Scoring a great deal on an English basement can feel pretty bright. Living in one, however, can leave tenants feeling in the dark.
The subterranean rentals, which usually rely on tiny, ground-level windows for natural light, are common in the D.C. area. But don’t resign yourself to feeling like a cave-dweller when you live in one: There are plenty of ways to brighten up the spaces.
If your place is lacking natural light, add some light of the man-made variety. “Finding lamps was the quest of my entire first year and a half in the apartment,” says Kate Davey, 26, who works in business development for Deloitte and lives in a one-bedroom Capitol Hill basement apartment.
Lamps are crucial to making a space feel more open, says Annie Elliott, owner of interior design firm Bossy Color in D.C. (202-265-0443). “The brighter a space is, the larger it will seem,” she says.
That’s why some renters make lighting a priority from the beginning of the apartment search.
Elias Sanchez-Eppler, 25, a government contractor who lives in a two-bedroom basement apartment in LeDroit Park, recommends looking for places with recessed lighting, or fixtures installed flush with the ceiling.
He lucked out, finding a place with nearly 30 recessed lights, to brighten up his approximately 850-square-foot underground lair. If you want to add fixtures like that, though, check with your landlord.
Davey needed a ceiling light fixture in her dining nook — the blinds on its four windows had to be partially closed for privacy, making the space a little too dark.
With the help of her dad, Davey jerry-rigged a hanging lamp from Ikea to illuminate her dining area. Its lamp shade, a rattan basket weave, lets more light through than a solid shade.
In addition to her creative use of lamps, Davey tries to get as much real sunlight into her place as possible. During the day (weather permitting), she keeps her front door open to let in sunlight (but keeps the iron gate in front of it closed to keep out unwanted guests).
For even more natural light, choose the right window treatments. With street-level windows, renters must strike a balance between adding light and losing privacy. Elliott recommends sheer, light-colored linen drapes, which run about $60 a piece at Pottery Barn. If your windows come with those ubiquitous plastic blinds, she advises you pull the blinds up and put the linen sheers on top.
Once you have some light, make the most of it by decorating with metallic finishes like silver, gold or brass. “Look for things that are reflective,” Elliott says. “Brass end tables, or a reflective tray on a coffee table will bounce some light around.” These days, even throw pillows come in metallic fabrics. And, of course, simply hanging a mirror in the right spot will help get sunlight in the apartment.
You can also reach for a paintbrush to lighten up your home — assuming your landlord lets you paint, that is. That’s the route Mandy Paust, 28, took in the one-bedroom Capitol Hill basement apartment she shares with her boyfriend.
Paust, a fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, painted her front dining area an eggshell “fresh butter” color, which has a slight sheen that helps reflect light. She also painted the wall opposite their fireplace a burnt red to play off the bricks.
Elliott suggests painting walls a light color but not white, such as a wash of aqua.
“If you don’t have a lot of natural light, then white walls can look dirty, and rental-unit cream walls can look even worse,” Elliott says.
If things still aren’t as aglow as you’d hoped, give fake sunlight a try. Davey uses a full-spectrum light bulb in a floor lamp in her bedroom, which she’s hooked up to a timer so it turns on with the sunrise. The energy-efficient bulb, which typically costs less than $10, simulates natural sunlight.
“It tends to wake your brain up a bit more,” Davey says. But brain-stimulating bulbs are probably not suited for every fixture in your place, she says, “unless you want to be wired.”
Let There Be Light
1 Interior designer Annie Elliott loves the bright-colored, metallic table lamps (Juggler lamp shown, $473) sold at Vastu. (1829 14th St. NW, 202-234-8344)
2 Elliott also recommends the painted velvet Jackie pillows in frost ($99) at Room & Board, saying their metallic shimmer can lighten up a room. (1840 14th St. NW, 202-729-8300)
3 Kate Davey mounted Ikea’s Böja pendant lamp in rattan basket weave ($59.99) in her English basement on Capitol Hill.
4 Davey also picked up Design Within Reach’s Tolix Marais A metal chair ($250, shown at left in her Capitol Hill apartment), which reflects some light. (3306 M St. NW, 202-339-9480).