See How One Designer Transformed a Small Brooklyn Rental Into an Airy, Parisian-Inspired Home

shelby in nyc apartment bedroom
Morgan Levy

When she lived in Denver, Shelby Girard had a three-floor 1,600-square-foot townhouse, but when she and her husband, Christopher, moved to the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone that was barely half the size of their former abode earlier this year, it was quite an adjustment. "We could only bring I would say 25 percent of the stuff we had [in our old place]," says Girard, sitting in the light-filled living room of her new home, located on a tree-lined block in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. "We had to buy a lot new, because our old sofa was too big, our old dining set was way too big. We had to sell a lot."

Even more difficult than parting from their possessions? Relinquishing total control over their surroundings. Girard—head of design at Havenly, which offers affordable, personalized interior design expertise and consults online—and her architect husband had owned and completely renovated their Denver dream house. Now, they're renting, which has brought its own share of challenges. "That is hard," Girard admits. "There were a lot of things that our landlord would not let us do."

Not that Girard or her husband let this fact from discouraging them from making the place fully their own. Plus, the house had the raw goods: two enormous bay windows and two skylights which allowed the sun to pour in, polished wooden floors with decorative inlays, and picture-frame molding on the walls—all of which helped give the 850-square-foot space a spacious, old-world feel and meshed with Girard's own monochromatic, Parisian-inflected sensibility.

01 of 13

Pick the Right White

shelby in bright yellow dress standing in nyc apartment
Morgan Levy

The first step: repainting. "A lot of rentals are off-white, kind of beige…but if you get the right white in there, it's going to feel so much fresher and bright and light and new," says Girard, who chose Chantilly Lace from Benjamin Moore for all the rooms. "And generally landlords won't have a problem with bright white, and they won't make you paint it when you leave."

The other big project was getting rid of all the ceiling fans. "They were in every room and some of them were kind of normal, but one had huge bamboo shades," says Girard. "So we asked her if we could change out all the lighting. That goes a long way into making your place feel special and not like a rental." And it does feel special—thanks to a mix of modern and vintage, new and old, that makes the apartment feel clean yet lived-in at the same time. "I am really happy with it," says Girard. "I actually really like change and starting over, so it was exciting."

02 of 13

Carve Out an Entryway

shelby nyc apartment entry hallway
Morgan Levy

Unlike many Brooklyn apartments, which share a stairway, Girard gets the whole entrance and second-floor hallway to herself. "Just having our own entrance up the stoop and that whole area up here being private felt like bonus space," she says.

03 of 13

Look for DIYs

shelby nyc apartment entryway black table with bird statue
Morgan Levy

To make the entrance feel even more like part of the apartment, Christopher knocked down the doors, which creates the illusion of more space and encourages a more natural flow. Plus, it's an easy temporary fix. "The doors are all in the closet, so when we move out, we can just pop them back into their hinges," says Girard.

04 of 13

Replace Light Fixtures

shelby nyc apartment neutral colors living room
Morgan Levy

Girard wanted to let the bay windows shine, so she kept the palette in the living area neutral, with some gold accents. She and Christopher got rid of the island-looking ceiling fan with huge bamboo shades and installed a modern gold fixture from Restoration Hardware, which casts a soft glow to the pristine white room. The ceiling medallion, which looks like plaster but is actually lightweight foam, came from Architectural Depot online. "It's super lightweight and easy, but it helps fancy it up," says Girard.

The couch, a modern Chesterfield from Interior Define, is new, while the two midcentury vintage chairs and side table came from Denver with the couple. "I like to have a mix of the old and new," she says.

05 of 13

Display Your Goods

shelby nyc apartment art leaning on radiator
Morgan Levy

Girard has a lot of books, picture frames, candles, and other pieces of décor. But instead of chucking them or hiding them in storage, she decided to showcase them by stacking them, or leaning them, on the floor and on the radiator.

06 of 13

Have Fun Styling

shelby nyc apartment stacked books and art on wall
Morgan Levy

"I spent a lot of time figuring out [how to arrange them] when we moved in," she says, adding that she takes the covers off the hardcover books so they aren't too distracting. "Some of them are by color, some are just kind of by size."

07 of 13

Stash Storage in Plain Sight

shelby nyc apartment black chair by white table with bust
Morgan Levy

The tableau in front of the bay window not only acts as a showcase for some of Girard's vintage pieces and artwork, it also provides hidden storage. "The tablecloth not only looks nice, but it hides a basket full of blankets underneath," she says.

08 of 13

Create a Gallery Wall

shelby nyc apartment office with zebra print rug
Morgan Levy

The "gallery wall" has become something of a signature for Girard in her work at Havenly. "I usually don't plan the gallery wall," she says. "I basically put art everywhere else and this is kind of what was left over—and then I had this big empty space so this is where they ended up."

09 of 13

Have Fun with Art

shelby nyc apartment bust on table by window
Morgan Levy

Art is one of the ways that Girard says renters can help make a home feel more like their own. Her walls contain a mixture of Artfully Walls and paintings by her husband and grandfather, while she likes putting vintage heads and busts on pedestals and even on the floor throughout the apartment. "I like our place to feel kind of museum-like, but not like too precious," she says.

10 of 13

Showcase Your Sentimental Items

shelby nyc apartment white walls grandma's portrait
Morgan Levy

Girard's old Denver dining room could fit an enormous farmhouse table. "The size here is just so different," she says. "So this room is mostly new." (Save for a portrait of Girard's grandmother, painted by her grandfather. "That will stick with us, wherever we go," she says.)

11 of 13

Find Furniture to Fit Your Needs

shelby nyc apartment dining room marble table wooden chairs
Morgan Levy

The round marble-topped table, from Burke Decor is more compact than a rectangular shape. The hide rug comes from Amazon "adds a little funkiness" to the space, while two big cabinets from Pottery Barn allow her to store all the dishware that didn't fit in the tiny kitchen. "We had so many glasses and plates and bowls and serving stuff, so I figured a couple cabinets for shelves would be good," she says. "And we put more stuff in there: coffee table books, random objects, vintage stuff we found, a head, artwork…I call them the cabinets of curiosity."

12 of 13

Mix High and Low

shelby nyc apartment bedroom neutral tones
Morgan Levy

In her years working as an interior designer, Girard has gotten adept at mixing contemporary and vintage furniture and sourcing from a ton of places.

13 of 13

Shop the Teen Section

shelby nyc apartment bedroom white and natural wooden dresser
Morgan Levy

The bedroom includes a low bed from Restoration Hardware, nightstands from CB2, lamps from West Elm, and a vintage dresser that she had painted white. The funky crystal chandelier, meanwhile, is from RH Teen. "I have a few pieces from there," she says. "It's a good way to find things that are less expensive."

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