When I had my first opportunity to live alone, it was in an apartment that measured less than 250 square feet. My furnishings consisted of a hand-me-down bed, a pair of folding chairs, a futon, a wall-mounted Ikea table, and Elfa shelves. It was heaven to have a place that was mine and mine alone, but it was hardly a temple of style. However, some of those early choices were indicative of my style today. That bed frame is still kicking around (thanks, Mom), and I still gravitate toward lighter finishes in my woods and walls.
I don’t know if I ever truly defined my solo style before shacking up with my partner and merging our belongings, but I sure could have used some help refining my tastes in those years between roommates and partnered life. It would have helped me avoid some ill-advised purchases (ahem, clichéd posters) and one god-awful paint choice (a sickly green wall color in my bedroom chosen after a big break-up). Finding your own interior style is hard in today’s digital-first world, in which platforms like Instagram and Pinterest seem to steamroll any individual flair or quirks into one homogenous style. But your home’s design should be personal, especially if you live alone and have no one to compromise with. I talked with four designers to get their tips and tricks for defining your personal style.
Don’t rush. Live in your new place a little before you start shopping or painting. “You don’t need to make a list of projects before you move in,” says Alex Kalita, founder of Common Bond Design. “Your priorities will announce themselves once you’re living in your new place.” So, as tempting as it may be to start shopping the minute you sign the lease, wait until you’ve settled in to start scheming.
Take cues from your home. Jenny Guggenheim, owner and principal designer at Guggenheim Architecture and Design Studio, says she always looks to the house first. “Use the era in which it was built as a starting point,” says Guggenheim. She recommends taking an inventory of the permanent elements of the house that you want to enhance. Interior designer Megan Pflug concurs. “Spaces want what they want. I look a lot at the architecture,” says Pflug, who has spent the last few years renovating her rustic A-frame hotel The Woodhouse Lodge.
Learn your keywords. Determine the style of your home, and try to pin down the key phrases to describe the look you want. For example, if you live in a Craftsman bungalow, but want a more minimalist, modern look, you might search for “modern Craftsman” to find inspiration images that will help you hone your style.
Start with Pinterest—but do so strategically. “Look at the Pinterest boards of an individual whose style you admire: a friend, influencer, or designer,” suggests Kalita. If you wander into the endless options, it may be hard to find things that speak to you, but if you start in a place that is already filled with the kinds of things you like, you’ll find more of what you love.
Gather a wide range of inspiration. As you are building your interior vision board (whether on Pinterest, Houzz, or a physical pin board), save everything you like. “Don’t even think about it,” advises Pflug. “Get it all out; then go back and edit things out.”
Pay attention to your outliers. As you sift through your favorite saved images, make note of ones that are different from the others. For example, if most of your images lean rustic and there’s one image you love that’s really glam, that may suggest you weave a few touches of luxury into your rooms—and those types of contrasts will make your space more personal.
Analyze places you love. Is there a friend’s house, a restaurant, a boutique, or even a coffee shop that makes you feel incredibly at home? To pick apart what it is about that space that you love, write a list the next time you are there.
Look in your closet. “If you have a fashion look that you love or that feels like your signature style, try to figure out how it would translate into your home,” says Guggenheim. For example, if your closet is full of blues and grays, those might be colors you use, or if you love thick, chunky knits, that’s a clue that you should seek out texture in your home textiles. Pflug takes this examination further, asking her clients, “Do you wear heels? Do you wear vintage?” These preferences can inform decor.
Gauge your stuff quotient. Another way to feel out your ideal room is to assess how full are the rooms that you are drawn to. While I greatly admire photos of sleek, minimalist interiors (hello, John Pawson!), the rooms that I actually feel at home in are filled with books and the kind of couches that you can sink into (Rita Konig, you’ve got my number).
Determine how you feel about ornamentation. Asses where you fall on the decorative scale from minimalist (white walls and simple upholstery) to maximalist (wild wallpaper and piles of patterned pillows). Know that wherever your preferences fall, your first solo pad will probably fall on the more minimal end of your vibe as you begin to invest in pieces you love.
Decide if you are warm or cool. Zeroing in on your color palette can (and should) take time, but Kalita says it’s often immediately clear if one of her clients leans more toward a warm palette (yellows, oranges, pinks, rusts) or a cool one (stark white, blues, cool greens). Know where you lean and you’ll automatically make purchase decisions easier.
Define the colors you love. Textile designer and author of Living With Color Rebecca Atwood offers this exercise to help you narrow your colors: “Imagine a place that makes you feel the way you want your home to feel. It could actually be a landscape, like the beach, or it could be an interior. Then pull the colors from that space out and make a physical palette.” You could paint it with watercolors, as Atwood does, or gather paint chips and other representations of color into a collage. It doesn’t have to be a work of art, but it is important to physically see the colors together.
Explore patterns. Every interior needs some pattern to look alive, says Kalita. Look at the rooms you’ve saved and again in your own closet. Are there more linear patterns, like stripes, checks, and plaids, or more fluid, organic ones, like florals or abstract blobs? Knowing this can help steer your picks for textiles, rugs, bedding, and wallpaper.
Don’t worry about your stuff that you don’t like. “Your existing things limit your choices in a good way,” says Kalita. “When you have a fixed set of things and you know your end goal, you’re easily able to calculate what elements you need to introduce to reach your target.” For example, if you want a light, airy look, and your furnishings are dark and heavy, you will have full license to buy tons of white, delicate things. Plus, you’ll have your element of contrast built in.
Edit what you have first. Shop later—much later. If you first start to remove things that aren’t part of your ultimate design goal, it will be more effective than bringing in more things. “You’ll have fewer objects to work against,” says Guggenheim, who often advises her clients to start with a more spare, stripped back interior and then layer on and add over time. “It’s important to start in a place where you don’t feel overwhelmed by your things,” she emphasizes.
Start with one thing that you really love. “One thing that excites you can open the door to more,” says Atwood. “Think about what it is that you really like about this one item. Pick other colors that go with it, place it in a room, and imagine what else you’d pair with it.”
Avoid shopping in big box or chain stores. When you’re trying to find your own voice, it’s hard not to gravitate toward the cheap quick fixes from mass retailers who have put things together into appealing, pre-curated vignettes. Instead, try browsing curated vintage shops and independent boutiques, says Guggenheim.
Step away from the paintbrush. While the internet abounds with advice to paint your furniture for a personalized look, Kalita disagrees with this wisdom for city dwellers. “If you live in a small apartment, it’s just too hard!” she says of trying to paint in a small space. However, if you’re blessed with a big backyard to paint in, you have our permission to paint away. (Psst, Zinsser B-I-N primer will prep almost any surface for your DIY.)
Go with your gut. Don’t worry too much about a specific definition of your personal style, says Pflug. “It’s there: You are the person making the decision,” she says. “As you solve the functional challenges of your space, of course you’re going to choose things that you like.”
Know that your tastes will change. Finding your style is not static—especially if you enjoy design. Your interior style is constantly evolving, the way your wardrobe evolves, says Pflug, but you are the common denominator. Go forth and decorate!