10 Tips: A Cool and Colorful Rental on the Upper East Side

Designer Diana Mui melds a grown-up art collection with clever, kid-friendly design in a New York City apartment.

For her art collecting client and two young children, designer Diana Mui transformed a boring beige rental into a space equally suited for gallery-worthy displays and casual family hang outs. 
For her art collecting client and two young children, designer Diana Mui transformed a boring beige rental into a space equally suited for gallery-worthy displays and casual family hang outs. 
Photography by Marietta Leung

A make-shift art gallery that's toddler friendly. A downtown apartment on the Upper East Side. A rental that feels like a family home. Designer Diana Mui was faced with the tallest of decorating orders for the new city residence of an avid art collector, Jessica Cohen, and her two young children. Luckily, it wasn't something she hadn't tackled before. In fact, she'd taken on this exact task with great success alarmingly recently and for the very same person.

10 Tips: A Cool and Colorful Rental on the Upper East Side
A metallic-speckled cowhide sets a glamorous tone for the home office/sitting area, which also features a series of gem stone prints. 
A metallic-speckled cowhide sets a glamorous tone for the home office/sitting area, which also features a series of gem stone prints. 
Throughout the home, fine art and sculpture is strategically displayed just out of reach of little hands.
Throughout the home, fine art and sculpture is strategically displayed just out of reach of little hands.

It had been just a year since Mui had put the finishing touches on the family's former home, when they learned their rental would soon be going co-op. The switch in real estate status forced Cohen to abandon the beautifully appointed apartment for a blank canvas, and set another challenge for her intrepid designer: making a bunch of gorgeous furniture tailor made for a completely different space seem right at home in a new one. Mui brushed off the deepening sense of déjà vu, and set about tweaking floor plans (with not a rented wall moved), repurposing existing furnishings, and even DIYing run-of-the-mill walls. "We had a good starting point," she says. "We just had to make it all work." Read on for her ten tips on melding grown-up luxe with cool-kid style, and overcoming every design-loving renter's woes in the process. 

10 Tips: A Cool and Colorful Rental on the Upper East Side
A graphic blue canvas is paired with a ceiling pendant by Young House Love in the entry.
A graphic blue canvas is paired with a ceiling pendant by Young House Love in the entry.
In two-year-old Noah's room, a knit animal trophy by Anne-Claire Petit accents gray, awning-striped walls 
In two-year-old Noah's room, a knit animal trophy by Anne-Claire Petit accents gray, awning-striped walls 

1. Don’t Be Defined by Your Floorpan. Since Mui had decorated the homeowner’s previous apartment just a year prior, she had to get creative incorporating her just-purchased furniture intended for a very different layout. "The living and dining areas are arranged in an L-shape,” she says, and the existing pieces just wouldn't work with the implied placement. “We decided to divide the area into three, rather than the two it was intended to be by turning part of the living room into a sitting area/office."

2.  Use Three Dimensional Art to Set Off a Space. Because Mui wasn’t able to add any room-defining architectural elements, she cleverly used accessories to establish distinct living zones. In the office, two large floors lamps frame the desk, which is surmounted by an oversize pendant light. A trio of eye-catching spiky sculptures on a column help to visually interrupt the long space without adding walls.

A bright NuLoom rug anchors the nursery, which features lighting and accessories that balance playfulness and sophistication. 
A bright NuLoom rug anchors the nursery, which features lighting and accessories that balance playfulness and sophistication. 

3. Give a Beloved Piece New Purpose. In lieu of a traditional desk, Mui used a glossy, burgundy console table Cohen had inherited from her mom in the office area. "A collage of gem prints in the background and the stunning metallic-speckled cowhide ties the whole area together,” she says.

4. Make an Entrance. Even in a small city apartment, try carving out a distinctive entry. Mui sets the tone for Cohen's artful-ladylike vibe from the moment visitors set foot in the apartment with a graphic, sky-blue canvas and an eye-catching industrial light fixture.

5. Splurge on Take Away. Rental agreements aside, spending on the permanent elements of a place you don’t plan to stay in long term simply doesn’t make sense. "Invest in your furniture and 'take away' pieces such as art, books, and accessories,” suggests Mui. "Then add that custom touch by focusing on the walls. Create stripes by alternating flat and high gloss paint, draw on the walls with sharpies and paint pens, or use temporary wallpaper.”

Daughter Layla's favorite shade of purple pervades her light and bright bedroom. The spotted walls were created with adhesive wallpaper, hand painted and cut into circles.
Daughter Layla's favorite shade of purple pervades her light and bright bedroom. The spotted walls were created with adhesive wallpaper, hand painted and cut into circles.

6. Think of Every Room Like an Outfit. "I believe in the perfect white tee shirt accessorized with pearls and heels," says Mui. "I love mixing high and low [in a home], sort of like a great outfit." In the living room, an original work by light artist Chris Wood shares space with starburst sculptures found at Target. Madeline Weinrib pillows sit beside some found at West Elm and on Etsy. 

7. Don’t Give Up the Glam. Choosing workhorse staples—like a cozy, neutral sectional sofa—wisely, and going bold for pieces that face less wear and tear, allowed Mui to make kid-friendly spaces feel sophisticated. "You can live here and jump around, and yet sit and have tea with tiered trays of finger sandwiches,” she says of the living room.

Oil stick scribbles created by Mui are a tongue-in-cheek wallpaper alternative for the playroom
Oil stick scribbles created by Mui are a tongue-in-cheek wallpaper alternative for the playroom
A full wall coated in chalkboard paint encourages creativity on a large scale.  
A full wall coated in chalkboard paint encourages creativity on a large scale.  

8. Go Paperless."In the playroom we had a difficult time finding adhesive wallpaper that really captured our hearts,” explains the designer. "So as a solution to the handicap of a rental, I hand-scribbled designs on the walls to create movement.” To get the look, Mui, whose background is in art, recommends using oil sticks over crayons for a sophisticated metallic sheen.

9. Do Princess Redux. There’s no need to plaster a playroom with Elsa and Anna to satisfy your aspiring royal. According to Mui, “if your child loves princesses you can add those elements without the themed posters, sheets, comforters and lamps. Instead, pull the idea apart. A princess has gems, jewels, ruffles, lace. Perhaps purple is her favorite color.” Combining those elements with more subdued pieces leaves room to grow.

10. Get Crafty with Wall Treatments. "Three-year-old Layla’s room packs an impactful punch, much like her presence,” says Mui. When the designer couldn’t find polka dot decals that matched the toddler’s very specific favorite color of purple, she DIYed the perfect solution. "We hand cut and painted circles of adhesive wallpaper for the custom walls.” It’s a rental-friendly project even the craft-averse can handle.

A teal, zebra print rug anchors the dark floors of the play space, which also features cage wall sconces from CB2 and a furry bean bag. 
A teal, zebra print rug anchors the dark floors of the play space, which also features cage wall sconces from CB2 and a furry bean bag. 
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