Alexandra Gater’s Toronto apartment, not quite 900-square-feet, didn’t have room for a home office. So Gater got creative, sacrificing a closet for a mini work area, lining the walls with palm-frond wallpaper, inserting an elegant white desk where a boot rack might go, all tucked behind an unassuming bifold door that can conceal the nook when she isn’t at her desk.
The custom touch is just one of many in her flat. Others include a herringbone kitchen counter, midnight blue bathroom tiles with white starburst accents and a whimsical living room pendant light decked with life-like birds perched on tiny branches. Gater’s imagination is impressive, helping to make a place that doesn’t even belong to her feel like a bespoke home.
Gater, like an increasing number of Canadians is a renter. In 2011 census, 31 per cent of us rented our homes. By 2016, the number had grown to over 32 per cent – the first such increase since the early 1970s. Millennials such as Gater, who is in her late 20s, are particularly likely to let. According to census data, 50 per cent of 30 year olds own their own homes these days, compared to 55 per cent of baby boomers when they were the same age.
Examples such as Gater prove that renters can also partake in another trend these days: re-decorating. During lockdown, as our homes have transitioned from being places for eating, sleeping and getting ready for work, into offices, school rooms, cineplexes, playgrounds and everything else, a growing number of us are looking around at bare white walls and shabby rooms thinking: Help! That’s why U.K. sales at Farrow & Ball leapt by 40 per cent last year and Canada experienced a lumber shortage during summer – due in part to too many people trying to build new fences, decks or lay new floors at the same time. Homeowners have more licence to revamp at will, but with imagination and a little know-how, renters can achieve the same level of personalization.
Gater, who until 2018 was the homes editor for Chatelaine magazine, started her own, eponymous YouTube channel focused on design and decor when she was laid off from Rogers Media, Chatelaine’s parent company at the time. She focuses less on the aspirational residential designs typically featured in glossy magazines, more on affordable, renter-friendly ideas for people like herself (re-tiling her bathroom floor cost less than $300). “Most people my age rent,” she says. “And I didn’t see a lot [of advice] out there for people like me.”
Since starting the channel 2 1/2 years ago, with videos both inside her own place and other people’s apartments, Gater has garnered more than 350,000 online followers, with advice that covers a variety of ambition levels. “Paint is an amazing tool for renters to transform a space,” she says. “You can use it to divide a larger room by, say, painting a section to carve out an area for an office.” Paint can also compensate for a lack of furniture. In one of her videos, Gater stencils a shape on the wall in the area behind a bed, making a convincing budget headboard.
But she isn’t shy about renovations that seem reserved for homeowners: tiling, flooring, swapping out light fixtures. “I mean, always run things by your landlord,” she says. “Mine was okay with me changing the lights. Because I will put the original fixtures back when I leave. Otherwise, you could buy really nice floor or table lamps.”
Many of her hacks appear more permanent than they are. She put a new backsplash in her kitchen, using popular subway tiles. “The backsplash is a peel-and-stick panel,” she says. “It comes off easily and leaves no residue. I tried it at my parent’s first.”
Likewise, her bathroom tiles are laid a bit like a sheet of wallpaper, minus the super-sticky glue. When Gater decides to move on, she can basically lift up her flooring, leaving the original (and much less attractive) reddish-brown tiles she found on moving in.
Engineered wood flooring is another possibility for living and dining areas, with click-and-lock systems that require no nails or sub flooring. “That gets expensive,” says Gater, depending on the size of the floor. But if a tenant is planning on staying put for years at a time, it might be worth the investment, especially if lockdowns and work-from-home persist, and the floors become a constant backdrop to day-to-day life.
Adding colour can be a challenge for renters. Many rental suites are pre-painted basic beige – a neutral, inoffensive shade appropriate for no-matter-which tenant. But during this COVID-era winter, which is extra beige in and of itself, bright pops seem more necessary than ever.
“I’m always craving colour,” says Toronto interior designer Kate Thornley-Hall, who worked for Ralph Lauren before starting her own studio and rug line. “I still consider a beautiful white colour, but I can’t imagine life without reds and yellows and blues.”
According to Thornley-Hall, renters have many options to introduce new tones to a space (beyond re-painting, which, she recommends – “if it doesn’t look good, you can always re-paint,” she says. “It might seem like a lot of work but really isn’t”).
For those afraid of running afoul of a paint roller (or a paint-weary landlord), Thornley-Hall suggests starting with art. “It doesn’t have to be expensive,” she says, noting places like artinteriors.ca, which carries original paintings for less then $250. Otherwise, she suggests looking at all the things, big and small, that go into making a home – the furniture and flatware and linens – and inject variety that way. To Thornley-Hall, every surface is an opportunity for not-bland. “Lovely dried or fresh-cut flowers, candles, coffee table books, of course rugs – those are all great ways to bring in colour,” she says.
In that sense, Thornley-Hall also notes that “there’s something wonderfully freeing about renting,” she says. “You can focus on collecting pieces that you love, that speak to you, regardless if you have a specific place to put them. If the piece is right for you, you will one day find where to display it.”
Finding the right places to add colour is one challenge. Picking the perfect tones is another. Sabrina Albanese, a fashion designer turned interiors expert, has a deft touch with hues, crafting rooms that pair bright and bold colours but never look like too much. Here, five of her top tips.
1. “I often start with patterned textiles. If a textile designer designed it, you can typically trust that that person knows what they are doing, and has put together good colour combinations. You can then pull those colours into the rest of the room.”
2. “You can also focus on one key colour, and break it down into various shades – cooler or warmer tones of the same thing, whether its green or mango or purple. That always works, and it’s a great way to bring in variety without going to multi-colour.”
3. “There’s a big misconception that colours can be chaotic, and that you should focus on neutrals to make a restful, calming retreat. And I agree with that sometimes. But what about all the other emotions that feel good – joy and happiness? I recommend looking for the colours and textiles that remind you of those other positive emotions, and can transport you there.”
4. “Art is another great place to get colour inspiration. But when in doubt, I tell people to test out their ideas in their powder room. It’s a small space, so you pretty well just go nuts in there.”
5. “Seasonal-specific colours are nice for variety. But they are best brought in with things that are easy to swap in and out, like throw pillows and blankets. I would personally not paint a whole room in pastels. I wouldn’t want Easter all year.”