How to decorate your small NYC apartment for the holidays

How to decorate your small NYC apartment for the holidays

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Decorating your home is one of the joys of the holidays. But in New York City, most people don’t have room for a 10-foot Christmas tree or an elaborate display of lights. But that shouldn’t stop even studio dwellers from getting into the spirit! We spoke to interior designers to get some expert tips on how to decorate small spaces for the holidays.

BHDM Design; Photo by Reid Rolls

Pick a focal point
The first thing to do, designers say, is to choose a space to focus on. In a small space, you can easily get into cluttered and chaotic territory if you’re not careful.

“Pick one area to highlight, and focus on making that one area really sing as opposed to having several elements in a small space,” said Holly Waterfield from The Brooklyn Home Company. “[For example], add a beautiful wreath or garland to a mantle and forgo smaller tchotchkes.”

For Julie Brayton of Brayton Interiors, it’s about choosing a theme or scheme and sticking with it — really put some thought into the overall look you want to achieve. A few motifs she likes are deep jewel tones, cozy neutrals, or vibrant and festive. Decking your halls out in one cohesive scheme by using complementary colors, textures and patterns will also prevent your small apartment from looking too crowded or jumbled and messy. Incorporate the look with throw blankets and pillows, ornaments, glassware, and tablescape linens.

Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative from Pexels

Change out pillows and linens
An easy way to bring in holiday cheer without taking up any precious real estate is to swap out your existing throw pillows, blankets, towels, and even bedding.

“I do this every year, with a black and red buffalo plaid,” said Dan Mazzarini, Creative Director and Principal of BHDM Design. “My room is instantly more ‘Santastic’ than before with the addition of holiday color.”

Lindsey Jamison of Rumor Designs recommends having a basic white duvet on your bed that can be accessorized with throws and shams for the holidays. “For example, bring a traditional black and white buffalo check pattern in through throw pillows, euro, or dutch pillow shams. Adding a textured fur or faux fur blanket at the end of the bed adds another layer of cozy and warmth,” she said.

In NYC, the holidays are synonymous with cold, blustery weather (snow if we’re lucky!), so adding rich, warm textiles to bundle yourself up in is a no-brainer. And, you don’t have to get too literal with the theme either; opt for wintry pieces rather than specifically holiday-themed and you can enjoy them until spring.

“Layering and adding cozy textures to all rooms helps promote staying cozy indoors while the temperatures drop,” Brayton advised. “Rich jewel tones in luxe fabrics like velvets or textured wools are a great addition to existing pillow schemes, while a plaid cashmere or shearling throw adds visual depth and functional warmth.”

Photo by Laura Nyhuis on Unsplash

Use scent and light
“Frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside.” That was Frank Sinatra’s picture of the holidays. And experts agree that candles are an easy way to bring cheer into a small space — and a good alternative to string lights. “Think more Hygge, than holiday — something that brings in a little warmth and winter glow, without needing to tape, tack or plaster lights to your rental,” said Mazzarini.

“Candlelight makes everything feel festive! Light beeswax taper candles or spread votives around for a warm glow,” adds Waterfield.

And nothing evokes memory and emotion more than scent. Choose a balsam-scented candle (possibly to make up for a lack of tree) or cinnamon for a homey feeling. Brayton also recommends a diffuser or humidifier with essential oils in the bedroom to help you sleep in peaceful nostalgia.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels

To tree or not to tree? 
The big question when living in a small space is, “Do you put a Christmas tree up?” Designers are split on this issue. Mazzarini gives a hard “no” when it comes to trees in small apartments. “While I know it’s the most iconic of holiday decor, they’re big, cumbersome, and there are other ways to get the look, for less space,” he said.

Waterfield takes a softer approach suggesting a small tree or even a tabletop one (every street tree vendor will have them). It really just depends on how small your space is. Then there’s the matter of a real vs. artificial tree — a seasonal debate. While natural trees give off that pine scent (who needs a candle when you have the real deal?), fake ones are less of a hassle and can be used year after year. If you do opt for a faux one, Mazzarini recommends the brands Frontgate, Balsam Hill, and Ballard for trees, garlands and wreaths.

What designers do agree on is that there are tons of creative ideas for tree alternatives that take up less space and are definitely easier to carry up that fifth-floor walkup.

Garland and wreaths
“Adding a touch of garland on your entryway console will set a festive tone for the rest of the house as your Christmas decor story unfolds. I recommend keeping the garland light. A full garland on a console table can make a space feel heavy,” suggests Jamison.

Mazzarini echoes that garland or a wreath are good ways to bring in some greenery without having to rearrange your whole room. Go for real evergreen or invest in faux garland you can use year after year. Waterfield suggests hanging a wreath on your front door to greet guests instead of putting up a tree.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, literally. A chic idea from designers is to fill a vase with branches of balsam and pine or other seasonal greenery. “I like the look of large branches of white pine. Still looks and smells like a tree, but with a lot less square footage, and fuss,” said Mazzarini.

Or, Waterfield suggests, fill a glass vase or bowl with winter berries or pomegranates for an elegant touch of red. Another idea from Waterfield is to “hang an artful branch over your dining table with translucent wire.”

Magnolia and other non-evergreens
Waterfield is a fan of magnolia wreaths for doors or magnolia stems in a vase on a coffee table for a festive and space-saving touch. Mazzarini also recommends magnolias along with paperwhites and amaryllis for a mess-free alternative to pine.

If you want to go a non-botanical route, Waterfield suggests paper garland draped over a mirror or doorway, and Jamison likes wooden beads. “The natural look of the beads paired with a few simple garlands placed along the center of the table is a great combination. You can also use the beads to dress up the table by organically draping over the place settings. Of course, they would need to be removed before Christmas dinner is served, but they will add a playful touch to your tablescape,” she said.


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