table and next to our sofa are a $25 score from eBay. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of finding that perfect piece for a bargain price.

apartment decorating ideas—sacha strebe

Consider Custom

Since we’re renting, I couldn’t make any major changes, although I’d love nothing more than to gut the kitchen and bathrooms, so instead, we focused on the decorative aspects and collaborated with local makers to create personal and unique touches. When I saw this timber bed it became the inspiration behind the design of our master bedroom and so we commissioned our friend Omar (he goes by @nymphobrainiac on Instagram) to make a beautiful birch timber bedroom suite, including a bed frame and bookshelf. It was definitely an investment but we’re so happy we did

small apartment design ideas—sacha strebe

Take It Slow

Good design takes time. It’s an old adage but when it comes to decorating your home, it rings true. So, resist the urge to rush, create your mood board, sit with the images and pieces you’ve collected, and really consider what moves you emotionally (and what doesn’t). This is especially crucial before making big investments. Every day we are bombarded with inspirational images on social media that can overwhelm our senses and cause confusion around what you love, and what is just a fad or a trend that feels of the moment—but ask yourself a few questions beforehand like will I still love this in five or 10 years? Does this beautiful piece also serve my practical needs? When you get really clear on these things, you can move forward with confidence and create a space that is truly your own.

small bedroom design ideas—sacha strebe

Take Risks

Don’t be afraid to dive into the unknown and explore the unfamiliar. It’s in those moments, when you feel uncomfortable, that you are truly pushed to explore something new. It’s not always easy but inevitably you’ll tap into the magic and stumble upon something unexpected. I love those moments, even if it’s a painful process of push and pull to get there, that creative chasm is where everything happens. A well-designed room should have effortless ease and comfortability with a hint of tension and juxtaposition to keep things interesting. But above all, have fun!

What are the small apartment decorating ideas you’ve learned along the way? Share them with us below!

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