Apartment decorating 101: how to style your first “grown up” space

Apartment decorating tips

Photo via Remodelista

As you guys know, Neal and I moved into our first apartment together this past week!

(My friends on the Ask Jess email list already know this, because I usually share way too much information over our little Friday AM coffee sessions, but for the rest of you: I’ve been itching to share the big news for months!)

Because this is my first “grown up” apartment, admittedly, I was really nervous about decorating it. (Nervous would actually be an understatement.) I’ve never had to test my interior design skills before. What if I was terrible at it? There are so many decisions to make at once!

For example: Neal and I went to Target last week and I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even bring myself to pick out water glasses.

WATER GLASSES. Who cares about water glasses? Clearly I do.

Then, we decided bath towels might be an easier thing to pull the trigger on.

Nope. Upon picking up a plush white Nate Berkus towel in aisle 10, I burst into tears. For years (literally, years,  you guys) I’ve dreamed of having nice bath towels. Like, the kind that all match, are super thick and fluffy. The kind you can hand in a neatly folded stack to a house guest with pride. Now it came down to the moment I was buying them–do I want to get them from Target? What if I can get better, cheaper ones on Amazon? Wayfair? The options were endless. It was too much to handle.

If I couldn’t even pick out a bath towel, how the hell was I going to furnish an entire apartment?

Thankfully, I have my friend, Donna. (Remember her house here?) Donna owns a very successful interior design company here in Chicago, and luckily, she was willing to share her tips with us! Read below for Donna’s apartment decorating 101!

Grab a pen and paper, you’re going to want to take notes:


Digitize your space

No matter what your budget is, the basic process is the same. With every project Donna and her team work on, they ALWAYS start with the space plan. The pros like her use AutoCad for this, but Roomsketcher.com is a great free option that will let you lay out your room in a snap.

Get out your tape measure

Get your measuring tape out and get to work! Put your measurements into the room planner and start playing with furniture.

Donna’s rule of thumb for major traffic patterns: 36” clearance between pieces. Other areas can be closer together like 15-18” between a sofa and cocktail table. End tables should be within 6-8” of the sofas or chairs. Take the time to get the layout right before hitting the streets or the internet. Use this space plan as your shopping guide to what fits comfortably.

Pick a focal point

Everything starts with the focal point – television, fireplace, or maybe a view. Arrange the furniture around this point and be sure to leave enough space between that furniture. (See above!)

Look for inspiration 

Search PinterestHouzz, or Instagram for inspiration. Don’t limit yourself to interiors. Donna says, “I get much of my inspiration from fashion!” Start pinning things you like and you’ll likely find a common theme. Are there colors you are drawn to? Textures you love? Metal finishes you gravitate towards? Take note!

Work in layers 

Decorating your apartment is just like putting an outfit together!

Start with the main pieces as staples: sofa, chairs, cocktail table, dining table, etc. Then add in the second layer of art, rugs, and lighting. After that, accessorize! It’s like icing a cake. Be sure to mix in different textures and materials. 
 Don’t be afraid to blend different metallics (all the cool kids are doing it). Donna’s favorite textures: fur, mohair, sisal, and silk.

Find an inspiration piece

Your inspiration piece could be a patterned rug, bold piece of framed art, or a fabric you love. Then build the rest off of that!

Layer your lighting

Be sure to have overhead lighting if possible for ambient lighting, task lighting where needed, and accent lighting to set the mood of the room. I love dimmers so I have options with my lighting and can change it up as needed.

The three times color rule

If you have a color you’re trying to work into your home, repeat it three times within the room and it will likely make sense. Your mind will connect the items and accept the color. “There’s a lot of psychology in design!” as Donna says.

Dining Room table shapes

Generally rounds work best in rooms that are almost square. If you have a more pronounced rectangular space, then a table that’s a rectangle will make more sense.



wall mount if at all possible and find a cool piece of furniture to sit underneath and house the components. We rarely select actual television consoles as I find regular chests and consoles far more interesting. Measure your components to be sure they’ll fit in the interior of the cabinet. Then have someone handy cut the back with grommet holes for cords to run through and venting so the components don’t overheat.


Do not buy matching sets of furniture! Can you tell Donna and I are passionate about this one? You want your home to look collected and interesting, like it effortlessly happened over time. Donna says, “every time an interior of ours looks too perfect, I throw in an old reclaimed bench or vintage brass sculpture!”

Add some whimsey

“It’s the opposite of predictability!” says Donna. Throw in a peace-sign hand, a skull tic tac toe set, or a snake letter opener on top of your bar cart. These fun accents become conversation starters and keep your rooms from being too “nice”. (Tip: If you’re in Chicago–Donna and I both LOVE Randolph Street Market for finding those one-of-a- kind treasures!)

Don’t ignore the ceilings

One of Donna’s trademarks is making this forgotten element dramatic–she uses wallpaper, accent paint colors, and millwork on the ceiling to make the room truly unforgettable.

Go all-in on color

Repeat after me…”I will not be afraid of color”. (Jess’ note: okay, admittedly, I’m still working on this one. Coming from the girl that just paid someone to paint her walls white.)

Donna recommends: if you’re going to go with color, don’t wimp out and do an accent wall! Do all the walls and commit to it! Whatever you do, don’t judge the color until it’s done. She says, “my favorite room colors looked HORRIBLE going up. Once the room is completed, the true color shines. Well, unless you got it wrong.”


What other design tips would you like to know? Should we have Donna back here soon? If you’re interested in learning more about her services, check out her website here!

  • I’ve struggled with this SO much, and can’t even imagine how much harder it will be when I have to design for a guy’s taste as well. These tips are awesome and I’ll likely apply some of them next paycheck 😉 xo

    • It’s definitely so much harder! But it’s also so much fun decorating something together and having our place be “very us,” you know?

  • That three times color rule is so helpful. Never heard that one before! I’d really like to hear more from Donna. Personally I’m struggling with my floors 🙁 Any tips on how to make tiles less unsightly while we save up for a hardwood reno? It would also be cool if she could give us room by room tips (kitchen, bathroom, closet, etc.). This stuff is way harder than I thought it would be, ha!

    Danielle| D is for Dreamer

    • Totally!! I know, I wish hardwood wasn’t so expensive! I’ll see if she has any tips for that, as well as room by room!

    • Donna Banker Hall

      Hi Danielle! First thought is to get large area rugs to cover as much of the tile as possible. It’s easy to neutralize them with a large sisal then throw a hide rug on top. If it’s bathroom tile, you can still cover a good amount with rugs. Hope that helps! Donna xo

  • Great tips! I’m trying to get better with decorating!

    Her Heartland Soul


    • You and me both, lady! 😉

  • Love all of these tips, Jess and Donna! I moved into my new (to me…it’s actually really, really old) apartment two months ago and I’m about to tackle the massive 12-ft-ceiling painting job that will realistically take me MONTHS to finish. In college, I wouldn’t have cared…but this whole grown up thing is a different story.

    Natalie | Natalie Was Here

    P.S. – I’m all about the “Add some whimsy” tip. Columbus has some really great
    vintage/thrift scores that are chock-full of great treasures 🙂

    • We have really tall ceilings too, and the biggest hurdle we ran into was realizing that we needed a 10 foot ladder that wasn’t going to fit into Neal’s car! We were actually going to WALK a ladder a mile from Home Depot! But we ended up finding an awesome guy on craigslist to do my whole apartment for $320. After all was said and done and all the hard costs we would have incurred doing it ourselves, we only ended up spending about $100 extra bucks for someone else to do it. Soo the bottom line is, you should TOTALLY look at Craigslist and see if you can find someone to do it on the cheap! 😉

    • Donna Banker Hall

      Hi Natalie! I LOVE vintage shopping! It’s so worth the time it takes to find those unique treasures. Good luck with your ceilings. I don’t envy you. Donna xo

  • Maya McDonald

    This is the best! Also, love the fact that my mom commented on your Facebook post. Dying.

    • Hahaha! I LOVE HER!!

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  • Style Domination

    Awesome, awesome tips! Thanks!!!

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