Beyond the pale


Danielle Mouledoux, 29, infused her English basement apartment in Cleveland Park with plenty of personality — without a single drop of paint on its white walls. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Danielle Mouledoux wasn’t going to be satisfied with standard white walls. After years of sharing space with siblings and roommates, she couldn’t wait to put her own touches on her Cleveland Park English basement apartment.

“I kind of went wild and I haven’t looked back; I’m very big on personalizing my space,” says the 29-year-old, who works in arts marketing. “I have a stressful job, so it’s nice to come home to somewhere that feels like a haven and a place for me.”

Most renters run up against some limitations when it comes to decorating their pads. Landlords typically paint walls white, beige or another inoffensive neutral to keep things simple for as many different kinds of renters as possible. In many cases, painting them a different color is not an option — and could cause you to fork over your security deposit if you apply a paintbrush. So renters bent on decorating are forced to settle for walls that are on the bland side.

But there are plenty of ways to add interest to vanilla surroundings, even if you can’t paint your bedroom a soothing gray or your kitchen a sunny orange.

Mouledoux filled her walls with an eclectic collection of artwork and a mid-century fabric hanging she rescued from the trash at a former job. The piece does double duty by hiding a cord for an overhead light.

A gallery wall is one way to cover a lot of white space and inject personality into an apartment. Buy a bunch of coordinating frames from someplace like Ikea, then fill them with whatever you find appealing: pretty pieces of wrapping paper, pages from a photography book found in a thrift shop or colorful scraps of fabric. Or hang a grouping of things like plates or baskets that don’t need frames.

“Anything that puts a variety of colors or patterns on the wall is really going to make your rental feel more homey,” says D.C.-based interior designer Annie Elliott (202-265-0443).

A single large-scale piece can also make a big impact.

“A friend of mine had this small, vintage postcard from Baltimore that she loved,” says Annandale, Va.-based interior designer Rebecca Penno (703-859-9749). The friend enlarged it at a print shop for a few dollars and put it in a poster frame from Michaels. Now it livens up the beige wall behind her couch.

Hanging things that say something about you is always preferable to buying a random print from T.J. Maxx.

“When you take the time to do something like that, you shine through, and that’s the best kind of creation for a dwelling place,” says Ashley Mills, who dispenses DIY design tips at the Handmade Home and co-authored a new book, “Handmade Walls: 22 Inspiring Ideas to Bring Your Walls to Life,” (Adams Media, $24.99), with her husband, Jamin.

Wall decals are an easy way to add a fun and funky graphic punch to a room. For something a little more sophisticated (but more expensive), consider removable wallpaper from companies like Design Your Wall, Swag Paper, and Casart. It works the same way as decals — just peel off the backing, stick the panels on the wall, and then peel them off when it’s time to move.

“Stick to small spaces like an entryway or hallway to add a little pizazz in a place that may be overlooked,” says Penno. “Or a lot of people will do an accent wall.”

Elliott likes using a pair of bookcases against plain white walls. One of her favorite choices? Room & Board’s Slim shelves ($339-$449), which come in colors like yellow and pink. Add interesting books and decorative objects, then use them to flank a TV, doorway or window.

“It gives structure to the room,” she says. “The bookcases crawl up the walls and fill up a lot of wall space, and it looks very deliberate.”

Opting for color when it comes to other furniture and accessories can also help to draw the focus away from blah walls. Mouledoux, for example, painted the tops of three past-their-prime wooden tables she’d picked up over the years bright green and yellow.

“If you have a wall with big windows — or even a few small ones — use a fabric in a bold pattern or fun color and fill the wall with curtains,” says Amy Rutherford, owner of Red Barn Mercantile in Old Town Alexandria (703-838-0355).

If you’re in the market for new pieces, think beyond neutrals. “Don’t buy a camel-colored sofa and put it against rental unit cream walls,” says Elliott. “Get one in a color like emerald green, royal blue or navy. Items like that just make your whole place sparkle.”

And when it’s time to move out, it’s easy to pack up all your vibrant touches and return the apartment to its blank-canvas state for the next renter.

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Marissa Payne · January 24, 2014