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From the discount futon and pinned-up Salvador Dali poster, to the loosely Eastern-themed bedroom, I have to admit I was pretty proud of my first post-dorm apartment. Looking back, it was kind of a disaster. If you’re just getting the keys to your first place, you don’t have to be like me. Designer Kyle Schuneman‘s book, The First Apartment Book: Cool Design for Small Spaces, shows you how people across the country created beautiful, functional spaces on a budget — and includes easy projects so you can live stylishly, too.

Kyle Schuneman - The First Apartment Small Space Design Ideas

Designer Kyle Schuneman

The book gives you a peek inside 10 very different first apartments, from an art lover’s teeny-tiny NYC pad to a Bohemian attic apartment in Atlanta. Each makeover includes how-to projects to help you get the look, like wall stencils, DIY headboards and ridiculously cute succulent book planters.

Make Your Own: Get the Full How-To for the Succulent Book Planters

Succulent book planters from The First Apartment Book.

“I wanted to do this book because I’m fascinated by how people live,” Kyle says. “Sometimes people don’t want to invite designers over because they’re worried about us judging their spaces. I’d rather make a statement and have you not like it than be ho-hum about it, because I think that life is too short.”  That’s why he filled his 700-square-foot first apartment slash office with carefully-curated pieces he loved, like a live-edge coffee table and textural, menswear-inspired accessories, all on a tiny budget. He also disguised what he didn’t love, like the heater hidden behind the faux bois wallpaper panel. Read on to get his tips on creating a space that speaks to your style — completely from scratch.

Kyle Schuneman Living Room Design

Kyle Schuneman's Los Angeles apartment living room.

Design Happens: Say you literally have no furniture on move-in day. What are the 5 pieces you must have for a first apartment?

Kyle Schuneman: It really depends on the space, but to start, everyone needs a mattress or bed. A sofa that’s to scale to your space is also essential – move into your place before you get it! You need a bookcase of some kind to show off what you have and give you space to collect more.  Then, some sort of dresser or clothes storage. We all have stuff we don’t want to display, so drawers to put things away is kind of important. I’m a big fan of mood lighting, so a great lamp with three light settings also helps at first.

DH: Obviously, shopping thrift stores is a great way to save money when you’re starting out, but is there anything you’d recommend not buying secondhand? How can you tell if a thrift store or corner find is worth carrying home?

KS: I wouldn’t recommend buying anything upholstered. You want to feel like you’re getting a deal, but ultimately it should be structurally sound. Good options are tables, cabinets, TV stands, coffee tables and accessories. I’m not a fan of collecting stuff just because you see it on the side of the road. Instead, it’s better to set out knowing what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you’ll bring home things you don’t need, and each piece in a small space needs to count.

DH: What’s are some of the biggest mistakes first-time decorators in small spaces make?

KS: You need to know scale and think about what you really need. For example, if you need a TV stand, you have a cable box and a TV that need to fit on this thing. Go out looking with a tape measure. You don’t have to fill your space right away; it helps to live with your space and understand what you really need. It’s not just “Will it fit?,” but also how it will feel. Pass on a piece until it’s just right; part of the decorating journey is holding out for pieces you absolutely love.

Also, for small spaces and walkups, make sure whatever you buy will physically fit through the door. I’ve learned this one the hard way.

Another thing — if you’re going to move, flexibility helps you. Things like floor tiles, nesting tables and rolling pieces can be reincarnated for your next place versus selling everything and starting from scratch.

DH: You talk about scale and planning a lot in your book. But if you’ve never done that before, it can be intimidating. Any tips for first-timers?

KS: Use a measuring tape and graph paper to create a floor plan. Graph paper is really nice, because you can allot every two boxes to one foot. So in a 10’ x 15’ room, it’s 20 squares one way and 30 the other. Then measure your furniture, draw it to scale and cut it out of another piece of paper so you can move it around.  Try things away from the walls; cut pieces will allow you to think outside the box and experiment with furniture layout.

Tempaper Covered Fireplace

Temporary wallpaper dresses up plain white walls.

DH: If your landlord won’t let you paint, what’s your favorite way to add color to the walls?

KS: A great DIY project is creating fabric panels for an upholstered wall look. Custom fabric websites like Spoonflower have so many options, and fabric is a great starting point to the room. Just mount the fabric pieces on foam core and batting.  A lot of companies are doing a lot of temporary wallpapers. They’ll pull off without damaging the wall, and you’re getting a lot of visual bang for your buck. Another company, Stikwood, offers temporary paneling for a more rustic look. Put blue tape on your wall prior to sticking it and it won’t damage the walls when you  take it off. There are also so many other opportunities to paint things – you can still add color via furniture, tables or pillows.

Ombre Walls and Curtains

Dip-dyed curtains with coordinating walls.

DH: If someone is just starting out, how can they figure out what their style actually is?

KS: The major thing that I found working with younger people is that they couldn’t verbalize their style. People in their 20s have had some time to develop their fashion sense, but this is really their first time going from their parents’ house to a dorm room or fraternity to their first place. It makes sense that you don’t yet know your decorating style.

So instead, I tell them to meet me in their favorite bar, restaurant or store. That tells me what surroundings make them feel comfortable. You can also ask yourself questions, like “What’s your favorite landscape or vacation spot?” If someone says the beach or the desert, those are two different feelings. If you like the desert and the W Hotel, you can find out a lot about yourself.  It’s about what you’re surrounded by, what you’re waking up to, what you’re going home to.

Big City Digs: Tour Hotels of the Rich and Famous

DH: In your book, you talk about picking a piece to design a room around.  Any tips on how to find that piece?

KS: It can be either a shape or maybe some upholstery that you just love. An interesting chair is always something great to go after. If you update the gross yellow vinyl with a favorite fabric, it can be something special that’s the starting point of your room design. That said, you don’t want pieces fighting each other; pick one piece that speaks to your style and build around it.

Kyle’s book, The First Apartment Book: Cool Design for Small Spaces, is available now. All photos copyright 2012 by Joe Schmeltzer.

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Liz GrayLiz is a Senior Editor at HGTV.com. She lives in a midcentury tri-level that’s stuck in the ‘70s…for now. When she’s not working on remodeling projects with her boyfriend and...


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