In Design

My brother’s first apartment


When my brother Evan was little, I would make him PB+J’s on demand, buy him Lego sets with my hard-earned babysitting money, and entertain him endlessly with magic tricks, songs, and elaborate domino effects. He’s the baby in the family and the only boy, and gosh he was just so darn cute—it was easy giving him the royal treatment. Now that he’s 25, I don’t get to do many fun big sister things for him anymore. So when he told me he was getting his first apartment and needed some design direction, I was SUPER excited to put something together for him right away.

He had just accepted a job in Minneapolis and was moving from the East Coast and he didn’t have anything for his first place. He found a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities suburbs for him and a friend to share and it is pretty much what you think of for your typical first apartment: short ceilings, wall-to-wall carpet, thermofoil cabinets with laminate countertops. Since I’d be putting together an E-Design for him from North Carolina without seeing the space, I asked him to send me a few photos and a floor plan. This is of the model unit in his building which is exactly like his apartment, only the plan is mirrored.

generic apartment

With lack of a better word, it’s GENERIC. And if you do what a lot of folks do when they get their first place and hit up IKEA for a few key pieces, it ends up looking….you guessed it, generic. It’s totally cool, I get it. I have been there. My first apartment consisted of a card table for a dining table, a futon, a hand-me-down sofa, and one of those little entry mirrors with 4 hooks on it. IKEA was actually too much of a luxury for me, so I guess that’s not really being generic, just broke. Ha! But I do remember wanting a black and white picture of the Eiffel Tower to hang; I mean you just can’t get more generic (ugh, is there a better word?). Of course I settled for a calendar because it was $10 instead of $150. So people, let me just say to be clear and now that I’m older and wiser, please avoid buying those big ass ready-to-hang pictures of towers and bridges, be it the Golden Gate Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge or what have you, because they won’t add personality to your space and that money can be spent so much better!

Ok, so for most single guys in their early 20s, they aren’t even concerned with decorating. A few bean bag chairs, a couple of IKEA LACK tables and of course an unnecessarily large flat screen and we’re ready to host a party. If there are any guys reading, I think it’s totally smart to live this way, as long as it’s just for a few years, because you aren’t wasting money on generic crap that you’ll end up throwing away later. But at some point, you have to grow up and get some actual furniture.

After crashing at other people’s houses and living with Mom and Dad, my brother was finally ready to make this big step with this apartment. He asked me to put a design plan together for his living area that a.) was budget-friendly b.) didn’t look too generic, even though he’d most likely be shopping at big box stores c.) could accommodate his projector which he uses to watch TV and movies, and d.) had some type of table/work surface that could be used for his roommate and him to work on their laptops as well as some bookshelves for all their random stuff.

Given his existing floor plan and requests, I proudly put together this furniture layout for my little brother who has now grown up *tear.

evan's apartment_keyed furniture plan copy

(Note all the keyed pieces are listed at the bottom of the post.)

I proposed a sofa for the right wall with a wall shelf mounted above it to hold his projector. It would have to be mounted high enough so that you wouldn’t bump your head on it. I wouldn’t normally suggest a wall shelf above a sofa. I also proposed a couple of low media consoles on the opposite wall, even though he wasn’t planning on having a TV there, so that he could still have the storage without it interfering with the image projected on the wall above. The reason I show two pieces instead of just one is because of the length of the wall. Rarely does a media console fill a wall, and if you don’t have bookshelf towers on either side or something similar, then that console is going to look too small. Doubling the piece up helps fill the wall up and will look SO much better. Also, if there wasn’t a projector in this situation, this would be a great wall for displaying artwork. I suggested a slipper chair, shown along the wall, that could easily be pulled into the seating group if necessary, and another arm chair near the sofa which serves as additional seating but also helps divide the seating area from the area by the windows. I showed a 6×9 rug as the minimum size to bring the seating group together.

The area near the windows was a great place for a bar height table and 4 swivel bar stools to use for setting up a laptop. There was space in the kitchen for a standard height dining table, and they didn’t think they’d be using this table for eating as much as they would for working. A couple of bookshelves on the nearby wall are shown to display all their leather bound books mail, magazines, and game controllers.

Based on the plan, I proposed these pieces, all of which can be sourced online or at stores like West Elm and IKEA.
Evan's APARTMENT moodboard option 1

In every space I try to bring in a little of everything: a bit of leather, some wood pieces, some painted pieces, a variety of metals, and some organic elements like plants. Listen Guys (because I want to believe that hundreds of young men wanting to decorate their apartment is reading this), bringing in color doesn’t have to be difficult, and it doesn’t have to be navy blue. I chose an accent paint color for just the wall behind the sofa which is still in the gray family, but with just enough of a subtle blue/green cast that it has personality without being overwhelming. Every furniture piece is neutral in color, but I found an IKEA bookshelf with a bright pop of yellow. I love how that one element of saturated color takes the room to the next level. It’s the only piece with color, but that’s all it needs to be. One piece with color and you’ve got a room that’s gone from dry rye cracker to French Onion Dip Pringles.

After I showed this to Evan, his overall response was really positive. It wasn’t the roaring jump-up-and-down applause that I would get after performing a puppet show when he was 5, but it was enough to make me really happy because he only had a couple of tweaks. And I loved that he was a guy that actually understood the value of a put-together space. It all made sense to him. He just wasn’t sure about the rug—it seemed a bit too busy for him, and the leather chair didn’t look flexible enough, like it wouldn’t be easy to move it around or place it in PERFECT television viewing position.

So I found alternates for those two pieces:

Evan's APARTMENT moodboard option 2Instead of a leather chair, I found an easy swivel that still does the job of dividing the two spaces while being able to swivel to the desired angle, and it also plays off of the wall color to bring in another layer of color. The rug has some pattern to it, but it’s not bold and crazy like a lot of modern geometric rugs get these days. It’s a great, grown-up backdrop for the other pieces and is only $300.

Alright, are you asleep yet?? Now it’s time for the AFTER pictures.

Enter the after pictures.

Um, After pictures?

Okay, sorry to disappoint. There aren’t any pictures of this design plan implemented. I put this together for Evan last year, and as much as he loved the concept and wanted to do it, he realized he just wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. The apartment was too short-term (he’s already moving again this summer), and trying to coordinate purchases with a roommate was too challenging, so it just didn’t happen.

But I talked with him, and he and I agreed that this plan is really universal and maybe some guy out there who is making the transition out of his parent’s house could benefit from this.

But even if you’re a girl or a young couple and want to take the living area of your generic apartment unit to the next level, here are my top 10 Designer Tips to follow for creating a space with personality and soul:

1. Use rugs on top of the carpet to add personality for your seating group. But stay away from 5x8s and smaller. This isn’t an island for your coffee table to float on. This is to connect all your seating group pieces. 6×9 should be the smallest size you use.

2. Don’t go crazy on patterns or color. Bring in pattern with a couple of throw pillows, but that. is. it. One piece with color can go a long way. If it’s the sofa, then make sure everything else is neutral.

3. A sectional sofa is likely too large. Find a sofa 77-90″ wide and pair it with a couple of chairs.

4. Spend money on a good sized coffee table instead of side tables. It’s tempting to buy inexpensive side tables right off the shelf, but they’re likely not big enough to be super functional. Get a nice sized coffee table instead because you will use it.

5. If you are allowed to paint, I do recommend an accent wall. But stay away from bold, saturated colors. Find a neutral that has just a bit of individuality to it and then find accessories that have colors that match well.

6. Have a variety of lighting. You might have a ceiling fan or one flush mount fixture in your living room if you’re lucky, but generally you will need to bring in lots of lighting. I like floor lamps because they’re sculptural and add a lot of great light. Hang one pendant that doesn’t need to be hard-wired over a dining table or small reading nook to add interest. Place small task lights on shelves and consoles. That’s right, I’m breaking away from the standard living room suite scenario with the sofa/two end tables/two table lamps.

7. Double up on pieces. You most likely have long walls. Place two bookshelf towers side by side or two media consoles side by side to fill up the wall. It might seem silly to buy two of the same piece, but if you don’t your one piece will look dinky.

8. Add in a couple of unique pieces. Buy from the big box stores, but make sure to have a few accessories and one piece or two that is an heirloom or vintage to add some life.

9. Use texture to add layers and dimension. Metal, leather, wood, wool, plants, clay, and glass should all appear somewhere, whether in a furniture piece or accessory. In other words don’t get all leather seating and all stained oak tables.

10. Finally, make sure you have contrast. Have something white, like curtains, and something black like a black metal bookshelf. However it appears, make sure you have bright tints and dark shades within the space.

And if the generic look is what you are after, all you need to do is get this sofa. This picture. And this rug.

Oh, I almost forgot. You are probably wondering the big question: Just how much would this whole plan cost??

The plan I put together for Evan would be $5K for everything, furniture, lighting, and accessories. Since it’s two rooms in one, you could look at it as $3K for the living room and $2K for the dining room. I think that’s a success, but if you shopped around I know you could find similar pieces for even less.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Resource List

Keyed to furniture plan above

Paint: on wall behind sofa, Sherwin Williams “Silvermist”


  • A. Sofa: Dekalb Sofa from West Elm. Fabric: Marled Microfiber in Mink. 85″w x 38″d x 33″h. $1300.
  • B. Option 1: Leather Chair: Mellby from IKEA. Black Leather. 30 3/4″w x 33 1/2″d x 31 1/2″h. $500. Option 2: Swivel Chair: Facet Cyan Chair from CB2. Fabric: Tweed Cyan. 29.5“w x 23“d 27.5“h. $400.
  • C. Coffee Table: Phelps 60″ Walnut Table from JC Penney. 60″w x 24″d x 16″h. $300 (on clearance now!).
  • D. Option 1: 6×9 Rug: Cadiz from West Elm. $650. Option 2: 5′-3″x7′-6″ San Francisco Rug from JC Penney. $270 (on sale now!).
  • E. Tripod Lamp: Mid-Century Tripod Floor Lamp from West Elm. Antique Brass. 22″diam. x 66″h. $260.
  • F. Wall Shelf from West Elm. $200 – for projector (top shelf to be mounted at 80”h). (Note: this item is no longer available)
  • G. Magazine rack from Etsy. $60.
  • H. Side Chair: Bentwood Slipper from West Elm. 25″w x 30.5″d x 32″h. $300 (on clearance now!).
  • I. Media Console (large): Chill media console from CB2. 60“w x 20“d x 19.25“h. $500.
  • J. Media Console (small): Chill media console from CB2. 40“w x 20“d x 19.25“h. $400.
  • K. 42″ high dining table: Stilt table from CB2. 28.5“w x 48“d x 42“h. $400.
  • L. Bookcases: (2) Billy from IKEA. 31-1/2″w x 11″d x 79-1/2″h $70 ea. (Note: It appears the yellow bookcase is no longer available, but you could paint the inside of the white bookcase this yellow.)
  • M. Table Lamp: Factory Task Lamp from West Elm. No longer available – similar.
  • N. Bar Stool: (4) Dalfred from IKEA. 24-3/4″dial. x 29-1/8″h. $40 ea.
  • O. Pendant: Mercury Pendant (to hang over dining table) from West Elm. 10.5″diam. x 11″h. $110.
  • P. Indoor Tree/House Plant in container.
  • Q. Curtain Panels: Caldwell Solid in Flint Gray from JC Penney. Color no longer available – similar option here in “metal” for $22.50 per 95″ panel.


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