21 tips for decorating an apartment of any size, from some of the world's most creative interior designers

From tiny studios to vast lofts, this is how top designers are approaching decorating an apartment in 2022

a bright modern apartment living room
(Image credit: Brooke Holm. Design: Worrell Yeung)

It's fair to say that decorating an apartment, for many people, is one of the most formative moments of developing an interior style. For me, an apartment is where I painted my first (and last) "abstract" mural and bright green wall, formative experiences in that I quickly knew these were things I'd never do again. 

The romance that comes with decorating your first apartment, striking out on your own in the interior design stakes for the first time, can, however, be short-lived. While you may have a little more control if you own your apartment rather than renting, apartment living has it challenges, and we're not just talking about the neighbours.

Yet, there are ways to keep the magic of living in an apartment alive through your decor choices. Whether you've got a two-story duplex, a double-height loft or just a micro walkup to call home, some of the best apartment decorating ideas transcend size. 

To give you the best guidance for decorating an apartment, no matter the scale of your project, we asked some of our favorite apartment-dwelling interior designers for their top piece of advice. Here's what they had to say. 

hugh metcalf
Hugh Metcalf

Hugh is an experienced homes writer and editor. He has written hundreds of articles for various titles helping readers make the best home design choices, and spends his days interviewing interiors industry experts to bring the latest ideas to his readers. For this piece he spoke to the world's best designers and studios who have created some of the most showstopping small apartments, so as to get the most up to the minute advice.  

Expert advice for decorating an apartment

Of course, designing an apartment has its trials too. Whether you're renting or own an apartment, you can be limited by the communal nature of the building. That means no changing (or adding) windows for more light, while re-routing services to dramatically switch up your layout can be tricky, too.  

Space isn't always guaranteed either, especially for city-dwellers, where super small apartments are only too common. 

Converted buildings also offer their own challenges. With their original features and lofty proportions, they're striking, for sure, but making the most of the space they have to offer might require out-of-the-box thinking. 

1. Keep it light and bright

The TV wall in an apartment

(Image credit: Marco Ricca. Design: SISSY+MARLEY Interiors)

Where size isn't on your side, a simple light and bright scheme can be the perfect remedy for a small apartment. It works particularly well for open plan living too, where too many colors or dark features can make a small-ish area feel cluttered and busy. 

'The open floor plan was not grand for this West Village apartment,' explains Diana Rice of SISSY+MARLEY Interiors (opens in new tab), 'so it was important that we kept the palette light and airy for a grander feel.'

Despite a largely neutral color scheme, this space is far from dull, with the designers using sculptural pieces and a variety of textures to bring interest and richness to the space. 'Each piece had to be very special, unique and easy on the eyes. Although there is not a lot of furniture in the space, every piece feels important.'

2. But don't be afraid to embrace darkness, too

Navy bedroom with books

(Image credit: Jennifer Hughes)

Light, neutral spaces are pretty failsafe, but they don't always create the ambiance you're looking for, especially in smaller spaces like bathrooms, bedrooms or apartment entryways. Here, darkness can be a useful tool. 

'There's a falsehood out there that you need to make every small space white to make it feel bigger and 'brighter' (whatever that actually means),' says architect Nicholas Potts (opens in new tab), who experimented with darkness and light in the design of his own Washington DC apartment

The bedroom, for example, is color-drenched in Farrow and Ball's Inchyra Blue, helping to soften the edges of the space and tricking the eye so that the room looks bigger. 'There's a magical hour in the room where it almost seems to disappear into the twilight, and it can be like sleeping under the night sky,' Nicholas tells us. 

3. Be guided by your apartment's available natural light

a modern apartment in a kitchen

(Image credit: Brooke Holm. Design: Worrell Yeung)

So how do you choose where to go light and where to go dark when decorating an apartment? One way is to use natural light as your guide, and examine the time of day you want to use it. If it's largely a daytime space, whether the room is light or dark, designing elements that will reflect light will uplift your space, making it a more inspiring space to spend time in. 

Night-time spaces, or spaces that are completely lacking in light, such as hallways, can embrace darkness, rather than fight a losing battle in trying to make these areas appear brighter than they are. 

This design by studio Worrell Yeung (opens in new tab) strikes the perfect contrast through the wood tones it uses throughout. 'The apartment is light challenged, so the use of lighter oak helps brighten the space, while the darker oak of the thresholds highlights those transitional moments as contrasts,' says co-principal Max Worrell. 

4. Navigate open plan living 

a loft apartment with groups of furniture

(Image credit: ddreps c/o Kimberly Peck Architect)

If you've secured the lease on a large, open-plan apartment, then lucky you. However, if you've not lived in a space like this before, working out how to arrange furniture in one is a lesson you might have to learn, especially when it comes to apartment living room ideas

'It's important to think about flow and how you move about these large open spaces and to group the furniture accordingly,' explains architect and interior designer Kimberly Peck (opens in new tab). 'For instance, you would want to avoid putting a large sofa in the center of a room where from many angles the main view of the sofa is the rear.'

Instead, group larger pieces around the perimeter walls and make use of smaller pieces like lounger chairs, which look great from all angles, to fill in the gaps in the center.

'Another trick is to use multi-directional furniture pieces like day beds or large ottomans,' says Kimberly. 'These can bridge the gap between two different areas or groups of furniture.' 

5. Soften the features of a loft-style apartment

Modern London flat designed by Omar Bhatti

(Image credit: Anna Stathaki)

When presented with a loft apartment, you have two ways to approach designing the space. The first is to play up to the features of the space, while the second is to introduce elements to soften it. While we may be used to seeing lofts embracing n industrial interior design scheme, this loft apartment in London owned by interior designer Omar Bhatti is a great lesson in how to make one feel cozier and more homely. 

While retaining the raw plaster, inherited when buying the newly built apartment, Omar chose to introduce floor-to-ceiling, track-mounted curtains, which become the defining feature of half the room, helping to balance out that gritter wall finish. Luxe elements, from the parquet flooring to plush rugs, also add a comforting feel to what could be a stark space. 

6. Include the biggest dining table possible

an apartment with a large dining table and banquette seating

(Image credit: Max Burkhalter c/o MKCA)

A dining table doesn't always make the cut when it comes to furnishing a small apartment, yet architect and designer Michael K Chen of MKCA (opens in new tab) sees it as an integral part of the design of one. 'I'm always on the lookout for how to incorporate the largest possible table in a living space, and then to look for ways to position it or shape it in such a way that it encourages the widest set of uses,' explains Michael. 

'A table is great for dining of course, but also for reading, for work, for projects, for games. If placed and selected well, they become the nerve center for a home for everything that is not sleeping or watching television.'

The size of table you can include will depend on the space you have to play with, but there are a few dining table ideas to help mitigate the floorplan-guzzling effects of a supersize design. Using banquette, or built-in, seating on one side, for example, means that the table can be closer to the wall, while using a rounded or oval shape table might reduce the overall surface space, but it softens the edges and makes the table easier to walk around, promoting a better flow to your space. 

7. Learn to dress large windows 

a large loft apartment with big windows

(Image credit: Alan Gastelum)

Getting window dressings right for apartments isn't easy, especially as many apartments are designed with large volumes of glazing to frame a view, or are in converted buildings which have lofty ceilings and oversized windows. But whether it's to block out light in a bedroom, or just to create general privacy for your space, we've seen enough Rear Window-style movies taking place in apartments to know that blind and curtain ideas are something that need to be addressed. 

'For taller ceilings and expansive views that you don't want to obstruct, use simple ripple fold drapes, or roller shades, to match the color on the walls or mullions,' says Ahmad AbouZanat, an interior designer who specializes in apartment design for his New York-based studio PROJECT AZ (opens in new tab). 'This is the least intrusive, but by choosing a textured fabric you can still give it some volume and visual interest.'

Translucent drapes might be sufficient for a living space, allowing light in during the day but retaining privacy at night, while it's wise not to forego blackout window treatments when it comes to bedroom curtain ideas

Of course, not every apartment has huge windows, and in these instances, you can have a bit more fun with your window treatments. 'If the views aren’t key, that’s a great opportunity to have the window treatments be the background of other finishes and design elements in the space,' says Ahmad. 'Curtains with patterned fabrics, two layers of fabric, or valence details are the way to go.' 

8. Find space for art

a modern living room with blue accent

(Image credit: Sean Litchfield. Interior design and floral styling: Justin Charette Design)

The other challenge that comes with an apartment with large windows, especially an open plan one, is the availability of wall space to introduce personality through wall art and decor. 

However, for interior designer Justin Charette, creating a design that gave prominence to art was an important factor for this Manhattan apartment

'I was inspired by the neighboring Chelsea galleries - I’m from New York and they’ve always been so fun to visit,' Justin confesses. 'In this space I needed to give the art room to breathe - drawing attention and creating interest.' The living room wall art helps to balance out the scale of the windows, too. 

But how do you bring this personality when wall space is in short supply? 'In the smaller spaces, including the foyer, guest bedroom, and guest bathroom, I made sure the walls themselves serve as art by introducing graphic papers that bring interest and warmth,' Justin says. 

9. Set up the right seating

a colorful sofa in a small apartment

(Image credit: Seth Caplan c/o PROJECT AZ)

The proportions of an apartment, especially an open plan one, can be vastly different to those of a traditional house. In these set-ups, a seating area isn't only about creating the right amount of spaces for friends to sit when entertaining. It also acts as a crucial element in the layout and flow of the space, interacting with the other areas of the apartment. 

So how do you define the right seating area for your space? The best couches for an open plan apartment are often sectionals that turn corners, giving you a more social space where everyone's not sat in a row. Think of your seating area like a conversation pit and create a circular setting, supplementing sofas with armchairs, benches, and occasional chairs, rather than having all your furniture pointing at the TV. 

10. Include stools for flexible seating 

a modern apartment living room design

(Image credit: Brooke Holm c/o MKCA)

When designing a living space for an apartment, architect and designer Michael K Chen likes to create a space that can be re-organized depending on the way the people use it, choosing furniture that allows for that flexibility in design. 

'We like a range of pieces – some that clearly don't need or want to be moved, and some that clearly do,' says Michael. The most useful addition you can make? 'There is almost always a stool or two, because you want the ability to quickly and easily reconfigure the social landscape of a room.' 

Stools really can be a workhorse for an apartment short on space, fulfilling multiple roles in your layout. When it comes to modern living room furniture ideas, stools are the most versatile, acting as side tables, footstools, and overflow guest seating for those who don't mind sitting on something backless. Plus they don't eat up much space. You can even find coffee table designs that incorporate an upholstered footstool into them that can be stored away pulled out when needed. 

11. Use one flooring throughout

a modern neutral apartment design

(Image credit: Luiza Maraschin c/o Atelier PECLAT+CHOW)

In some apartments, changes in flooring are as obvious as they are in houses. Wherever there's a door threshold, there's an opportunity to make an easy change of flooring to suit the room you're transitioning into, though of course, some of these changes are more successful design-wise than others. 

But how about in an open plan, or even as a studio apartment idea? Flooring does offer a very visual way to demarcate different spaces for different functions, but across an open plan living space, these thresholds can be clunky and awkward. 

Instead, choose one floor type throughout, and use areas rugs to create breaks that help to zone your space. This offers a minimal, modern flooring idea for an apartment that works for every space and is easy to adapt if your style changes. 

12. Tackle the challenges of lighting an apartment 

a modern apartment with a bar featuring integrated lighting

(Image credit: GNE)

Apartments throw up some site-specific obstacles when it comes to designing the lighting scheme. These issues largely relate to overhead lighting too. 

First up, not all apartments will have the provision to include lighting in the ceiling, and it's very common to find apartments in New York, especially, without it. However, it's not a complete loss. Overhead lighting isn't always the coziest, especially as a living room lighting idea, and if your space has a decent amount of natural light during the day, you're likely not to miss it. 

This does, however, put the onus on floor and table lamps, and your space can quickly become cluttered if you require a freestanding lamp to illuminate every dark corner. Creating additional lighting, whether for ambient or task lighting, can be integrated into areas of your homes with the likes of recessed LED strips. Think shelving, kitchen cabinet lighting ideas, or whether there are interesting architectural features. 

In some apartment layouts, you'll also find that some rooms are set back from the wi