08/28/2012 12:48 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Budget Home Design: Tips From 'The First Apartment Book'

Painting of walls in a orange color. Repair in a house. 3d render
TORONTO - It was a common refrain echoed by many apartment dwellers — and one that left Kyle Schuneman feeling frustrated.

"I would hear a lot of people say 'It's just a rental' or 'I'll just be here for a year....' And I just kind of felt like: 'Why are you wasting this time?'" the designer said in an interview.

"We only have these spaces once and they're your own, and you should be able to splash your personality around no matter what the regulations are. There are always solutions to creative constraints."

In "The First Apartment Book" (Clarkson Potter), Schuneman highlights various ways individuals can show their creative sides within small spaces, including repurposing existing pieces, craft projects and scoping out new and vintage finds. The colourful tome features real-life home facelifts where Schuneman helped apartment dwellers overcome design obstacles within their respective homes.

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The 27-year-old Chicago native has been designing since age 19, starting off art directing in Los Angeles and prop styling and working with commercial clients before taking on interior clients.

His friends, peers and others would tell him they wanted what they'd see in his portfolio for their own homes — but couldn't afford it.

"I was living a bit in juxtaposition of 'I'm young, I get living in small spaces in cities, not having lots of money,' but at the same time, working with these very high-end people that you can let your creativity fly," said Schuneman, founder of Live Well Designs.

"For me, it was much more about showing people in their 20s and 30s that good design doesn't have to be expensive."

For those unsure of where to start design-wise, Schuneman will ask questions about a store that represents their style, the type of landscapes they like, or even peek into their closets — all which can be tell-tale signs of their favoured esthetic.

Schuneman said it's key for individuals to assess how they need their space to function and to keep scale in mind when working within smaller environs. So avoid placing an oversized sofa in a studio space.

"You really want to work with proportions," he said. "That doesn't mean you have to lose comfort by any means — but you just have to be realistic."

Playing around with the placement of larger pieces is a great rule of thumb for small spaces, he noted.

For a studio in Seattle, a bed was positioned horizontally while the desk was then placed perpendicular from the wall, creating a built-in effect. The desk also doubled as a nightstand.

Various how-to craft projects incorporated within dwellings featured in "The First Apartment Book" can be replicated by readers by following step-by-step instructions. In addition to more conventional offerings such as pillows, shades and wall stencils, there are other inventive projects like a chicken wire pot rack, a record headboard and mirrored tennis racquets.

"I didn't want to create a craft project that I knew people wouldn't do or wouldn't want to do," Schuneman said. "There isn't sewing involved. There aren't things that intimidate me, and I kind of worked with my gut in that regard. If it didn't intimidate me, then I thought it won't intimidate others."

In instances where renters face redesign restrictions, Schuneman offers creative alternatives. In a Boston apartment where the landlord wouldn't allow use of paint, he created fabric-covered padded panels that would Velcro to the wall.

For couples or others sharing accommodation, Schuneman said the aim should be to showcase the design tastes of both dwellers. Working with roommates in Boston, the streamlined sofa and colonial side table in the "living room" area suited the style of one, while the industrial reading lamp and colourful chevron carpet tiles reflected the tastes of the other.

A common theme woven throughout the book and also embraced by Schuneman as part of his design philosophy is the emphasis on tailoring spaces to reflect how people truly live.

Schuneman humorously refers to Cleveland-based client Holt as an "entryway stripper" for his tendency to take of his tie, belt and empty his pockets within moments of walking inside his place. He recalled finding ties and belts "stacked six-deep on the doorknobs" when he walked into Holt's apartment.

At a local flea market, Schuneman found small bowls for change, a vintage tie rack, a plaid magnet board for bills and a set of lamps for the entryway table — all for $50.

The designer said his goal is to help individuals build confidence in honing their creative eye, notably in seeking out finds. Even if they still feel they're lacking, they can always seek out a friend for a second opinion while on the hunt, he noted.

"If you want to try something out, the worst that can happen is that it can not work out."