In late 2013, Kerra Michele Huerta’s design business was taking off.
Her budget decorating hacks, which she illustrated on her Apartment Envy blog using her own 560-square-foot, one-bedroom rental in Dupont Circle, were plastered all over the Internet, pinned and shared and blogged millions of times. Her calendar was filled with design clients: anxious city dwellers who hired her by-the-hour for strategies on how to replicate her DIY-chic look while personalizing their own spaces. She got a gig decorating an apartment in Paris and an offer for a book deal.
It all sounds glamorous. But in reality, parts of her life were unraveling. Her marriage broke up and her husband moved out. Twinkie, her beloved Pomeranian, took ill and died. Everything felt different.
“The energy of the space had changed,” says Huerta, 32. The stuff in her apartment reminded her of the past: “Lots of good things and sad things, just lots of memories.”
Months went by. “I felt like I was treading water,” she says. Finally, she knew what she had to do: clean house and move forward.
In June 2014, she put an ad on Craigslist: “Designer apartment. Everything must go. Cash and carry.”
In six days, she sold almost every single thing in her place: the arc floor lamp, the cowhide rug, the king-size bed and mattress. (She would be switching to a queen so she could change up her layout.) “It felt good,” she says.
“My apartment felt old to me. I wanted something fresh,” she says. “All the spaces I was decorating now were completely different. A lot of stuff reminded me of my old life. I wanted to be my own person.”
There were only a few things that Huerta kept: a brightly colored upholstered chair, a small wood cabinet, kitchen storage baskets and some of her artworks. She also kept the two Ikea Billy bookcases on either side of the fireplace: “They fit perfectly, and who wants to reassemble Ikea furniture?” she says.
Then she slowly made a plan. She would take her mid-century-influenced apartment in a more feminine direction, keeping a modern edge but mixing in more flea-market finds and a bit of art deco and Regency. She describes it as “a little Old Hollywood glamour mixed with some New Hollywood boho.”
It was a $140 contemporary painting from a consignment shop she hung above her fireplace that gave her the color scheme for the new place: emerald, aqua, teal and mint green, plus the crisp combination of black and white. She wanted each room to be different, but she used the same color palette throughout to tie it all together.
She carefully rebuilt her rooms between decorating jobs, devising new budget-minded ways to put her stamp on a tiny rental. She chose thoughtfully, layering things she loved and could afford. It took almost a year, but after many Etsy searches, Amazon purchases, thrift-shop sojourns and even one trip to the Greyhound station in a Zipvan to retrieve two eBay bergere chairs shipped from Florida, she was ready for her reveal.
The living room got a warmer look. She bought a Movie Queen Sleeper from CB2 ($1,499) for guest accommodations, promptly having it recovered in $38-a-yard emerald green velvet to make it her own. A $300 flokati rug from eBay gave the living room a softer look.
Her parties now are usually cocktail buffets, so she doesn’t need a big dining table or lots of dining chairs. She picked out a small gold bamboo table with a glass top that floats in the room. A Lucite console table by the entry has two garden stools stashed underneath that can be pulled out for seating or as extra side tables.
Upstairs, one of her most dramatic DIY improvements was covering up the old cracked, yellowed tile in the bathroom. She used a vinyl floor covering in a vintage-style black-and-white tile pattern, Stargazer by Spicher and Co., to brighten the bath.
She kept the bedroom all one color to unify it, since it has nine doors in it, but instead of the old taupe color, she went with the more dramatic Ralph Lauren Black Dose. “I like dark bedrooms. They provide a sanctuary with drama,” she says. A former closet that she had turned into a dressing room became a stylish little office. She furnished it with a trash-picked filing cabinet painted pink and a glammed-up Ikea desk.
At the top of the stairs hangs a large frame with a favorite line from indie band Pavement’s song “Shady Lane” that she scrawled on a piece of art paper. “I am an island of such great complexity.” Of course, it’s in a reused black frame from Michael’s.
“I’m constantly evolving, both as a person and a designer,” Huerta says. “My space represents where I am now.”
1.Trade out a tacky bathroom floor without a renovation. Using a box cutter, Huerta cut a $260 vinyl floor cloth to fit the bathroom floor exactly and simply laid it on top of the cracked tiles. The black-and-white Stargazer pattern is by Spicher and Co.
2.Find creative ways to use storage solutions in a small space. Huerta hung two Ikea Ribba picture ledges ($9.99 each) in the bathroom, installing them upside down to provide more surface area for toiletries.
3. Hide your thermostat. That ugly plastic box is a pox on your dining room wall. Huerta covered it with a shallow basket made in Rwanda ($40) from Salt & Sundry at Union Market.
4.Dip furniture in gold for an instant upgrade. An ordinary Ikea Micke desk ($79.99) was DIY glamorized with a bit of gold paint on the legs. Huerta says it adds personality and makes it look more expensive. She painted it in her alley before assembling it.
5.Turn trash to treasure. Huerta trash-picked an old metal filing cabinet and transformed it with a few coats of Pink Peony by Benjamin Moore. It’s great storage for shoes and bags, in addition to files. The hardware was spray painted gold.
6.Make your own headboard Using pine boards from Home Depot, an old memory foam mattress pad, white faux leather (www.insidefabric.com) and a staple gun, Huerta made herself a custom channeled headboard. Cost: $200. (You could do it for less if you used a less expensive fabric.)
7.Hide your TV on a gallery wall. Downsizing to a 22-inch TV Huerta incorporated it on a wall in the living room in the midst of a group of black framed artworks. The articulating arm makes for easy viewing.
8.Camouflage an ugly appliance. A hulking old refrigerator is a staple in rentals. She not only covered hers in chic L’Amour Black and White Tempaper (removable wallpaper), she left off the unsightly old handles, and now opens it by grabbing the edge.
9.Paint the front door. Building rules prohibit her from painting the outside of her front door, but by painting the inside mint (Stardust Memories by True Value), Huerta added a splash of color to the dining area.
Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Kerra Michele Huerta joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions at live.washingtonpost.com .
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