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Three designers reveal how to transform a 500 sq ft rented flat into a homely refuge

Designers reveal how they would transform a typical 500 sq ft property into a relaxing refuge on a budget - and without upsetting the landlord

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:13pm

Just because you're one of the three million-plus residents whose home is a rental property, it doesn't mean that it has to look like one.

Designers are adept at transforming rented digs, especially in ways that don't cost a bomb and won't trouble the landlord.

Even if you expect to be there for only a year or two, a designer's touch can help transform a cookie-cutter rental flat into a space of refuge and relaxation.

And that's especially necessary in Hong Kong, where space comes at a premium and organisation is key. So we asked three designers what they would do with a typical 500 sq ft rental flat on a limited budget.

Caroline Vesey, of Caroline Vesey Design (www.carolinevesey.com) is renovating her own two-bedroom, 650 sq ft Sai Kung flat and is looking to enhance the walls, floor and ceiling.

The preferred way to revamp the floor of a typical rental space would be to overlay the hard surface with a natural material such as sisal, which can be taken away when you leave.

But at a cost of about HK$10,000-plus for the living room, hallway and two bedrooms, she conceded it is an "extravagance".

Since her flat has the luxury of a rooftop, she'd use rugs as a cheaper alternative and invest in outdoor furniture, canopies and plants to turn an outdoor space into an extra room.

What is worth paying for, however, is a fresh coat of paint, which for 500 sq ft can cost as little as HK$4,000. Colours work best if they enhance what's on the floor, she said. "The aim is to achieve a fairly neutral palette, limiting the number of colours and materials," she said.

To make any flat look friendlier, an instant fix is the removal of window bars and the addition of items such as linen drapes, which are available in Shenzhen for less than HK$3 a metre, she said.

"For ambience, effect and practicality, layers of lighting are best," she added. "Softer lighting will feel good and takes the emphasis away from architectural errors."

Her budget would allow for a selection of ceiling spotlights, table lamps and dimmer switches, all sourced again from Shenzhen, where she outfitted her flat, for about HK$1,500.

The kitchen has to be practical and functional, she said. "If the cupboards are awful, consider removing the doors altogether and having open shelving."

And if the bedrooms are small, use bold colour to add drama. That includes not just walls, but soft furnishings as well.

"In small spaces you can also have fun with clear acrylic furniture pieces," she said. "Being translucent, they add a layer but open up the space."

Designer Candace Campos, of ID Interiors & Identity Design (www.idhongkong.com) would begin transforming a rented flat with window treatments.

"Most apartments are fitted with terrible blinds," said Campos. "As a lighter alternative, install sheer curtains and blackout rollers in the bedroom. White or ivory sheers allow the light to shine in and make the space feel larger." For a 500 sq ft flat, she advised spending HK$10,000 to HK$15,000.

Campos would also re-do the floor. "If your flat comes with typical glossy parquet flooring, ask a contractor to sand it and coat it with a matte lacquer [at a cost of about HK$5,000].

"This will really lighten the floor, but keep in mind that reinstatement to a high-gloss finish will cost about HK$2,000."

Lighting fixtures in rental flats "are usually eyesores", she said. Campos would swap standard ceiling sconces with minimal flush-mount lights, highlighting areas such as a dining table or bar with a hanging pendant.

Property developers may love their marble, especially in bay windows, but most in the real world don't. Campos' solution is to make attractive fitted cushions to hide such "ugly materials".

And if the dining table is the centre of your property, make it as large as possible. "In a 500 sq ft apartment there are no separate dining and living spaces, so the table becomes a great area to congregate," she said.

To finish, Campos would add a custom-made sofa. "They allow for a perfect fit and you can create a unique product," she said.

But even on a tiny budget, it's still possible to benefit from a designer's influence. Alexandra Lauren, from Alexandra Lauren Design (www.alexandralauren.com) comes into your flat for HK$5,500 a day and helps to rearrange and reposition the items you already have.

Lauren said: "We provide a suggested colour palette and a shopping list for add-ons a client can purchase on their own, as their budget allows."

Beforehand, the householder sends in photos of each room.

On the day of the "spacelift", a designer arrives on site at 10am, requesting that the occupants be ready to help move the furniture.

The day may be spent simply organising. Or it may include a shopping trip together to select materials for wall coverings, curtains or cushions.

Often, this one-day service is enough to get newcomers "over the hump of what to do with their newly acquired, usually much smaller space, when coming from overseas", said Lauren.