Moving to a rental property didn't stop designer Amanda Forrest from celebrating the season in style. Here's how the Marilyn Denis Show design maven upgraded her family's short-term stay into a home for the holidays.
For designer Amanda Forrest, the process of finding the right rental property was no different than hunting for a forever home. "I toured 20 rentals prior to choosing one," she says, noting that each house had a fundamental flaw, whether it was funky broadloom or wood floors that wouldn't work with her furniture.
Why so particular? "It was important for me to have a space that I could feel proud of—even if it was just for 12 months," says Forrest. What's more, it was essential for the space to feel like home for her four children, who were moving with her from Victoria, B.C., to Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto.
Although the rental house that finally prompted Forrest to sign on the dotted line was half the size of the family home back in B.C., it ticked the box at the top of her wish list: It was a blank canvas. "The walls were a pale cream, and there was deep ebony-stained wood throughout," says Forrest. "That was a good foundation as far as rental properties go, and it was a place in which I could see us being comfortable."
With that neutral backdrop in place, Forrest set about putting her own personal stamp on the space—a task that required every last ounce of the designer's ingenuity. "You're not able to wallpaper or make architectural changes to a rental, so you have to find other ways to create an impact," she says. For instance, instead of painting entire rooms—which might have to be restored to white before she moves out—Forrest restricted the colour to focal walls in two key rooms, adding dramatic details with the help of painter's tape.
And she didn't shy away from buying new carpets, light fixtures and toss cushions that would be perfect for the new pad. "You have to invest in pieces that will make a house feel like a home, whether or not it's a rental," she says. "The biggest mistake renters make is not buying what they love for the space. It's easy to get stuck in a holding pattern, putting off that commitment to quality and, instead, buying things that ‘will do for now.' " When Forrest finds more permanent digs for her family, these versatile investment pieces will move with them, slipping seamlessly into the new surroundings.
Adding a final layer of festive flourish to the house gave Forrest an opportunity to reflect on her family's trek halfway across the country. "It was a big move, and the holiday palette was somewhat of a celebration that the space had come together," she says. "The happy colour scheme was more a state of mind than a conscious decorating choice."
The living room
Sofa, urbanbarn.com. Union Jack pouf, area rug and floor lamp, homesense.ca. Diver art, leftbankart.com.
In the living/dining room, a striking geometric area rug defines an intimate seating zone without compromising the airy open-concept layout. "It's like art for the floor," says Forrest, noting her choice of rug had as much to do with portability as it did visual appeal. "It's a lightweight flatweave rug that folds up like a blanket—much easier to move than a hefty high-pile Persian!"
Licence to thrill
In order to appeal to the broadest possible market, the rooms in most rental properties tend to be bland, featureless boxes. To compensate for the lack of architectural detail, Forrest filled the living room with bold art, colourful upholstery and eye-catching accessories. "Everything you bring to a rental space needs to be that much more graphic and larger in scale in order to make an impact," she says. "It's up to you to give the space personality."
Gifts with presence
It's no accident that Forrest's wrapped gifts coordinate perfectly with her decor. She stockpiles stylish papers throughout the year, eschewing the kitschy prints of the holiday season for timeless stripes and chevrons.
The dining room
Christmas tree, lowes.ca. Hanging star decorations, homesense.ca. Dining table, chintz.com. Dining chairs, ikea.ca. Matte black balls, bouclair.com. Glitter stag's heads, canadiantire.ca. Mural, anthropologie.com.
The fresh factor
The tree might be artificial, but the greenery gracing Forrest's dining table is always the real deal. "I find fresh flowers particularly important on a tablescape," she says. "That's where you're going to be spending a lot of time sitting and entertaining friends, so if you're going to splurge, that's the place to do it." In a nod to the traditional holiday decorating palette of red and green, Forrest paired cut carnations with potted junipers—both are readily available from any grocery store's floral department.
Trees for the Forrest
Forrest loves the look and smell of freshly cut Christmas trees but is less keen on the upkeep they require. "Between the children and my busy work schedule, a fresh tree isn't something I could maintain well," she says. Instead, she chose an unabashedly artificial flocked fir in luminous white. "It has a vintage vibe to it, and it was a big hit with the kids, too."
Just because something wasn't purchased as a Christmas decoration doesn't mean it can't join in on the festivities. From afar, the polka-dot ornament looks like another Christmas-tree bauble. Closer inspection reveals it's a printed coaster that Forrest tucked into the branches!
Let there be lights
The location of an overhead light fixture often dictates the arrangement of the furniture below. This presented a particular problem in Forrest's dining room, where the existing ceiling light was nowhere near the optimal spot for her dining table. After getting the OK from her landlord, Forrest paid to have an electrician replace the builder's-basic "boob light" with a chic chandelier positioned directly above the tabletop. "It was an investment, but the light I installed is a pendant-style fixture that I can take with me when I move out," she says.
Off the wall
The dining room's dramatic backdrop isn't wallpaper but a custom triptych Forrest fashioned from a mass-produced art print. "I ordered one large mural and applied it across three four- by eight-foot sheets of plywood," she says. Screwed directly into the wall, the plywood panels can be easily removed and the holes filled when Forrest's lease is up.
The family room
Twilight Zone 2127-10 paint (on wall), benjaminmoore.ca. Chandelier, morba.myshopify.com. Tufted wing chair, toss cushions and area rug, homesense.ca. Sofa, urbanbarn.com. Coffee table, rh.com. Upholstered bench, cornerstonefurniture.ca.
The new black
More than just a dramatic style statement, the inky black focal wall Forrest painted in the great room brings balance to the space. "The kitchen is on the opposite wall, and it's filled with heavy, dark cabinetry," she explains. To create the illusion of architectural detail, she painted over a pattern masked on the wall in quarter-inch-wide painter's tape. "I mapped out the X pattern in pencil, applied the painter's tape along those lines and then used a credit card to smooth down the edges of the tape to prevent any paint from bleeding underneath," she says. "It took almost as long to prep the wall as it did to paint it, but it was so exciting to take off the tape and see the final design."
Forrest is well aware she hit the jackpot in the landlord stakes. "Not every property manager would be open to having his tenant paint a wall—let alone in black!" she laughs. While Forrest was perfectly willing to go through the hassle of returning the focal wall to its original colour before she leaves, the landlord loves the new look and is intent on keeping the moody hue.
Extending the season
For the holidays, Forrest swapped the painting that normally hangs above the fireplace with a contemporary white stag's head, flanked by glamorous glittering wreaths. "The wreaths give the space a wintry look, instead of being Christmas decorations per se," says Forrest. "That means I'm able to hang them on the wall earlier in the season, and I'll leave them up awhile after the holidays are over."
This shallow industrial-style bud vase is the perfect fit for the narrow mantel, and it plays an integral part in Forrest's seasonal updates to the great room. It currently holds shimmering faux foliage, but in the summer, it's filled with stems of freshly cut hydrangea.
Pearly Pink 2171-50 paint (on wall), benjaminmoore.ca. Headboard, homesense.ca. Chandelier, lowes.ca. Toss cushions, indigo.ca.
Although decorating a rental poses a number of challenges, Forrest also found it somewhat liberating. "Knowing that I was probably only going to be living here for a year or two made it a really good opportunity to try something a bit daring," she says. In the master bedroom, that translated into a Coco Chanel–inspired pink focal wall with a geometric detail—a sophisticated effect that was achieved quite simply with conventional inch-wide painter's tape.
Knowing she might have to return the focal wall to its original colour before
she moves out, Forrest took an added precaution before painting. "I applied painter's tape around the border of the focal wall to leave a white outline around the pink," she says. "That way, I won't have to worry about cutting in perfectly if it has to go back to white in a hurry."
In lieu of a traditional footboard, Forrest capped off her bed with a handsome brass-studded trunk—a souvenir from the greenroom she decorated for the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina. The hardworking piece of furniture serves as a stash for her handbag collection and earns its footprint in a number of other ways, too. "I don't really like bed skirts, so it conceals the rails at the end of the bed," she says. "It's also a great place to sit down while you're putting on your shoes."
Out of all the furnishings in the house, Forrest pegs the nightstands flanking her bed as her best investments. Snagged for $500 apiece, they have potential that goes far beyond the bedroom. "In my next house, they could be beautiful as a bar in the living room or as a catchall for gloves in the front hall," she says. "They're great multifunctional pieces that I'll never get rid of."
Forrest always takes the scale of the bed into consideration when decorating a nightstand. "King beds like mine are so wide that you need a vertical element to balance them out," she says. Realizing the table lamps on the sides of the bed weren't tall enough to achieve this balance on their own, Forrest backed them with oversize art frames, leaned casually against the wall. As a thrifty alternative to buying original art, she filled the large frames with wallpaper remnants and reserved the small freestanding frames for photos of friends and family. "A nightstand is the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see at night," she says. "It's a great opportunity to build a personal vignette."
Nightstands, cornerstonefurniture.ca. Art frames, ikea.ca. Wallpaper (in frames) and lamps, homesense.ca
If you look closely, a skull motif makes a cameo in every room of the house. More than just an edgy accent, Forrest's trademark flourish also carries a great deal of significance. "I'm Cree, and we believe skulls protect the home from negative spirits," she says.
This story was originally part of "Make It Merry" in the November 2015 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!