Battle of the blands: making the most of boring spaces

Posted by

This is not how I picture artist housing.
Whenever I watch movies about scrappy young creatives (dancers! artists! musicians! writers!) fighting to make it wherever they’re to make it (magazine! stage! tv!) they live in quaintly decrepit buildings. These buildings always feature lots of wabi-sabi idealized visions of industrial spaces supposedly no one else wants, or hilariously quirky bathtubs in the livingroom (ha ha!), etc.

But the reality is this: if you’re growing up young and creative in the United States, unless you live in certain cities in the Northeast (and maybe even there), at some point in your life, you’re probably going to live in the housing equivalent of a strip mall. We’re talking mid-’80s constructions with grey carpeting and vertical blinds. Split-levels with sparkly textured walls and square corners. See, that romantically decrepit old housing that you always pictured your struggling 20something ass living in? Those places can be crazy expensive — they’re all “vintage modern” with a brand new bathroom and stone countertops and stainless appliances in the kitchen.

The most challenging space I lived in was a 1970s apartment on the edge of Venice, CA. It was that ubiquitous Los Angeles three story, open walk-ways, cheaply built shitty building. It was on a busy street. There were vertical blinds, amber light covers, aluminium windows that slid horizontally. Everything was square, beige, and bland, with the exception of the lovely balcony that faced west and got an ocean breeze from the beach 15 blocks away. It was technically a decent apartment… but it was SO BLAND. I could never quite feel like myself living there. I never really identified with the woman who walked up those railed stucco steps and into the square, bland, door. I only lasted a year in LA (this was my farewell song), and I have to wonder if that would have been different if I hadn’t been in the blandest home of my life.

Chances are decent that you’ll live in at least a few during your life, and you have to do what you can to make the space feel like yours. I had some suuuper hippie friends in SF, and they managed to make a completely blah apartment in the heart of the Sunset neighborhood feel like an earthy hideaway. They had lots of house plants, indoor sprouting projects, Indian bedspreads, and mountains of pillows and little altars arranged on the floor. It wasn’t quite my look, but there was no denying they totally owned the space.

I’m looking forward to featuring more of these “blank canvas” homes on the site. There are elaborate romanticized dreams about how young and creative people live — but very few of us are in gorgeous abandoned live/work industrial spaces. This is not New York in the ’70s. Many of us can’t afford the luxuries of gentrified quirky spaces.

I’ve got a theory that strip malls, office parks, and abandoned big box stores are the art districts of the future. Artists can’t compete with yuppies for condo space, so creatives will go where the space is cheap. And the space is cheap in these abandoned places of bland commerce. 30 years ago, artists converted the industrial spaces. In my weird future, crumbling strip malls are taken over by squatting tribes of Fixie-riding street artists. It’s a long ride out to the suburban art park, but once you’re there you’ve got 40,000 square feet of former office space COMPLETELY at your disposal for your weird welding/zepplin-building/performance art pieces — and as a bonus, you’ve got T1 internet connections wired in for the multimedia broadcasting!

I’m telling you: we need to get GOOD at working with these bland, depressing spaces of abandoned service commerce and American consumer spending. Take over those abandoned strip malls. Buy that big box and build a theater with elaborate 360° stages. Go where the space is cheap, and make rad shit.

And for those of us who might be creative — not balls out ARTEESTS per se, but crafty thank you very much — we get to each work our domestic art of making these characterless walls our own. When you can’t paint, how can you put your stamp on it?

I’m scheming a series of posts that fit into this “no-damage decor” category. Houseplants. Fabric. Mobiles. Ways to make big fingerprints on your space; ones that wipe up quickly so you can get your full deposit back.

And you! All of you drowning in beige! Stop being ashamed and start making it awesome! And sending us pictures!

Comments on Battle of the blands: making the most of boring spaces

  1. YES! YES! YES!
    And please with special emphasis on concrete-box college dorms, where you can’t even really do anything about the ugly-ass furniture….

    • The answer to college dorms is: POSTERS! Cover the walls with posters, posters, and MORE POSTERS. Flags, tapestries, anything will do if you don’t like posters. Just cover the wall. Cover it all. Ignore the rules about “Only 8 holes per wall,” because it’s never enforced.

      I should upload pictures of my dorm/on campus apartments throughout these past 3 years 😛 Everyone is always like, “Ohmygod your room feels so much cozier than mine!” POSTERS.

      • When I was in school (3 years ago) every year they’d give us a big handful of Command strips. I should work for these people, really. I put up tons of art – from friends, from etsy – all without putting a single hole in a wall.

        It’s such a great way to put up lighter weight things, though I did manage to put up a 15 pound mask each year, and it doesn’t even take off the paint.

      • Exactly what I was going to say. Posters, posters and more posters.

        I’ve still got my weird collection of posters, postcards, pictures from old calenders and fabric wall hangings because it turns out they work just as well for crappy, bland short lease (no painting allowed) apartments.

        Throw in a supply of Blu-tack/command strips and they can cover walls, cealings, doors and even some of the furniture. I never managed to hide it completely but it’s definately the quickest, easiest and most landlord friendly way to put your own stamp on a space.

      • Many colleges have huge poster and art sales right at the beginning of each semester and you can find something for every decor style. I bought a ton of photograph-looking posters of foreign locales for my dorm. They’re hanging (framed and fancy-looking) in my grown-up apartment. People STILL compliment their awesomeness.

      • Not allowed them in my dorm room 🙁 Whilst I’m okay flouting the no candles rule for my Shabbat candles/Chanukah menorah, I’m less comfortable doing that just for posters.

        • I don’t like posters, but my University rooms always looked totally my own. The trick is co-ordination. It may sound totally Martha Stewart, but if you have a blanket, a cushion and a mug all in the same colour, the space looks totally your own. The blanket goes across the bottom of your bed, the cushion either on your pillow or on your desk chair and the mug on your desk.

          I like pale colours, so my mug-cushion-blanket were LITERALLY beige, but my room always felt the most put-together and homey of all my friends. When my little sister went away, I bought her a blanket, cushion and mug which were blue with pink pigs on and she really struggled to get people out of her bedroom for the first term, because hers was the most homey room.

          Hope this helps!

    • Everyone has said posters, I would like to offer string lights and garlands/prayer flags/bunting. Most dorm rooms are small enough that you could hang a string of christmas lights from one wall to the next with no problem. Chances are that much of the time you can take them to a shelf or closet (or drape them over a window sill) with out even having to put a hole in the wall. But even if you did have to resort to some sort of mounting equipment, a couple of thumb tacks should be more than enough. Bunting and lights are a great way to add color and personality to otherwise very generic, blah spaces.

    • Cuurrrrtaaaaaiins. No, seriously, curtains. Get a tension curtain rod (The kind with the spring in it. The really long ones, like mine, will bow in the middle, but you learn to deal) so you’re not putting nails in the wall, and some nice curtains. (I had transparent, obnoxious aqua.) People would say my room looked so homey, although they couldn’t put their finger on it. Then they would go, oh wait, you have curtains. It’s such a wonderful pop of color.

      • Stick a Command hook in the middle to hold up the rod–it worked wonders for my cheap-ass curtain rod! I had transparent hot pink curtains, so when the sun shone through my window it gave my room this lovely rosy flattering light.

  2. Paint the walls! A few HGTV hosts that I like have made this point. If you are not allowed to paint an apartment, paint it anyway. (Scrape off a paint chip of the original wall color and color match it to the right white paint – make a note of the paint somewhere long term so you know which white to use when you move out.) And then paint it back to white when you move out.

    Life is too short to live with white walls that you hate. And even if you get dinged on your deposit, at least you will have lived that 1 year lease (or whatever) with soul-enhancing feel good color rather than having your spirits dragged down every time you walk in the door and see wall color that you hate.

    • As a small-time landlord, I kind of have to disagree with this point. I’m all for loving your space and making it your own… but if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t paint carefully, you’ll make a mess that takes a lot of time and money to clean up. That makes it harder for us to have an equally clean, nice, welcoming space for the next renter. If your landlord is fine with painting, awesome. If you’re renting from a big management company, then any mess you leave may not hurt them much. But those of us who spend our evenings and weekends turning over apartments without making any money on it in the short term would be most grateful if you helped us care for the space!

      • Yeah. My parents are meticulous DIY-ers who were horrified when the people renting their lovingly-tended house painted over mildew on the front door so that the paint came off in strips. Other renters painted dog hair into the base boards (not just a little, but several dog hairs into every foot of base board–ew!).

        I’m always shocked that landlords let me paint. If someone does give you the privilege of altering their property, treat that privilege like treasure! If not, understand that there are reasons why, and please respect other people’s property.

    • I agree with this completely (but with a caveat for Colleen) – paint, paint, paint, whether you are supposed to or not!!! It’s cheap, fast, and easy, and the only way to be ‘bad’ is to be lazy. Painting “well” is super easy, it’s just tedious. I have painted every single space I’ve ever lived in (including my college dorm!), and it’s saved my sanity. Yes, you can even paint blood red or black walls back to white with NO TRACE of the illicit color… promise.

      I lived in a bland, drab 1970’s LA apartment identical to Liset’s (but in Little Armenia – I got the Hollywood sign balcony instead of the ocean breeze, hehe), and we divided up the room into “spaces” (this corner=office, this corner=living room, this corner=breakfast nook, etc), painted them each a different color and then hung shelves for books and art EVERYWHERE. It ended up being the best apartment I’ve lived in to date. When we moved out, we filled the holes, spackled, primed, painted, and voila – back to uber bland, uber ugly white apartment.

      But, yes, you should restore the color carefully and fix any holes/changes you make without approval. Although it’s always worth asking if the landlord would like you to leave the color for the next tenant (assuming they know you’ve painted) – I’ve had several who prefer my paint scheme to the white, and have asked to keep it.

    • I agree 100%! White walls make me bonkers. As mom always said: “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”. So what if I have to spend an afternoon painting it back. I’m probably going to ding up the walls and get them dirty anyway. I did my apartment in red saffron, graham cracker gold and bay leaf green and my landlord didn’t bat an eyelash.

      FANTASTIC ARTICLE!!! I put myself in the category of starving curator 🙂

      • My concern would be that if someone is only spending on afternoon, they aren’t doing it well. For example, I believe that when you paint, if you have baseboards that are just nailed on, those baseboards need to come off. Taping never works as well as removing. But then they need to go back on permanently. That stuff takes time.

    • My rental agreement flatly states that if I paint without permission (I can submit colors for approval, just just don’t want hard to paint over colors like bright red or blue), and they see it from coming in to fix something, even if I repaint on moving out I lose my entire deposit. Not worth it!

  3. HEART this post!! I’m getting sooo much better at Battling-the-Bland, with significant improvement happening after my boyfriend moved in and starting bringing home weird stuff from thrift stores.

    I’m way too lazy to paint walls a color only to paint them white a year later when I move out. Alternative? PAINT FURNITURE! I looove painting furniture bright obnoxious colors. I have red stuff in the living room, a blue/yellow kitchen table, and a green/yellow kitchen shelf thing. They make me happy.

    I recommend going nuts on hand-me-downs, thrift stuff, street corner finds, etc. Then you won’t feel so bad in case you botch it.

    • Agree! In addition to painting cheap furniture, I also love painting cheap picture frames. In one horrible apartment, I covered the living room walls with orange-framed black and white ballet posters. The result: a space I loved coming home to.

  4. I so look forward to seeing some of this. I have this inherent need to splatter myself across every corner of the spaces where I live. Except for the part where I’m not allowed to (I can’t even hang curtains in my apartment for chrissakes) and the part where I have to share my space with someone else, whose aesthetic is not mine. And, oh God, beige carpet.

  5. love this! I am currently in this battle and trying super hard to get rid of the blah bland. As soon as I’m done, It’s ON… like Donkey Kong. In the meantime inspiration please?>!?!?!??!?

  6. “I’ve got a theory that strip malls, office parks, and abandoned big box stores are the art districts of the future.” I think this has actually become a pretty cool part of Albuquerque… studios, galleries, and theatres are nicely dispersed in unexpected old strip malls and plazas, and the mural tradition here is really good at quickly turning a building that was plainly built to house a nail parlors and a Blockbusters into a place that begs the community to come reexamine it.

    • Oklahoma City is behind Albuquerque (and other places) in the art scene although we have some fabulous creatives. But I’ve noticed for a long time that tons of the best small local restaurants with offbeat, interesting, and super-tasty food are in the bland strip malls that are all over the place here.

  7. So drowning in beige! Working on fixing up our place right now. It’s so hard to get modivated for me though. I want to do it, but I get in this lull when my husband is off at work and I could be doing artwork rather than cleaning and decorating…

    I’m with you, as much as this is a nice decent apartment, it doesn’t feel like home yet. I can’t wait to get it all spruced up and send photos and the how we did it.

    Until then, thank you for this site. It really helps with ideas and that I am not alone in this venture.


  8. Warming up windows:

    buy some contact paper in a fun shade/design. find a template for a picture frame (or draw your own). cut out picture frame from contact paper (probably in multiple pieces), and frame your window.

    use a suspension rod to hang curtains in front of lame mini-blinds!

    pin up curtains! (this looks better than you think) Buy curtains a bit too long in 2 panels. Optional: sew a tie-back ribbon 2-3 inches in from to the outside-back edge of each (the side facing the window, not your room). Make a chalk line about 3-5 in (personal taste) from top of curtain. Mark level line above window (about 2 inches above). Match line on fabric with line on wall. Take flat-head thumb tacks (or T pins if your curtains are a bit heavy) and pin along the fabric line. Let excess fabric above the line you drew on the fabric overhang to conceal the pins (add more pins until the fabric hangs the way you want it to). This mimics the look of a valance without adding too much bulk to the room. Repeat for 2nd panel of curtains, and then tie each curtain to either side of the window or leave shut as desired. Then just patch up holes when you leave!

      • If you pin the curtains up, you won’t be able to open them. You can pull them apart, but a good 1/4 of the window will always be covered. We did this in our living room in a previous life and it sucked because it made the living room so dark and cold that we never used it.

      • I just bought a wood dowel (the kind used to make simple handrails and such) from Home Depot and cut it to fit my window. Then I hung it up with a couple nails and braided twine – not the prettiest, but quite effective.

  9. ohh yes. It’s not so much beige here, but we’re living in a huge and UGLY and very very white apartment complex from the early 60s just outside Stockholm. The area is great and the apartment itself adorable, but the house is so ugly that my heart sinks a little every time I’m coming “home”.
    We’ve been living here for more than 5 months, and I still don’t feel like home. It’s too bright, too white, too empty, too limiting. Our finances have also been pretty crappy so we can’t really afford any nice furniture or carpets or wallpapers or anything just yet either..

    So now, whenenever we have a tiny bit of money left, I buy art supplies to fill the emptiness with more personal things. Hoping it’ll help cause moving isn’t an option for the next couple years.

  10. Ok, so this might sound crazy, but hang your clothes on the wall.

    I have this beautiful green dressing gown that belonged to my grandmother, and it’s just too delicate for everyday wear any more. So I put it on a nice hanger and then hung that off a wall sconce. It’s now the centerpiece to my “dressing room” wall. I’ve added a lace fan, a few postcards of pretty art, and a jewelry rack. It looks quite cool.

    I think this is a great idea for fancier clothes that don’t get worn very often. Not only does it add to the room, but all those pretty clothes won’t be hidden in the closet most of the time.

    • I did this with a fun ballerina like dress that I owned but never felt bold enough to wear. It showed off the dress and filled out a section of the wall. I just put it on a thin wire hanger (white to match the bland walls) and nailed a tiny tack into the wall to hang it from.

  11. I’m going through something like this right now. The flat is an interesting shape because it’s been convered from a house (which I think went through several changes before that) but everything was in shades of white and beige.

    Normally I’d just throw my poster etc. collection up on the walls and be done with it, but thanks to Offbeat Home I’m actually taking the time to try and arrange them so it looks less like a teenagers bedroom (which is where most of the posters started out) and more like there’s some actual design process going into it.

  12. I’m currently in the midst of trying to awesome-ify my beige space. We rent a unit with white tile floors, white walls, and a very strict no painting policy. We’ve avoided accumulating too much furniture or ‘decorative’ stuff because we’re never sure our one year lease will be renewed – but we’re coming up to our 5th lease, so I’ve finally vowed to make this space our own. I hope I don’t have to move it all when our lease comes up again in July, but even if I do, no big deal really.

  13. I found some artist’s mounting adhesive at an art supply store; as long as you only spray it on one (not both) of the surfaces, it peels off when you need it to. I’m putting cute paper all over our bookshelves and cupboards, and pretty fabric on the walls. It helps with the white.

  14. White box dweller here… I hung an actual curtain rod on the wall and made a giant hanging for it and it made no more damage than two picture frames . But my absolute favorite is plants, which are under appreciated in cheap awesomeness, they add a touch of life to every surface and can hide anywhere. I only have sun in one room so my plants get sunny Sunday to stay healthy. But thanks, in a way I feel forgiven, all the cool factory lofts are twice the cost of my white box and I thought it was just me.

    • I did almost the same thing, I had a room that was 35×12 in my old rental and couldn’t paint it, so I hung curtain rods around the entire room perimeter and bought some long ass curtains… voila! Instant wallpaper! They never said no to hanging shit up, just to painting!

    • This is such an awesome and true article! My apartment is affordable and oh so bland. I have noticed the plant phenom myself- they really do add so much life and I do not consider myself a green thumb. And then again, they literally help to make your air healthy, so that’s nice too!

  15. I live in Anchorage, AK and let’s just say…as beautiful our natural surroundings are, our whole city is pretty much 50s-80’s boring boring boringness. There are notable exceptions, but most of the apartment complexes are just ugly. My fella and I live in a 450 square foot white box, but I think we’ve done a good job making it a little less boxed in. I’m pretty excited for these upcoming posts!

  16. I live in the cutesy artsy old quirky apartment now, but my first place was a nasty, ‘garden level’ beige, bland 1 bedroom apartment that I couldn’t paint. I livened up the cement block wall in the living room by getting those adhesive plastic hooks and hanging up a large tapestry that I got on the cheap at a hippie shop. That definitely helped liven up the place!

  17. I lived in a dorm my freshman and sophomore year of college and I made my dorm really livable. I uploaded some pictures to the flikr pool but they’re pretty limited on the view. If I had known I would be documenting for posterity I would have taken pictures from more angles..
    But the things I did to make the space feel better included making my own curtains, area rugs, and I wall papered one of the walls with fabric and starch. Also I stole a chair from the common area but that’s besides the point

    • I’m also about to move into a pretty boring “Bro-plex” (its my man’s space that he lovingly named and is the hangout for all of our friends.. Our coffee table is a cardboard box stacked on tupperware) so I’ll make better documentations next time

  18. I’ve lived in a tiny, boring, beige box before, have since moved on to an adorable, quirky little old house that I LOVE, BUT I’m soon to be moving to a larger home that I’ll share with three men…a large, suburban, beige box! I’m going to make an attempt at toning down my brightly-hued, eclectic style for these poor boys. I just don’t think they can handle the visual assault of my fuschia sofa, especially the boyfriend, who rocks a minimal, Asian-themed, black, white, red, and BEIGE apartment! Can anyone offer me some advice on keeping up my eclectic style, while appeasing these testosterone-ridden creatures? I may need therapy after this…

    • Moderation! While you might love the colour on ALL THE THINGS, try limiting it to “pops” of colourful things grouped together (when little) or individually (when big). They’ll be super visible because of the contrast, but you’re only using a small amount of the overall space so the guys can’t get annoyed 😛
      For the sofa, i would suggest a throw or collection of cushions to break up the massive colour – maybe in white or even the dreaded beige, black or dark colours would force the pink out more in my head but white or beige would almost… tone it down? i don’t really know the technical-artsy-terms here.
      Would love to see it all once you’ve moved 😀

  19. Yay! I love this site but my house is far cry from some of the amazing ones featured on here. My goal is to own an older home with more character in the next 5-10 years but for now I am stuck in my cookie-cutter ranch house. I’m slowly trying to make it my own by adding original art, random flea market finds and repurposed items. It is slowly but surely getting there!

  20. Simple, cheap, effective: hang a curtain rod across a blank wall and then hang flat drapes from it.

    It was how we made an accent wall look red in our kitchen / dining room in my grad school apartment, and we routinely had people convinced there was actually a door behind the curtains that they just hadn’t seen (a storage closet or basement access or something) — it made the place feel bigger that way.

    And when I moved out, I had a pair of curtains handy that now are in our office / guest room. 🙂

  21. I currently live in a quirky gentrified historical building, complete with state funding for income-based lowered rent (go Quad Cities!) but have to move for our jobs. I am going to miss it so much. :C
    Luckily, a new white apartment is nothing more than a blank canvas. We can make this work.

  22. You know what works great is faux brick panels. You can get them at Home Depot. Sounds tacky but they look really cool. Just put them up with little tack nails on the corner of each large panel. You can even drive bigger nails through them to hang pictures and stuff like you would a real wall.

    • What an awesome idea!! I would just LOVE to try this in my white-box apartment. Are you referring to the brick wallpaper patterns available from Home Depot? Or are there textured panels too?

      Could you provide a link to the product, please??

Read more comments

Join the Conversation