design tips


well, friends, better late than never, right? way back at the beginning of this summer, when i first introduced you to allie’s house (known on the ‘gram as #alliesetownhouse), i asked you what questions you had about the project, figuring i’d start off with a giant ol’ FAQ post.

obviously, that post didn’t come to fruition. at least, not right away. BUT, before we dive into the install stage of things, i want to talk about the basics. as i said, better late than never!

let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? here’s a sampling of what you guys wanted to know about allie’s house.

where is the apartment/your sister’s house/is it NYC? allie lives on the top floor of a two-family house that my parents bought about 5 years ago in easthampton, massachusetts (the town next to my hometown!). easthampton is a bit more “up and coming” and therefore, less expensive than northampton (where we grew up and where my parents still live). the home was purchased as an investment property.

does she own the bottom floor too? allie rents the top floor (yes, my parents are her landlords. yes, that is complicated.), and they rent out the bottom floor. the first year they owned the home, my BFF joia and her husband lived in the bottom floor (!!), now, it’s rented out to a local woman who is around my age. the home was built in the early 1900s (i think? maybe 1920?), so there’s charm to be found here and there. it was initially a single family home, but was turned into a two family by the previous owners, who lived on the bottom and rented out the top. there’s a large unfinished attic that i’m DYING to have my parents renovate (master suite! with a clawfoot tub! OBVI), and the house is pretty large overall, but there are certain layout things that i’d fix if we could.

are you renovating it? we are not. my parents did a few light renovations (allie’s bathroom, for one) when they bought the house, but that’s it. the downstairs kitchen was renovated in the 90s (i think), but allie’s hasn’t been in some time. the layout is SUPER wonky, the cabinets old, the floors linoleum, etc. i’m dying to gut it, but that would take money that my parents don’t want to pour into a rental property at this time (it’s perfectly functional, with updated appliances, as of now). this particular project is a redecoration, not a renovation.

what’s your process? do you plan and then find furniture, or find furniture then plan? a little bit of both! i definitely had a vision for how i wanted the space to look and feel (light, bright, simple, airy, modern, less cluttered, comfortable), but i started with furniture. more specifically, i started by searching my favorite affordable online shops (cb2, urban outfitters, target, article, west elm, wayfair, etsy, etc.) and pinned the SHIZ outta things. then, i began assembling design boards with my various options (one for the bedroom, and one for the living/dining area), swapping items in and out until things felt right. once we all felt good about the design plans (me and allie, as well as my parents, who have kindly offered to sponsor the makeover–more on that later!), i began ordering.

what’s your budget? $4k for the entire place. as briefly mentioned above, my parents are kindly sponsoring this makeover. i have been keeping detailed budget spreadsheets that i’ll likely share at a later date, so you can all see exactly how that $4k nets out across the various spaces (it doesn’t go as far as you’d think when you’re effectively starting from scratch, furniture-wise). those who have been following along/reading here for a while may recall that my parents helped me buy my place (they gave me a lump sum that i used for my down payment and my renovation; i have a 30-year mortgage for the rest).

i would not call my family rich, but that’s all relative, and most certainly in the eye of the beholder. what i will say is that my parents have worked really hard for their entire adult lives, and are very smart savers and investors. they also grew up solidly upper middle class. this has resulted in allie and i being able to go to college with minimal loans, and never once having to worry about the roof over our heads or the food on our plates. we are incredibly, amazingly lucky. while i don’t consider us spoiled brats, we have certainly been afforded opportunities that others have not.

in short: we are privileged to have grown up the way we have (and so too are my parents!), and i don’t for a second forget that privilege is to thank for most, if not all of the opportunities i’ve had, and the life i have. also: i’m white, which adds to that privilege.

i’ll admit, i’m nervous to talk about this so openly. but i feel like not talking about it does you all a disservice. i respect you, and i think (hope) you respect me, and respect my honesty. it is an incredible achievement to buy a place in NYC, and not one i take lightly. i have a solid income and a solid job–and i still could not have saved up the kind of down payment i needed to buy my place without help.

ACS_1375but back to allie’s place!

is it hard to be on the same page about budget? like i said above, my parents are, and have always been, incredibly generous. but i can’t lie – working through the budget with them has been tough at times. they prioritize different things than i do, financially, and while they have been amazing at letting me “do my thing” there have been more than a few conversations around what’s “worth the money” and what’s not. one thing that i think has saved us throughout this process (which has been a bit rocky at times) is the idea that the budget has been set from day 1. we had $4,000 to redesign an entire apartment: living room, dining room, bedroom. so long as i stayed within that budget, my parents and sister mostly let me decide what money went where.

how do you design for smaller spaces/rooms that will serve multiple purposes? it remains to be seen if i will pull off doing this well, but because allie effectively lives her life within 3 rooms (as do i here in NYC!), those 3 rooms need to work REALLY hard. in talking with her about what she wanted for her home, a few things became clear: her bedroom needed to be a safe space, a haven that was, for the most part, just for sleeping, TV watching (though i discourage even this!), dressing, etc. allie has an (almost) full time job in IT, and has been working her way through her college degree while working, so her desk space is a) ginormous and b) very important to her. such a giant workspace wouldn’t fit in the bedroom, which, while not tiny, isn’t giant. that meant it had to go in one of two other places: the living room or the dining room. allie’s never had a true dining room, and one of her big requests for this redesign was a big table where she could host friends for game nights and dinners.

if you’re following this process of elimination, there’s only one area left for her workspace to go: the living room. that means carving out a (rather large) corner of the room in which she’ll hang out, host friends, and watch movies on her (ENORMOUS) tv for her workspace. that’s a lot of boxes for one room to check, don’t you think? so, how will we do it? that leads me to your next question.

what will the ‘smart, simplified storage’ be? allie’s home has a few closets, but none of them were built out. if you’ve been following along on instagram, you know we built out a bunch of shelves in one of her bedroom closets. what i haven’t yet shared is that we’re also reorganizing a good-sized closet in her dining room. we’ve painted a pegboard that we’ll be hanging in there to organize her cleaning supplies (cleaning sprays, mops, swiffers, dusters, etc.)–which will help get stuff off the floor, and up on the wall. doing so leaves room on the floor for larger storage items (storage bins, etc.). we’ll also be “building up”: ordering a new (much taller!) bookshelf that will find its home in the dining room. then, in allie’s workspace, we’re eyeing new drawer storage (right now she just has old plastic storage, which a) doesn’t  hold up all that well and b) looks super cluttered. i also plan to install a corkboard wall in her desk area to tack up things she needs to remember (calendars, notes, etc.), which will help get the clutter off her desk.

what type/brand of paint will you use? i’m admittedly not an expert in this, but happy to tell you what we used! we only repainted her bedroom, partially due to time and partially due to the fact that the grey walls in her living and dining area (which we painted when she moved in) are still in relatively good shape. in that room, we used benjamin moore swiss coffee on the wainscoting (a warm beige tone that appears grey in certain light) and went for a satin finish (just the tiniest) bit of sheen. on the walls, we used benjamin moore in simply white, and went for a matte finish.  i used matte paint throughout my entire apartment here in NYC, and while it doesn’t wipe clean as easily, it hides imperfections way better than a glossier paint would (the old guard would’ve used eggshell for the walls, semi-gloss for the wainscoting). i’ve heard great things about other brands, like sherwin williams, dunn edwards, and obvi, farrow and ball (which i’m dying to use someday!), but my man ben moore has never let me down.

what is up with the ceiling tho?! this was my FAVE question, because honestly, guys, SAME. like i said above, this house was sort of renovated from its early 1900s roots over time, but not particularly well, and not particularly recently. that means that a few of the “updates” are, in not so many words, NOT CHIC. allie’s bedroom ceiling, while not beautiful, is relatively normal, but in the kitchen and dining areas (aka almost everywhere else), the ceiling has these weird office space-esque tiles that a) can’t support much weight and b) are very ugly. that said, as stated above, this is not a renovation, nor is it a project with an unlimited budget. so, we’re making the best of what we have, and trying to work with the space and money we’ve been given. my hope is that we’ll have so much good stuff “on the ground” that people won’t look up. but to all of you who sent me this question, I FEEL YOU.

ok, this feels like a good place to end. after all, i doubt any of you have read this far (shoutout to those who have! you are true champions!). if you have indeed made it to the end, and you have more questions, drop them in the comments below, or shoot me a message on instagram. i’ve loved interacting with you all throughout this project, and can’t wait to show you the finished result.

TGA_Living Room Exposed Brick Wall New York

i’ve gotten a few requests over the past few months about decorating on a budget—or how to decorate a space that may not be yours forever (like a rental, which most of us will live in at some point in our lives). so suffice it to say this post is long overdue. i lived in three rental apartments before buying the grand apartment, and up until i did this big renovation, i rarely splurged on decor. take, for instance, the photo below, of my bedroom in my old apartment in peter cooper village, NYC (which i lived in for 8 years–insane!). the curtains were $20 at target, the lamp $75 at homegoods, the bed a free ikea craigslist find, and the “art” a print i literally printed out from the internet, then stuck in a free frame i found on the street.

TGA_Stuy Town Apartment

the bedroom of my old rental apartment

thanks to the internet and the advent of social media, we’re up to our eyeballs in pretty imagery—but most of us can’t afford to recreate the looks we see online. and if we are, well, we’re lucky, because having a beautiful home is a luxury, not a necessity.

that said, i do believe that design can make people happy. it can turn a house into a home. AND i believe that you can create a beautiful space without spending a ton of money (yes, really). below are a few tips for making your space shine—without forking over half your paycheck each month.

llaayyeerrss_designsponge feature

paint done right, in my friend tiina’s entryway [source: design*sponge]

#1 PAINT:  it’s the cheapest, easiest way to change a space. exhibit a: the entryway above, which belongs to my genius friend tiina. imagine if these walls were regular ol’ white. they’d be rather MEH. but with the deep, vibrant black walls above, the entire space P-O-P-S.  i’ve painted the walls of every apartment i’ve ever lived in—my hallway in stuy town was a deep purple (random, i know, but it looked nice with my french gilt mirror!). painting is an easy weekend activity that you can do yourself (though it’s more fun with a few friends!), and it’s definitely the cheapest way to switch up a space. tip: many hardware stores (even the biggies like home depot!) have a “used paint” section–aka paint that people mixed incorrectly, or colors people decided weren’t right. you can get great colors at a deep discount!


my living room, last summer. people always say this light fixture makes the space, and i tend to agree. 

#2 UPGRADE YOUR LIGHTING: if you’re living in a rental (and even if you’re not!), chances are, you’re #blessed with a boob light or two. you know the kind I’m talking about. the one that looks like a boob, complete with a nipple. sorry, TMI, but also, free the nipple, amirite? anyway—boob lights are a curse for many of us, but this doesn’t have to be the case! electricians are not all that expensive, which means it’s not all that difficult to switch out your ugly boob lights for something a wee bit easier on the eyes. yes, light fixtures are an investment—but you can take them with you when you move!

TGA_Bedroom Light Grey Walls

my bedroom sconces from urban outfitters

if you don’t have the budget for an electrician, or your landlord won’t allow you to futz with the fixtures, spend your money on ambient lighting (floor lamps and table lamps), and leave your overheads off. i actually don’t have overhead lighting in my bedroom (i went for a ceiling fan instead–and am SO GLAD i did, even if it’s a design no-no), so i make do with bedside table lighting (my sconces were under $34 a piece from urban outfitters, and a cinch to install).


the layered rugs in this room make the space [source: chris loves julia]

#3 INVEST IN AREA RUGS: stores like homegoods, tjmaxx, and urban outfitters offer trendy rugs for decent prices–also known as a quick fix to flooring you can’t stand. cover ugly kitchen linoleum with a fun runner (inspirational example above, from honestly wtf’s erica chan coffman). spruce up wall to wall carpeting with an area rug. many NYC apartments have an 80% rule (80% of your floors must be covered to keep noise down for your neighbors)—if yours does, use it as an excuse to make your floors fun! there are also great steals to be found on good ol’ craigslist. i have gotten incredible finds just by typing a few key things into their search box. Z

TGA_Light Grey Bedroom_Art

my bedroom features a print from jenny’s print shop

#4: ADD ART:  a small budget shouldn’t hold you back from adding art to your walls – especially when there are so many great digital prints available! i love Jenny’s Print Shop for affordable art prints–all prints are $15, and with their digital downloads, you can print them in literally any size you’d like!

TGA_Farmhouse Kitchen Styled Open Shelving

an old oil painting i found in my parents’ basement lives in my kitchen

you can also peruse local antique stores  and flea markets for cool vintage art—some of my favorite pieces have been snagged for under $10, discovered under a stack of not so great paintings. the bonus of flea markets? even if you don’t love the print, you might find a great frame (one you can use to frame a print you find elsewhere). it’s also worth saying that literally ANYTHING you find can be art. i’ve framed old menus or flyers from my travels (i got great vintage hotel stickers at a flea market in lisbon last september!).


the mirror in my entryway, which makes the space

#5: WHEN IN DOUBT, HANG A MIRROR: mirrors instantly make a space feel bigger, and help to bounce light around the room. i have 3 (yes, three) in my entryway. CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP. sure, mirrors are necessarily in spaces like the bedroom and bathroom, but consider putting them elsewhere too. a large floor mirror can help a living room feel twice as large. adding a big mirror in the entryway (like mine above) offers a spot to check your reflection before you head out the door and makes a tiny hallway feel bigger. never doubt the power of reflection, friends.

BONUS (aka, #6): hit the streets! my second year in new york city, i was walking around the upper east side and came across a giant worn leather arm chair just sitting on the street. i inspected it for bed bugs (because new york), then sat my butt down in it to test it out. it was huge, and VERY heavy. so i walked away. then, a few minutes later, i walked back, and pulled up craigslist on my phone, and typed “last minute movers” into the search box. within 45 minutes, an out of work actor with biiiig arm muscles showed up in a red pickup truck to deliver me and my new chair down to 20th street. for $75, he brought the chair safely into my apartment, where it sat for the next 7 years.

the moral of the story? you’ve got to, as my mother likes to say, keep your eyes peeled. people move, and they need to get rid of their stuff. sometimes they put it on craigslist. sometimes they have yard sales/apartment sales. sometimes they put it out on the street. many of my favorite pieces have been snagged in this way. the giant gilded mirror in my entrway? it was $25 at an apartment sale in peter cooper village (where i used to live) YEARS ago. a goddamn STEAL!

sure, you run the risk of bedbugs, or things that are imperfect–but i like my pieces to have a little history, and when you buy or find a piece that’s lived a life before it reaches you, you get history in droves. plus, what’s the fun of ordering a bunch of big box stuff online? the thrill is in the hunt.