I Took the Best Living Room Tips from Home Stagers to Renew My Space—and My Attitude

published Sep 8, 2020
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Lead image for tips from home stagers
Credit: Photo: Sarah Magnuson, Graphic: Apartment Therapy

In the months since March, as the pandemic’s grip snatched away the normalcy of the “Before Times,” I’ve been haunting my own house. A ghost in my Chicago apartment, I’ve been stuck working from my dining table (and my couch, and my bed, and on more than one unfortunate occasion, my bathroom) for the first time. While COVID-19 rages on, it’s obvious that I can’t turn back time. But I also know I can’t sit here waiting for some new family to move in, discover my spine-chilling spectral presence, and exorcise me from this funk. It’s time for me to return to the land of the living.

Looking back, my immediate response to the pandemic was frantic. I simultaneously set up my makeshift WFH encampment and rid my space of sentimental excess, fearing my trinkets would absorb contaminated air droplets and infect me. But it’s been months, and this isn’t some new way of life—we are deep in the new normal. It’s time to make this haunted house a haunted home.  

To transform my living room and reclaim its titular “living” qualifier, I looked to the guidance of Apartment Therapy’s expert home stagers, taking their top tips for sprucing up living rooms. Who better to improve a lackluster space than the people whose job it is to make a place widely appealing? Because I’m budgeting for the pandemic’s many uncertainties, I chose simple projects that involved minimal financial commitments and repurposed items I already had around the apartment. The result? Restoration—in more ways than one.

Credit: Sarah Magnuson

The tip: Style your coffee table with trays and books for organized intrigue 

The result: For months, my coffee table has been home to a pack of magic markers, my glasses, two separate laptops, several notebooks, too many pens, empty water bottles, and halfhearted to-do lists. Not cute! Following the six commandments of coffee table styling, I made some simple changes. Chess Valenti, the owner of Get Staged in Geneva, Illinois, shares advice on book stacking, saying, “Styling a coffee table is all about creating an aspirational lifestyle. I choose books for both their content and jacket design.” 

I added a stack of conversation-starter books, a fairytale-inspired dried floral arrangement (a simple early-pandemic craft experiment), and made sure to group my meaningful objects in threes. I also displayed a few objects on a white tray, per the advice of Krisztina Bell, the founder of No Vacancy Home Staging in Atlanta. “They can hold only so much but are big enough to allow you to create a vignette look that looks unified,” she says. The table now looks like a sweet, simple art installation that’s functional, yet pleasant. And my work supplies are displayed intentionally without being the star of the show.

Credit: Sarah Magnuson

The tip: Add houseplants for depth

The result: Because I was the last person in my office before it closed, and because I’m the keeper of the master key, I took home as many of my coworkers’ office plants as possible to keep them alive for what I assumed would be a month or so of plant-sitting. Months later, I’m their foster mom indefinitely, so it made sense to finally move them from the beach towel below my window into purposeful spots throughout my living room.

Baltimore-based Evan Roberts, real estate agent and interior design expert for Dependable Homebuyers, says, “Plants create visual depth as the nature surrounding your home becomes a part of the room, making it appear larger.” By inviting the outside in, my space feels less cramped and more serene, and reminds me that life continues. (Full disclosure: I accidentally overwatered and killed my work wife Jordan’s plant and hope our relationship can be mended. Jordan, take me back!) 

Credit: Sarah Magnuson

The tip: Introduce white curtains to maximize space

The result: On a routine trip to Target, I came across some inexpensive white and black tassel curtains that have changed the way my space feels. New York City-based Compass real estate agent McKenzie Ryan shares the value of white in staging, noting, “White’s an aesthetically-pleasing color, but also makes the space feel bigger since the light can bounce off it.” The curtains anchor the gorgeous view of the east and add dimension to the space. Plus, the white fabric lets that natural light shine in, and at this point, I’ll take anything that can boost my circadian rhythm and bless my vampiracle flesh with Vitamin D.

Credit: Sarah Magnuson

The tip: Style with the rule of threes for a natural vibe

The result: When styling my shelves and tables, I looked to the advice of Decorist designer Caitlin McBride, who says, “When styling anything—coffee tables, console tables, bookshelves—I always recommend grouping objects in odd numbers.” This, friends, is the power of threes: offering more organic clusters of objects instead of unnatural, structured evens.

In the many other surfaces that comprise my living room, I adhered to the same principle, showcasing my objects in odd-numbered vignettes. Grouping my brass animal collection was my favorite part; on every trip to my favorite city, Austin, Texas, I bring back an animal from Uncommon Objects. Now I see hope that I’ll be back there soon-ish. It feels restoring to have my sentimental items on display again, and the new arrangement makes me happy to be in my living room—Zoom meeting or not. 

Credit: Sarah Magnuson

The tip: Create vignettes to influence perspective and define use

The result: Because my apartment is one big ol’ open concept, the last thing I want to define my space is my TV. And while I’m lucky to have windows facing Chicago’s Lake Michigan, one of my views is obscured by an uninspiring parking garage. I looked to the guidance of New York City-based Andrew Stewart, founder and chief creative stylist of Red Cap Productions Inc, who says, “Forcing perspective allows for a natural read of the room.” To refocus, I scrounged every nail, clip, and hook I could find and added to my massive gallery wall. Is it busy? Yes, it’s absolutely the Times Square of my living room, just without the life-size dystopian knockoffs of Pikachu and Mickey Mouse charging you to take photos with them. But now my gallery sparks small talk in Zoom meetings and clearly defines my living room as the spot for entertaining. No one will ever notice my parking garage view again.

Nothing in the world makes sense to me right now, but taking control of my staging helped me to meet myself where I’m at—literally, always, endlessly, in my living room.