How to Affordably Furnish Your NYC Apartment... Without Using IKEA

furnish your NYC apartment
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Anyone who’s successfully managed to find an apartment in New York City -- even an affordable one -- has probably dropped thousands of dollars between first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, a broker fee, and all those other surprising costs you have to pay just to get off your best friend’s sofa.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of leftover cash for furniture (let alone inessential decor). But that doesn’t mean you need to spend the next 12 months staring at naked walls and sitting on folding chairs -- and it also doesn’t mean you need to get the same IKEA MALM dresser as everyone else you know. While the Swedish furniture retailer can be a valuable resource for New Yorkers looking for inexpensive and temporary furniture (or a place to end a relationship), it’s worthwhile to consider investing in timeless, secondhand furniture and exploring the vast, exciting -- and yes, still affordable -- world of DIY design.

To find out how to affordably furnish a New York apartment without IKEA, we spoke to local home decor editor and stylist, Megan Pflug, who says there are three key ways to transform even the most cramped, basic studio -- regardless of your tight budget.

Look for long-lasting staples at second-hand stores

Rather than buying cheap, disposable furniture that you’ll be ready to replace the next time you move, get “the best quality you can afford,” says Pflug. That means thinking long term, and maybe buying fewer pieces.

“Don’t be afraid to buy large pieces,” adds Pflug, who admits her dining table is probably too big for the space, but says it’s “the most used surface in our house.”

And chances are, your current apartment is not your forever home. Spending more on pieces that will go with you -- and fit well in a larger space -- is a far better use of funds than a dining table you have to buy (and assemble) six times.

Stores across the city, like Pippin (which specializes in vintage jewelry but now has a home shop on West 17th) and Furnish Green (a Manhattan showroom that brings in around 15 new antique items every week) can help you find high-quality second-hand furniture like a legitimate Danish modern teak storage shelf for less than $250.

Over in Greenpoint, RePOP sells mid-century modern furniture (authentic Herman Miller chairs for $225) amongst vintage ice buckets, DANSK candlestick holders, and mounted pheasants.

For antiques more than 100 years old -- and plenty of well-loved vintage items -- head to Chelsea Flea Market, where more than 135 vendors sell items to help you decorate your home. Admission costs only $1, and you might find great furniture from purveyors like Black, Inc., which sells sets of twin wood night tables for $250 total.

Housing Works storefronts are also scattered across the city and donate proceeds from your thrifty finds to help eliminate homelessness and AIDS in New York. In addition to designer clothes, shoppers can find secondhand home goods and decor here, and everything from sculptures to shelving units can also be found in online auctions.

Maximize space in creative ways

“I hate ‘transformer’ furniture,” says Pflug. “You know the type: kitchen tables that fold up, benches with storage -- things that prioritize tech over style. And in most cases, it doesn’t do either function that well.”

Instead, Pflug recommends playing creatively with the space you already have. Use drapes hung from the ceiling, for example, to make a closet. And if, like the majority of New Yorkers, you have limited kitchen storage, take advantage of empty vertical space by adding shelves.

Rugs are another item Pflug urges all New Yorkers to buy. They can be layered, moved around, and add warmth and depth to any space. Plus, if your apartment is all one room, a rug can help it feel bigger by designating separate areas -- like the bedroom vs. the living room area. Many NYC lease agreements also have an 80/20 carpeting clause -- requiring renters to carpet or cover 80% of floorspace to reduce noise. Cost Plus World Market (which just opened in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood) is an excellent place to find affordable furniture and decorative, global-inspired pieces, like a hand woven jute area rug ($112) and a Turkish kilim-style carpet made of hand-loomed cotton ($149).

Don’t underestimate the power of mirrors and good lighting

In addition to making your apartment look and feel more functional, a well-placed mirror and source of light can actually help a room feel more spacious. “Mirrors and lighting trick the eye,” Pflug says.

Put a mirror where you wish you had a window, and bring a mix of lighting options into your place -- overhead lighting, floor lighting, and (for the extra savvy) put everything on a dimmer. “[It] helps create a mood,” Pflug adds.

Check out Big Reuse (locations in Brooklyn and Queens) for discarded home goods and materials, like a large shabby-chic mirror for only $185. In Gramercy, Vintage Thrift sells reasonably priced housewares and furniture, while more rare (and pricier) items can be perused at Demolition Depot, in Harlem or online.

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Melanie Taryn Lieberman thinks a trip to IKEA should be saved almost exclusively for testing the sustainability of a serious relationship. That said, she does have a Billy bookcase.