Learn One Designer’s Tricks for Adding Personality to a Blah Apartment

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Dan found the sofas at an estate sale, but they were covered in “a hideous red upholstery with fringe on the bottom,” he says. He loved the shape, though, so they had them reupholstered in a neutral linen fabric. The Harriet Karasin installation on the wall—which they both love—is always a conversation piece for visitors.

Daniel Cingari, an executive producer, has spent the last 15 years in about as many apartments. But when he found this one in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, he knew he had a keeper. Just kidding, there was actually nothing special about it. “There were no architectural details, and it had terrible fluorescent lighting,” he says. “It was a boring, dingy, renter white box.”

Dan Cingari in his NYC apartment.

It did have the potential to be something better, especially given its views of the General Theological Seminary, and Dan envisioned a cozy yet colorful home he felt connected to. So he got in touch with interior designer Ryan Lawson, who’s been his friend for a decade, and asked for help. “Dan is this really stylish, creative guy,” Ryan says. “When we started talking about how to do this, it was clear that we were going to create a collection that could work in this space but travel with him wherever he decided to go.”

They zeroed in on a piece Dan already owned—the First Chair by Michele De Lucchi, of Memphis Design fame—and considered its rounded metal frame and pop of blue as an anchor for the rest of their choices. “It has a really distinctive but playful look to it,” Dan says. “And once we had it in mind, Ryan was able to weave together a visual narrative.” They both visited vintage stores and perused estate sales, seeking out items that had an interesting story and a clear personality. Then they would discuss their findings casually, like over dinner, with mutual veto power in case one pick was too far outside their shared goal.

A Formakami Lamp by Jaime Hayon hangs above a chrome-and-marble dining table from the 1970s and matching Gio Ponti chairs.

“I work with creatives all day long, so I understand where to draw the line,” Dan says. “This is Ryan’s expertise, and so I deferred a lot to him.” And Ryan adds, “I appreciated that the first word out of his mouth wasn’t no.” The Japanese boro cloth wall hanging in the living room was a definite yes, as was the sculpture made of buttons by Clare Graham. But the screen separating the kitchen from the dining space was more of a push-and-pull decision. “It’s a metal beaded curtain, and he thought it really tied everything together. But I’m thinking, one, it’s the first thing you see when you walk into the apartment, and two, I’d have to push this heavy thing aside every time I wanted a glass of water,” Dan remembers, laughing. “So it was a challenge accepting it as a design solution, but now I think it’s really great.”

“The First Chair was really the start of the entire design, and the button sculpture was in response to not just wanting to stick a plant next to it,” Ryan says.

“It’s called a Shimmer Screen, and it’s basically stainless steel metal beads on a track,” Ryan says. “If Dan is entertaining, it does block the dining area’s view of the kitchen, and it’s not a big investment.”

The pair didn’t put a strict deadline on this process, and took about two years to finish it, wrapping up last winter. “The best designs happen when you take your time, and figure out how you want to live with something,” Ryan says. There are still no architectural details, but there’s also no trace of fluorescent lighting. The walls have been repainted in a brighter shade of white. And everything else is a reflection of Dan’s style, summarizing a place where he can feel at home for as long as he pleases.

Two matching, vintage yellow lamps sit on either end of Dan’s bed. “They’re Italian, and the shades are made of spun metal that were painted white,” Ryan notes. “The art above the bed is by a husband-and-wife duo, and it’s paper pulp that’s been molded and painted.”

“The great achievement of this apartment is that these pieces can travel,” Dan says. “Because if I have to move out tomorrow, I can carry this entire mood with me and it’ll still have the same exact effect in a new environment. So, really, it actually has nothing to do with the apartment at all.”

“The floor lamp was covered by Japanese printed paper I found,” Ryan explains. It’s matched with a Japanese boro tapestry.

Do It Yourself

You’ll probably want to paint Most rental apartments come with yellowish, off-white painted walls, and Ryan says it makes all the difference to get the approvals needed to change it. “Don’t do anything elaborate or fancy,” he says. “Getting the color right allows the items you’ve chosen for your home to really make a statement. It shows intention.”

For goodness sake, change the light fixtures “It’s so important to change the light fixtures in a rental, especially if it’s a fluorescent or a track,” Ryan adds. “It’s something that can travel with you, and it doesn’t have to be an expensive item in itself. Besides updating the paint, it’s a really easy fix.”

Consider window treatments as architecture “We added upholstered linen window treatments, which are custom to each frame but still cost-effective,” Ryan says. “This apartment didn’t have any architectural details, and these give the windows some interest and make them seem like they’re extended on the wall—making them look bigger. It’s another simple trick, and I ordered them off the internet.”

Invest in rugs “Once we had an idea of what we wanted the space to be, we had rugs custom-made,” Ryan says. “The one in the living room is a classic, and can work in a bedroom or dining room one day. But even if someone doesn’t get rugs custom-made, they should still make investments in ones that work for their space. A lot of rental floors need to be covered up.”

The duo sourced a 1980s base for the coffee table and had the glass top custom made.

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