The Finishing Touches: Decorating Your Apartment Walls

So, you’ve moved in to your first apartment, you know your way around your kitchen, you’re starting to learn the neighborhood and you have all your furniture. Life is good, except something feels a bit off. What is it? There’s hardly anything on the walls – you haven’t finished decorating, and things you do have up are posters taped up. Your place looks kind of like dorm room and kind of like you’ve not yet finished moving in. The trouble is, getting nicely framed prints is expensive. You went down to the frame shop and checked. And you don’t have the money to invest in wall art just yet. So what to do?

I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hard as you might think. With some patience, you can get some nicely framed pieces at a reasonable price, and there are other options, too. Here’re some tips:

1. Thrift shops, garage sales and flea markets have some great frames at reasonable cost – the key is remembering that once you get a nice frame, almost anything looks great inside of it. For example, in this photo, what you see is a frame I found abandoned in my dorm hallway on the day of graduation. Inside of it is a photograph from a calendar that I cut out with scissors. Looks trey fancy, eh?

2. If you have a poster you like, getting it framed can make it look great – and most posters are standard sizes, so you can find a standard-size pre-made frame at a frame shop. Pre-made ones are fairly expensive, but nowhere near the price of customized ones. Plus, think of it as an investment: if you drop $50 on a frame for your absolute favorite poster, but it makes your poster look great and you use it for five years, it may be worth it, especially if that one piece anchors the rest of your wall decor.

3. However, to go along with that, don’t go to Walmart or Target and buy the cheapest frame you can find for your 36”x24” poster. It might be tempting, but it will look real dumpy real fast – probably in two or three months, even. Case in point: ever go to someone’s house and see a frame that’s severely bowed at the bottom and the poster’s slipped out some, so it’s crooked, and you can tell it’s got a heavy glass covering? And you wonder why the person even bothered, or if they can tell how crappy their poster looks? Well, if you get the cheapest frame you can find, that sorry wall display will soon be yours. Especially if you do it for a large poster – the larger the poster, the quicker the cheap frame will fall apart. Capiche?

4. Why? Well, a high-quality frame will actually have plexiglass or another light plastic material in front of the print, rather than glass. Glass is heavy and will cause the bottom of the frame to bow, and often it will stick to the poster after a year or two, meaning that a ghosting effect will take place if you try to swap in a new poster. So, in all cases, avoid glass if possible; plastic is classier. Sounds strange, but it’s true.

4. That said, getting smaller-sized frames at a step or two above bargain-bin prices is usually worth it. Smaller-sized frames don’t bear as much weight, since the glass (or, preferably plexiglass or plastic) inside them isn’t nearly as large (and therefore not as heavy), and so they don’t bow quickly. Plus, because of their size, it’s easier to find things to put inside of them. For example, you can just blow up a few photographs you took during vacation or with friends to 8”x10”. Order them online for $3-5 a print as I’ve done here, pop each in a $15 frame and you can have a nice, personalized hanging.

5. Additionally, a series of smaller frames gives you a lot of options. You can make all kinds of patterns and move things around within your apartment regularly to change things up. Plus, if you think you might be moving after a year to two, they are easily portable and are versatile in new spaces.

6. A word about hanging a framed print: command hooks. If it’s at all heavy, you want a command hook instead of just a plain nail in the wall. A command hook is made to bear a lot of weight, it’s easy to use, and it won’t leave an overly large mark on your wall, so you’ll be sure to get your security deposit back. They’re available at any hardware store. A package of five or six should cost about two dollars.

7. Posters and frames are not the end-all-and-be-all: I’ve recently discovered decals. Yes, decals. They’re surprisingly cool – and this company, Blik has tons of them at great prices. They’re hipstery and trendy and, trust me, they look very seamless and cool on your wall. You can see a detail of a series of butterfly decals that I put up in my bathroom. Spruces things up quite nicely, eh?

8. If you go to IKEA or another furniture store, you can buy shelving that you nail directly into your wall. This will create somewhat larger holes in the wall, so you might want to talk to your landlord, but once you put them up, you can put all sorts of tchotchkes, vases, candles, or sports memorabilia on them and really make the place personalized and homey with objects you already have, but don’t have a good place to put.

Well, hope these tips help. If you have any ideas yourself, or any questions, feel free to shoot me an email or post a comment below.

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Author My First Apartment

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Alex has rented in Minneapolis, Queens, Brooklyn, and now Chicago. He can kill rodents and roaches when required, and loves picture-hanging projects. If you're ever in town, give him a shout.

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Comments (2)

  1. Avatar Ellen

    At an estate sale this summer I found a 34″x44″ oil painted reproduction of a painting of Paris and bargained it down to $30! It’s “real” art and I’m going to love it long after I leave my first place!

    I am also lucky that we are cleaning out a relative’s house and I am able to snatch up all the unwanted art that is already framed!

  2. Avatar Melissa

    In my first place after college, I did a collage of posters, prints, photos and other art decor on my wall. It seems to be pretty popular, but it’s easy and fills up the space nicely. You don’t even have to have a consistent theme. You can even take the decal idea mentioned above, and layer a frame over it, leaving the frame empty.

    Another idea = original high-quality prints like those on Prints start at just $25. It’s a good alternative for art collecting.