It’s no easy feat to find an affordable apartment in Washington. Renters will scour the city streets for a decent deal, searching uptown, downtown and increasingly, underground. English basements in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and Shaw have become popular options for young people looking for a reasonably priced one- or two-year lease. But basement dwellings often have low ceilings, cramped rooms and little natural light, making them challenging to decorate.
We asked designers how renters can optimize these tricky spaces — and make their basement dwellings feel like homes. Here are their tips:
Keep it cool: “Lighter, brighter, cooler colors help the walls recede,” says Jaye Langmaid, the owner of Hudson & Crane, an urban design studio in Adams Morgan. Light blues and grays can make a small room feel larger and enhance limited natural light. But don’t be afraid to accent a wall in a darker color, which can lengthen an oblong room or hall. Stay away from warm colors, which may make a small space feel crowded.
Raise the roof: Shannon Claire Smith, a D.C.-based interior decorator and design blogger, says that renters have a number of ways to make low ceilings appear higher. “I always have clients try to stretch the walls as high as they can,” Smith says. “A darker color on the ceiling makes it look like the night sky — you don’t know where it ends.” Renters can also hang floor-length drapery panels or arrange artwork gallery-style so that it fills walls from floor to ceiling. If you don’t have enough artwork to do that, a few large pieces can have the same effect.
Add mirrors: Decorative mirrors offer another way to create an illusion of space and light. “Mirrors can help reflect what little natural light comes into a basement apartment,” says Sarah Roussos-Karakaian, who co-founded the artisan contracting and design team Nestrs with her husband, Nick Karakaian. “The light bounces around your space.” Floor-length mirrors, too, can make a low ceiling look higher.
Look to the past: There’s nothing new about trying to make the best of a small, oddly shaped space. To find furniture that will fit down narrow stairwells and into cramped rooms, check out French, English and Japanese antiques, suggests Rachel Dougan, the founder and principal designer of ViVi Interiors. “In Paris, you had really tiny alleyways and stairwells,” Dougan says. “These vintage pieces were made for smaller spaces to begin with . . . and they’re made to be disassembled and put together again.” Dougan especially recommends “campaign furniture,” originally made for soldiers on the move. If you don’t like the old-timey aesthetic, she says, you can always add a fresh coat of paint to an antique piece.
Lighten up: The overhead lighting in rented apartments tends to be less than flattering, designer Anna Matthews warns. She suggests buying lamps that will warm up the space. For an affordable option, try Robert Abbey; if you’re willing to invest, Matthews recommends Bunny Williams. “I love to put good table lamps on either side of the sofa, because it makes it feel more like a home,” she says. “It personalizes the space, which is so important.”
Multitask: Get the most out of a small space by purchasing furniture with more than one function. “Have all your furniture be multipurpose,” Roussos-Karakaian says. Couches can pull out to double as beds for overnight guests, and coffee tables with built-in shelves can serve as storage space. Roussos-Karakaian also recommends wall-mounted shelves: Use them as bookcases or fill them with decorative storage baskets.
Privatize: English basements often have ground-level windows, which may allow passersby to see inside. Solar shades or privacy blinds allow light to come in while preventing pedestrians from peeping into your bedroom. Jo Kerrigan, district manager for Next Day Blinds, recommends the brand’s Honeycomb Shades, which have a soft, delicate look but offer total privacy. The shades, made out of a polyester fabric, also absorb sound, making them ideal for a basement on a busy street.
Go green: English basements are often accessed through narrow alleyway entrances, and plants placed by your front door can help welcome guests into your home. They can also improve air quality in basement apartments, which may get hot during the day. Smith recommends the snake plant, also known as mother-in-law’s tongue, a leafy indoor plant that helps purify air. (She also suggests that basement renters invest in air conditioners and humidifiers.)
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