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How I Rescued a Rental With Bad Light

Photo: Melissa Hom

No apartment has it all, and while I’m very grateful for mine, I’ve always found the lighting to be rough.

My home has nice big windows, but since I’m on the ground floor, facing north and surrounded by taller buildings, there’s no clear path for the sun to shine. The light was somehow simultaneously always dim and glaringly harsh. Not to be dramatic, but you know how you look in the waiting room of a doctor’s office? That’s the vibe.

But, like so many New Yorkers, I’m renting, so what I can change is limited. So I set out on a mission: Figure out how to zhuzh it up and create a warmer space.

First, the Photos: My Living Room Before and After

Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom

My Bedroom Before and After

Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom

Start With the Light Bulbs

The first thing I did was call up Homepolish designer Ariel Okin. She said the easiest and first step is to make sure that you have the right bulbs. She suggested bulbs in the 50-watt range with frosted glass. In bedrooms and living rooms, you want Soft White (2,700 to 3,000 Kelvins, a measure of color temperature); in kitchens and bathrooms and brighter spaces, Warm White (4,000K to 5,000K). Ignore anything higher. And more lumens equal brighter light, so keep that in mind. These are the ones I picked.

Cluster Some Mirrors

The next easiest thing, Okin noted, is hanging some mirrors — specifically ones that face the windows. This reflects the light, of course, and also makes my small one-bedroom look larger. I went with these cute little Ikea mirrors from their Hay collaboration — I hung them together, clustered on one wall. Alas, they are currently sold out, so here are some other very handsome, cluster-able mirrors.

Get Some Good Overhead Lighting

The bane of any rental is overhead lighting. My living-room fixture was the biggest offender, and Okin said that the key to a good hanging lamp is milky glass, which diffuses light. I went with two from West Elm.

Here are some other nice options.

And Then Paint

Then, Okin said, I should repaint my walls. Like most prewar New York apartments, they came painted in a “warm white” shade that had a tinge of yellow. They absorbed, rather than reflected, light, she said. If I wanted to stick with white, she suggested Farrow & Ball’s Wimborne White and Benjamin Moore’s Simply White or Chantilly Lace.

But if I was going to paint, I wanted to go bold. “Muted pastels can lift the brightness of a room,” Orkin noted. “But muted is the key word here, otherwise the room can end up looking too much like a nursery.” For my living room and kitchen, which are connected, she suggested Farrow & Ball’s Pink Ground or Borrowed Light, which is a nice silvery blue. I went with Pink Ground, and if you come over and comment that it’s “millennial pink,” I will kick you out of my home. It’s a nice, neutral blush.

It’s amazing how different people look in my apartment with this color as a backdrop — it has the power to transform anyone into a glowing Glossier model. After consulting a few local pros, I went with Paintzen, a stellar start-up that allows you to book online and schedule painters literally a day in advance, making the process super easy. The two painters got the job done in a day and couldn’t have been nicer.

But now, a mood-lighting-obsessed person, I had no idea what to do with my bedroom. I looked at swatches on my wall for weeks on end. I continued to ask my color-blind boyfriend for his opinion, and he continued to say, “Huh?” (He also had no idea I’d painted my living room pink.) I worried the dark colors would be a little too intense, but I wanted something bolder. I called in backup; Joa Studholme, an “international color consultant” for Farrow & Ball — one of those jobs that, along with nail-polish namer, I’d like to have someday.

“If you paint a small, dark room a light color, you will end up with a small, dark, dull room,” she says. “A bedroom is used most often at night, anyway, when you will always have the lights on.” She suggested Oval Room Blue or Card Room Green. I ended up going with Inchyra Blue — a moody dark turquoise that made the room feel dark and intimate, and also played well against Pink Ground. (If you have a small apartment, make sure your colors work together!) Studholme was right; choosing a dark color allowed me to embrace my home’s flaws instead of desperately trying to fight them. I also learned that, above any other changes, the paint has made the biggest difference in the warmth of the space, and made a rental that felt a little stale look entirely fresh and new. It’s a worthy investment if, like me, you want to avoid paying moving fees for a few more years.

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How I Rescued a Rental With Bad Light