My first Manhattan apartment was a compact three-bedroom in the East Village that I shared with two of my closest childhood friends. The room I lived in was small: There was no closet, and my sliver of a window wasn’t even wide enough to accommodate the smallest of air conditioning units, making summers unbearable. But I didn’t care. I was finally living in New York City with my friends in an apartment that had high ceilings and a hint of architectural character.
It was during those years that I first came across the work of British interior designer and editor Rita Konig. The photos were of her own tiny Manhattan one-bedroom rentals, and one image in particular, from her first apartment in the West Village, drew me completely into her world.
It showed a perfectly rumpled bed set against a wall that was mostly window. Atop the bed was a breakfast tray, the Sunday New York Times, and a laptop strewn artfully across scalloped sheets sprayed in a print of delicate pink hearts. (I’d later learn that they are by luxury French linen company D. Porthault—Konig’s go-to for bedding—and are outrageously expensive. A more affordable alternative is to get sheets from Laura Ashley.)
There was a nightstand overflowing with books and topped with candles and a vase of white ranunculi. The walls were covered in an ecru, white-floral-patterned wallpaper that gave the room an English-garden vibe. There was something inviting and calming about the setup—and just so pretty. I wanted to move right in.
Part of that apartment’s appeal, of course, was its suggestion of a glamorous life. I would never be able to afford a place in the West Village, let alone a decorator, but there was still something accessible about it. What was most remarkable about that room was that it was tiny—as tiny as the ones I’d lived in—but under Konig’s touch, it had been transformed into a cozy, charming alcove.
So when I saw that Konig was holding workshops in New York, I promptly signed up, hoping to learn the secret to creating a charming, vaguely European home instead of simply dreaming wistfully about it. If anything, I’d learn a few tricks of the trade, get over my fear of decorating, and rescue the apartment I’ve shared with my husband for three-and-half years from its status as a victim of transient city life.
At the appointed time on a Wednesday morning, I showed up at a townhouse in Brooklyn’s picturesque Cobble Hill neighborhood. Painted pumpkins and cobwebs decorated the stoop. Konig, tall and casually elegant, greeted guests warmly at the door. She wore a dark, calf-length skirt with eyelet details—a white embroidered top tucked into it—and two-tone Chanel flats. And though the workshop was held at the home of a friend, Konig was a gracious hostess, offering everyone coffee and tea.
We settled in the powder-blue-painted living room and gather around a TV screen mounted on a wall that was otherwise all built-in bookshelves. On each seat were white folders bearing Konig’s name and filled with handouts. I chose a seat with three other women on a dusty-pink velveteen sofa directly in front of the television. Others were perched on a hodgepodge of chairs pulled in from the parlor on the other side of the pocket doors. A plate of cookies and a bottles of mineral water beckoned from atop a lucite coffee table, accented with haphazardly placed, faded Hello Kitty stickers.
There were 10 of us, and we went around and introduced ourselves. Many of the women there were ladies of a certain age and income-bracket, as far as I could tell, and some had children and one or two renovations under their belts. Frank, Konig’s first male student and the only one in attendance that day, explained that he was house-obsessed. One woman was a repeat student who took a workshop in London. A couple women present were interior designers themselves, while others were considering going into the field. Most of us were longtime fans who followed her column in Domino magazine—where she was an editor during its early days—and who continue to read her dispatches, called “Rita Notes,” in House & Garden UK.
The day was divided into two sessions with a break for a homemade lunch in between. We covered how to lay out a room, electrics and lighting, kitchens and glassware, bathrooms, color, and art. Arguably one of the best parts of the workshop was learning about Konig’s favorite suppliers. That information alone would have made the experience worthwhile. I took five pages of double-sided notes—and not just because I knew I’d be writing about the workshop afterward.
Some of it was highly technical and not yet relevant to a renter like me: Lay out your furniture before doing the electrical plan so that a switch or an outlet is always within reach; For the best texture, paint your walls with a brush, not a roller. Still, I filed the nuggets away for when I—hopefully—become a homeowner.
If you look at Konig’s interiors over the years, you’ll see the same motifs crop up again and again, in her own homes and those of her clients. This adheres to her philosophy that it’s easier to decorate with pieces you own already than starting with nothing, and that if you buy well and slowly, you’ll always have good stuff to work with. Also—and this seemed crucial—each piece doesn’t have to be your absolute favorite. Don’t be married to an idea: Furniture can be moved; walls can be repainted.
You’ll also notice that nothing ever feels too precious or staged or austere. A home should suggest a life being lived, Konig explained, and it has to work for you, not how someone else lives. The real litmus test of a successful home is whether it makes you want to sit down and ensconce yourself in it. And perhaps the best advice for city dwellers like me: Don’t let renting prevent you from living the way you want to live.
I left feeling inspired and anxious to get started. I decided that my first order of business would be to finally purchase that vintage movie poster I’d been eyeing on eBay for years, and to get more lamps. And maybe to ask my landlady if she’d be open to the idea of letting us wallpaper our tiny bedroom.
Without further ado, here are a few simple steps you can take to make your home a more comfortable—and beautiful—place to live:
Bring furniture into the middle of the room instead of relegating everything to the edges. This adds depth and layers to a room; your eye should always be traveling. You can do this by putting lamps on top of tables, or a table or bench behind a sofa. Don’t worry about symmetry, which can trap you more than liberate you.
There should always be a table or a surface by a seat to put down a drink. Chairs should be arranged to encourage talking to one another.
Furniture does not have to be neatly contained in a room. Let a chair stick out into a hallway so that someone looking down can a corridor can see activity instead of an empty room.
Don’t spend too much money on them. Repurpose an old table by placing a marble slab on top of it instead of using an island. A lot of what makes a kitchen looks good is styling, and kitchen tools are generous decorators. China and glassware can also be very beautiful. Start with a full set of dishes from Ikea, then add nicer pieces along the way.
Use chairs as makeshift holders of stuff like towels and baskets. But also include a place to perch if there’s space. Use wallpaper to make a bathroom feel more like a powder room.
Paint, wallpaper, furniture, and pictures and art can all be used to punch up a room. Wallpaper can actually make a small room feel larger because a print adds depth of field. Balance pastels with heavier furniture. Experiment with bold color in a part of the house that’s mainly used as a pass-through, like a corridor or entryway. Don’t be afraid to use pink.
Get pictures up right away. They can be snapshots, old advertising prints, or framed pages from a book. Frames do and do not matter. The biggest artwork can go on the smallest wall. Before hanging a picture wall, lay everything out on the floor first. Avoid grids. You can stack pictures on the floor or nail them to a bookshelf.