The Industrious Tenant
- The New York Times, 10/01/2009

GRANT K. GIBSON had a terrible first impression of his one-bedroom rental. “It was like a circus in there,” the 30-year-old interior designer said of the San Francisco apartment in Presidio Heights he moved into in 2007. The sea-foam green and lavender walls were peeling and trimmed in a clashing fire-engine red. The hardwood floors were ringed in stains from houseplants left to sit in puddles.

“Most people would have run the other way,” said Mr. Gibson, who owns Grant K. Gibson Interior Design. But the sun streaming through the west-facing bay windows of the living room made him think twice. So did the nearby small restaurants, boutiques and Georgian-style houses.

“It reminded me of the Upper West Side,” he said of the neighborhood where he lived up until he moved to San Francisco in 2002.

Mr. Gibson offered the landlord a deal: in exchange for two months’ free rent ($3,000) he would renovate the apartment.

The landlord agreed, and Mr. Gibson went to work, starting his renovation in September 2007. “All that lavender and red and green was so in-your-face,” he said. “I wanted to create a timeless, neutral palette that I could layer furniture onto.”

He sanded the floors and stained them walnut, and painted the walls in varying shades of white. Bamboo Roman shades, which he bought from Target, replaced institutional metal blinds. And for extra seating and storage, he had a hollow banquette built beneath the bay window in the living room. That part of the renovation cost $4,100. For everything else, Mr. Gibson maintained a renter’s mindset: renovate with maximum style at minimum cost.

“If I buy something at a retail store, I try to think how I can make it even more comfortable, more functional, more beautiful,” he said. For instance, he bought an iron canopy bed at Pottery Barn Teen on sale for $500, but he attached a headboard his seamstress made by padding and wrapping a sheet of wood in caramel-colored mohair that cost $20 a yard. To decorate his oatmeal-toned sofa from Williams-Sonoma Home, he found the Fortuny fabric for the pillows on, the online antiques marketplace. Such details, he said, “add an extra element of luxury.”

The bedroom curtains were made of chocolate-colored linen at $50 a yard, but he splurged on 18 yards of a Greek key-patterned trim for $1,000, using 12 yards of it to give the curtains a finished look. He had the same motif painted onto the white linen skirt of a $25 side table. Three Swedish Gustavian chairs in the living room and dining area were reupholstered in a linen flax-toned fabric.

Portraits bought at the Pasadena Rose Bowl Flea Market for $100 hang in the living room; etchings of Danish nobility, also bought on for $300, line a bookshelf. “They’re like lost souls,” Mr. Gibson said. “I feel like I’m rescuing them.”

Keeping with the antiques theme, he used cheap frames to mount 18th-century architectural drawings he tore out of old books.

With the help of his 67-year-old aunt, Suzanna Allen, who lives two blocks away, Mr. Gibson spent one Saturday afternoon retiling the bathroom, replacing the chipped yellow tile with 99-cent, black-and-white linoleum tiles.

He painted his 12-by-12-foot bedroom a deep cobalt from Farrow & Ball called Drawing Room Blue. “Everything else in the space was so light and airy,” he said. “I thought it would be nice to have a cozy, dark denlike bedroom.”

At some point, Mr. Gibson said, he hopes to buy a home. But after finishing the renovation last November, he plans to remain in his rental for a while. “I’ve created a space that I just love,” he said. “When I do find the right place to buy, I’ll want to do all of the same things that I did here.”