Before and After: A $450 DIY Accent Wall Project Livens Up a Plain Gray Rental Living Room

published Feb 6, 2023
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About this before & after
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Rental Friendly
Before: Blank wall in living room
Credit: Adrian Ye

In open-plan apartments and small studios, it can be nice to create distinct zones — defined spaces for working, eating, watching TV, sleeping, and other activities. While you may not be able to put up permanent walls, there are still several great renter-friendly ways to define and divide spaces, including bookshelves, rugs, room dividers, curtains, and peel-and-stick wallpaper.

One strategy that benefitted Adrian Ye’s (@solaceinteriors_) apartment was creating an accent wall with a large-scale mural. “The before was just a blank gray wall; the wall was in the center of the apartment and brought no joy or excitement,” Adrian says. “It was begging to become an accent!”

Credit: Adrian Ye

Adrian wanted to paint the wall at first, but her landlord wouldn’t allow paint. That was no problem, of course — Adrian found the perfect paneled wallpaper that would give her the look she wanted. But then, she learned the wallpaper wasn’t peel-and-stick. Once again, Adrian didn’t let that dissuade her. Instead of settling for a different paper, she found an online tutorial for turning any (dry) wallpaper into peel-and-stick using liquid starch, a method often used to apply fabric to walls.

Liquid starch’s day job as a laundry agent means it has a few properties that make it helpful for hanging wallpaper: It dries quickly, and it stiffens looser materials like fabric and wallpaper, and holds them in place. That’s because it’s made from water, cornstarch, and sodium silicate or aluminum, which act as an adhesive.

Credit: Adrian Ye

When it comes time to take a starch plus wallpaper combo down, the wallpaper should peel right off without taking the paint with it. If starch is left behind, you can use a sponge and warm water to remove sticky residue. For best results, use this method on smooth walls, lean toward a lighter color for your wallpaper or fabric, and always test in a small, hidden area of your wall first. (And, as with any experimental DIY in a rental, be prepared to sacrifice some of your security deposit upon move-out if things go awry.)

Adrian’s wallpaper pick: a tan and yellow non-woven paper from Belarte Studio that would match the rest of her decor. To hang it, she used Sta-Flo liquid starch. The $450 project took about six hours — over the span of two nights — to pull off.

First, Adrian cleaned her walls and lined up her wallpaper rolls. Starting at the top of the wall, she used a 2-inch paintbrush to add a light-but-even coat of liquid starch to the wall, then laid the wallpaper over top. She repeated this for each of the four panels and used a craft knife and ruler to neatly cut away the excess. Adrian credits her success in this DIY to lots of YouTube research, including videos from DIYers Alexandra Gater and Shelby Vanhoy.

Credit: Adrian Ye

“This project was a lot easier than I expected,” Adrian says, who did everything on her own. She did, however, say that the project would have been easier if she had a DIY partner. “If I could’ve done something differently, I would’ve asked a friend to help me hold the wallpaper so that it was lined up as I brushed liquid starch onto the wall,” she says. “It was very hard to do both without losing the wallpaper’s alignment!”

If you’re interested in wallpapering but nervous about alignment, pick an abstract wallpaper so that it’s easy to ignore any mistakes, Adrian recommends. (She filled in some spacing mistakes with lines from scraps of the wallpaper, and it’s not noticeable!) She also recommends covering the floors underneath the project area for easy cleanup afterward.

As for the after? “I love that it draws the eye up to the ceiling, which the gray wall hadn’t done,” Adrian says. “I love that it looks absolutely seamless and flat. It looks professionally done and like it had always been here! I’m proud that I didn’t give up after my landlord didn’t allow me to paint and after I accidentally ordered non-removable wallpaper!”