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My Lease Prevents Me From Hanging Anything on the Walls—Here's How I Made Do

This writer learned to love living with blank walls—thanks to some creative thinking.

home love
Alice Morgan

We like to think of our homes as spaces that are within our control. But when I first moved to my current city (London), I signed an apartment lease that stipulated I couldn't hang anything on the freshly painted late-Victorian walls. No problem, I thought, since I didn’t plan on staying beyond a year.

Now, seven years later and still in the same “flat,” I’ve had to find creative ways to showcase inspiring, mood-lifting colors and images without leaving divots in the 19th-century plaster.

Staring at blank walls was not a problem I’d ever faced in my globetrotting existence as an international journalist. In exciting Rome, I’d been free to accent a niche in my green-painted bedroom with a thumb-tacked poster of Botticelli’s “Primavera.” In beautiful Paris, I’d hung an oversized Belle Epoque-style clock in the living room using a nail that had been pounded into the chic stone wall by the previous tenant.

And in sunny Istanbul, I decorated the white expanse of my apartment’s entrance hall with a shiny black stick-on decal of the Old City’s minaret-dotted skyline, complete with the outline of a ferry boat crossing the Bosporus. I also scoured the Grand Bazaar for colorful suzani tapestries embroidered with sunny yellow tulips and ruby pomegranates, clipping these onto metal rods supported by brackets that had been drilled into the brick.

But my new London life was about to become a lot less inviting if I had to be surrounded by often-gray skies and gray walls. Would I ever be able to re-create the vibrancy I craved? And how important was that, even in the pre-pandemic years?

pickup of michigan house designer corey damen jenkinsphotographer werner straubeadditional stylist hilary rosecontact corey damen jenkins designwithvisiongmailcom, coreycoreydamenjenkinscom, coreycoreydamenjenkinscom
A jewel-toned room by designer Corey Damen Jenkins.

As it turns out, quite important, says Patricia Ochs, an American psychotherapist living in Paris who specializes in cases involving anxiety and depression.

“Having color on the walls can serve not just a decorative and expressive function but a therapeutic one,” says Ochs, especially important during a pandemic when “people are home for periods beyond their wildest expectation.”

Paintings and posters on the walls, for example, help to create a personal sense of home, “a place of comfort and familiarity,” she says. “I think that for most people, appealing colors serve as an uplifting reminder of life's variation, quality, depth, comfort.”

By contrast, blank and drab-colored walls conjure up “a space of emptiness, something that allows no life to happen, no imagination to exist,” Ochs adds. And that can make you feel worse: “Creating a colorful home space to live and thrive is probably more important than many people realize,” she says.

So how did I banish the gray?

I used bookshelves, tables, and other design "tricks" to draw the eye upward while also adding color to my surroundings. In my living room, I’m lucky to have a bookshelf with enough vertical leeway to prop up a framed poster from an artist’s exhibition about the Normandy coast. The print shows blue sky, sailboats and people crowding into a cafe. Looking at it transports me back to a tiny marble table outside a French café.

alison victoria
Alison Victoria propped art against a mantel in her Chicago home.
Christian Harder

Against another wall, I’ve propped a five-foot-tall, gilt-framed antique mirror atop my sturdy dining table (adding a strip of protective felt to guard against smudges). The top of the mirror now stretches about eight feet from the floor, reflecting glints of golden sunlight from the bay window opposite.

On the fireplace mantel, I’ve perched an oil painting of St. Tropez, bought at a village flea market during a weekend trip to the Champagne region of France, bringing shades of sapphire, buttercream and ochre into the room.

A floor lamp casts light and shapes onto the ceilings. In my tiny kitchen, I created a backsplash on an existing ledge behind the sink by propping up Iznik-style ceramic tiles in shades of turquoise, blue and red. In the bedroom, I display a rotation of favorite outfits— in a personal palette of purples and pinks—on a three-panel bamboo screen.

So, while my London decor remains a work in progress (no rainbow-arranged array of book spines for my Zoom calls yet!), I’m still finding ways to banish the blank.

What else could you do? Here are some ideas that will never require a date with spackle:

  1. If your walls have picture molding, buy a couple of wide “S” hooks to slip over the top of the ledge and hang your favorite art that way.
  2. Go high-tech with an indoor LED laser-light projector to create a star-scape or even snowflakes on your wall. Or use a regular projector to display slides from your favorite travel destinations. A spare computer linked to a slideshow of images can double as a gallery display.
  3. Find, or build, a tall coat rack consisting of two uprights and a horizontal bar. Drape a tapestry over the bar, or slip the sleeves of a silky kimono through it.
  4. Arrange tall plants in corners or against a wall to draw attention higher and ease the eyes with serene greens.
  5. Wind clear strings of white fairy lights atop window frames or around doorway moldings to enhance your evening ambiance.
  6. Attach an MDF or plywood panel to the back of a bookshelf room divider and use it as your canvas for either a splashy geometric wall decal or a swatch of floral wallpaper.
  7. Hang a removable wallpaper!
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