I’ve moved into a new dorm or apartment for the last nine consecutive years of my life, and each time I’ve employed a similar protocol: schlep as much as possible from one place to the next then buy everything else from IKEA — my bed, my nightstand, my closet, my shoe rack. That means my bedroom in New York today doesn’t look that different from my dorm room in D.C., give or take some cooler artwork and a new duvet cover to replace the one I stained with pizza my sophomore year. I guess what I’m saying is, no one’s asked me to be featured on “Real Cool People, Real Cool Apartments.”

Since I seem to have no natural knack for making a small space look sophisticated on a budget (fortunately for our living room, my roommate Sofia does), I was curious as to how an actual interior decorating expert would approach my conundrum. What are some simple tricks for making a twentysomething’s apartment (hi) look and feel more grown-up? I tapped Eddie Ross (no relation to me but great last name, right?), current Style Director of The Mine and former magazine editor at Martha Stewart, House Beautiful and Better Homes & Gardens, for some answers.

Below, find nine suggestions in his own words.

1. Consider a headboard.

Nothing says “dorm room” more than a bare mattress against a white wall. Headboards are an easy and affordable way to turn the sophistication up a notch. Plus, there are so many options out there, from sleek and wooden, to patterned and fabric-covered.

2. Swap out your white lampshades.

Swapping out white lampshades for black adds instant chic to any space. They give off a moody and mysterious vibe, like an old gentleman’s club.

3. Stock your home bar.

Channel Don Draper with cocktail glasses, linen napkins and crystal decanters. If you’re entertaining, order “hors d’oeuvres” from Seamless (dumplings are a great option) in advance and serve them on nice platters.

4. Layer, layer, layer.

Add depth to your decor. Fill up the corners of your living room with plinths (short pillars) or pedestals topped with potted plants (an old trick from famous decorators like David Hicks and Billy Baldwin).

5. Don’t underestimate fresh flowers.

Make your home a priority; make it a space that you love and enjoy coming home to each night. Fresh flowers instantly improve any space — even cheap ones from the deli.

6. If you’re going to splurge, do it thoughtfully.

A round table with a pedestal base is a great splurge option. You can load it up with objects and coffee table books, use it as a nesting place for keys and mail in a big, chic bowl, or pull up chairs when you’re having friends over.

7. Don’t be afraid of wallpaper.

Wallpapering or lacquering a small space like an entryway or closet makes your apartment feel more personal. If that’s not an option with your lease, fill your walls up with art from floor to ceiling. You can even add sconces or wall brackets for extra dimension.

8. Go nuts for rugs.

Big sisal or seagrass rugs are affordable and blend well with most decor. It’s also nice to pick one spot (maybe a dining or seating area) to define with one that’s a little more special, like a cool kilim in colors you love.

9. Experiment with bookshelves.

Start by taking the jackets off hardcover books to reveal the design beneath — it’s usually their best-kept secret. Then arrange them with art, objects, lighting and other keepsakes.

If anyone wants to send me fresh deli flowers in support of my grown-up apartment mission, my best dorm room vase is waiting.

Photo by Nicole Cohen. Follow her on Instagram @sketchfortytwo.

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  • Amélie

    Great article. I’d like to add one tip though: FRAME THINGS. Totally felt like I unlocked a new adult level when I first started framing my art.

    • YES! This! You can frame anything too: posters, letters, paper napkins with lipstick kisses or little doodles. It all looks good in a frame.

    • Adrianna

      My boyfriend and I recently looked for an apartment, and our budget led us to apartments previously occupied by 30-somethings. So much framed art!

    • KA

      agreed, also you can find inexpensive prints or affordable work from young artists on Etsy !!

  • Amelia

    Hey Harling! The rug links don’t work! Need me some seagrass rugs.

  • pineapplesunset

    Does anyone have any experience with removable wallpaper? I looove the look, and I’m especially craving some after watching Difficult People and seeing Julie’s dope apartment. I don’t wanna get in trouble with my landlord if I rip the paint off the wall though…

  • KA

    love this !! Anyone who is a friend of Martha is a friend of mine – BUT a few great things I think are missing from this list –

    1. Clean your clutter !!!
    Or invite your neat freak best friend over to do some organizing for you. less clutter (or no clutter )on your cheap ikea or thrift store table makes things instantly look more polished.

    2. Buy a chic/fun/amazing Tray or Bowl for loose objects
    Great way to minimize visual clutter for the things you CAN’T part with, ie. remote controls, mail you need, stacks of books, jewelry, etc etc etc

    3. Assess your lighting situation !!!
    My best friend AND my boyfriend both had the most horrible exposed halogen bulbs in their apartments, I came over with old school Incandescents and cheap new shades and saved their eyes. Will make your place go from cold hospital to warm and fuzzy in a snap.


    • Harling Ross

      very good tips

  • Kritsida

    Love the tips! A stocked bar cart is always a great idea!
    x. kritsida

  • Katie M

    Is that a picture of your apartment Harling? The artwork is gorgeous!!

    • Harling Ross

      I WISH! it’s not 🙁

  • The headboard thing is so true. My boyfriend and I got a new bed a few years ago and it made our room look SO much better.

  • Bea

    Guys. What about CURTAINS. I have these beige curtains (came with the apartment), magnolia walls (ugh – rented flat life), a kinda beige sofa and a dark emerald green chair. I have no idea what curtains to get. Help a gal out plsss

    • KA

      Love to help ! But it’s hard to say without seeing a photo of the space. If it’s not weird you can email me a few photos of the room / windows and I’ll send some ideas. Im an interior designer 🙂


  • belle

    As a designer, I’ll add on my most important tip – you should NEVER see a lightbulb, unless it is a really beautiful exposed Edison bulb or something like that. Your lamps should either have a shade (or some sort of cover) or they should face the wall so that they bathe the space in ambient light. Also avoid fluorescent lights at all costs ESPECIALLY in the bedroom – get a warmer tone light that will help you relax and sleep.

    • DEEM

      Yes, those and these little flickering ones I have in an old fashioned ship lantern. I cried when I plugged it in the first time. It was so beautiful.

      • belle

        Yeah they make a space feel very cozy! I’m also a fan of the Himalayan salt lamps because that warm tone is easy on the eyes and makes the room feel very comfy.

  • This is awesome, thanks for sharing this post!

    Arden | HELLO ARDEN

  • Dizzy Miss Lizzy

    I’ve just moved into a new house share and I’ve been looking at things to make my room feel like home but without it looking too immature. Some great ideas there! I love wallpaper and rugs. xx


  • Olivia F

    Real pots for my plants was a significant game changer.