A young family hires a designer to turn their rented Chicago apartment into a mirror reflecting their sense of fun and creative energy.
eclectic foyer blue walls colorful sofa
Credit: Heather Talbert

Everything about Annie and Dan Barlow's Chicago apartment exudes happiness. The seventh-floor unit overlooking Lake Michigan captures its occupants' high spirits with vibrant primary colors, dynamic prints and a heavy dose of whimsy (especially in the younger girls' bedroom).

Designer Leslie Martin says it was only a small challenge that the couple, who have three daughters, were renting. "We knew they'd be there for some time so we wanted to make it feel like home," she says. Annie, a personal fashion consultant, had big ideas. "She really pushed me," Martin says. "I'd introduce a color and she'd say let's make it four shades brighter."

Even where the palette pales, bold and oversize patterns ramp up the energy. "I wanted it to be really happy," Annie says, "and not shy in any way."

large osprey bird mural black ceiling white walls settee gold light fixture
Credit: Heather Talbert

Designer Leslie Martin calls this black-and-white vestibule a "palette cleanser" between the colorful foyer and dining room. The watchful art is a custom wallpaper panel created by a mural company.

baby grand piano gallery wall black frames
Credit: Heather Talbert

All the girls have taken piano lessons, and now Annie is giving it a try, too. A tightly massed gallery wall—eclectically framed in black, white and gold—sets a creative mood in one end of the living room. 

dining room botanical green blue wall covering yellow wingback chair
Credit: Heather Talbert

Martin placed vibrant Christopher FarrCloth wall covering within the trellis-like framework of the dining room's white trim. Mattress-ticking chair seats are covered with matte laminate for easy cleanup.

girls room twin bunk beds purple walls curtains bold pillows ottoman
Credit: Heather Talbert

The two younger Barlow girls sleep in a fairy-tale-inspired room with bunks for sleepovers (or for big sister to spend the night). Trundle drawers maximize storage.

designers leslie martin kim meardon portrait
Credit: Courtesy of Leslie Martin

How to Make a Rental Feel Personal, According to This Apartment's Design Duo

Designer Leslie Martin (right) owns M+M Interior Design with her sister Kim Meardon. She explains how to make a rental feel personal.

Add Color

There's no quicker way to give a space personality than to lay on some color. "Most rental units will let you paint, and that's a huge room changer," Martin says. "Paint the walls a color you love."

Change Up the Lighting

"Don't be afraid to switch out a ceiling fixture," Martin says. "You can always take it with you to a new home." Plug-in sconces, she adds, come in tons of styles and are another way to add character to a space.

Go Big

You might not be able to hang wallpaper, but you can get almost the same effect with a wall-size piece of art. There are lots of companies that can blow up any image you like, Martin says. "Get some trim from the hardware store, paint it and use it to frame the image. It can make your walls really personal."