It needs to be said: The typical rental kitchen is the worst. There are plenty of exceptions, but for most of us, the theme is usually “builder’s-grade everything,” with the appliances, cabinets, and flooring chosen for affordability rather than durability — and definitely not for style. It’s also not uncommon for a rental kitchen to have a few quirks. In the case of my first apartment, the roomy kitchen had a pull-down ironing board but didn’t have any countertops. (Maybe the ironing board was considered enough?)
The main issue with a poorly designed kitchen is that it’s more challenging to redecorate than other areas in your apartment. Unlike in your bedroom, you’re dealing with permanent fixtures that you can’t move or replace. Designer Michael Buchanan, also known as “The Thrifty Decorator,” thinks we’re looking at it all wrong by focusing on, say, the ugly boxy fridge from the 1980s. “A success of a space is based on the whole look … not just one element. Keeping the big picture in mind, through an inspiration image, is important and will come in handy,” he says. But if you really, really can’t deal one more day with the various disappointments in your kitchen, here are a few designer-approved, nonpermanent solutions for bringing a little style to the heart of your home.
When you think of a backsplash, you probably envision permanent tiles. Obviously a no-go in a rental, right? Wrong. “There are great products, from peelable wallpaper to affordable faux stamped tin ceiling tiles that can enhance any kitchen backsplash without installing permanently,” Buchanan says. There’s a removable wallpaper for every decor style, but one classic choice is the Devine Color Textured Subway Tile peel-and-stick product.
“The easy fix is simple hardware updates,” Buchanan says. “I suggest staying classic and simple with hardware: Round or oval knobs or simple industrial bar-shape handles are my preference.” Don’t throw out the old hardware; you’ll want to put it back on when you move. Placing decorative baskets or bins on top of your cabinets helps give you a little extra storage while also bringing in a little color and pattern.
While they won’t distract completely from a lackluster view, a few potted plants can really perk up a space. “[They] soften the architectural and industrial edge of a kitchen and make it more homey,” Buchanan says. An herb garden is the best choice you can make in your kitchen: It’s relatively low-maintenance, fits on a window ledge, and can come in handy when you cook.
“I love sisal or black indoor/outdoor carpet. For around $50, you have instantly chic floors that are easy — if not easier — to clean [as] tile,” Buchanan says. A runner is often the best size for rental kitchens, especially if yours is the typical galley-style layout. One word of caution: Always make sure to buy a nonskid pad to go underneath the rug.
Keeping clutter to a minimum will help maximize whatever limited counter space you have. “Try to keep counters clear, so while working, they are free of the coffee maker, toaster, et cetera. Or put the appliances on a cart or shelf and not on counters,” Buchanan says. A rolling kitchen island isn’t just beneficial for extra storage space; if topped with a durable surface like butcher block, it can also function as a counter.
There are two options for living with ugly appliances: Disguise them or distract from them. If you’re the creative type, you could go with the former and cover your appliances with decorative DIY adhesive vinyl. (Pro tip: Do a test spot to make sure the vinyl removes cleanly!) Buchanan is in the “distracting” camp, however. “Take what may be a negative and work mismatched appliances to your advantage by not making them the focal point. You can do this by adding large-scale artwork, shelves, and objects to distract your eye from the perceived eyesore,” he says. As for finding that decor? Head straight to the thrift shop. Buchanan is a fan of thrift shops (thus his “Thrifty Decorator” nickname), and he also has an in-store pop-up decorator lab at the Indian River Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Vero Beach, FL.