Living in a rental usually dictates the way you decorate. You are expected to paint walls light, neutral hues to appease landlords worried...

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Living in a rental usually dictates the way you decorate.

You are expected to paint walls light, neutral hues to appease landlords worried about leasing the place when you move on. Window treatments are usually white roll-down shades, so you compensate with economical curtains or drapes. Any wood floors most likely have worn patches, which calls for large area carpets. Or, if there is wall-to-wall carpeting, it’s probably a murky, dirt-concealing hue that needs colorful furnishings to liven it up.

As for the kitchen and bathrooms, dream on. You take what you get and make the most of it.

All of these truisms frustrated Stacy Marienthal when she got divorced and moved back to Chicago from San Diego three years ago.

“We had lived in really nice single-family homes both here and in California, but now my circumstances were different. I needed to scale down,” she sighs. Yet she also realized that a comfortable, appealing home was more important to her and her two children than ever before. “It was an emotional time and we needed a place that would be nurturing and reassuring,” she says.

A place with potential

After seeing 30 apartments during a two-day visit to Chicago, Marienthal was totally discouraged. Nothing suited her needs. Then the owner of a vintage Lake View, Ill., building she had found through an ad a few weeks earlier called to see if she was coming by.

She fell in love with the place. With light walls, worn floors, bare windows, a small kitchen and outdated bathrooms, it wasn’t perfect. But it was airy and spacious with gracefully proportioned rooms, and “way better than anything else I saw. And it had great potential,” she pointed out.

Fortunately, the landlord was flexible. Marienthal was able to negotiate benefits that ranged from a new paint job in the colors of her choice and refinished floors to window treatments and new bedroom carpeting. He also promised to update the washrooms and maybe even tackle the kitchen.

“He saw that I wanted to improve the place, which was really to his benefit,” Marienthal said. So she signed the lease, resolving to develop her own take on transmutable decorating.

Hot pink or espresso

Paint, renowned as the quickest and cheapest decorating tool, was the first thing she used. But as anyone who has ever struggled over which hue to choose knows, it was harder than she thought. So she hired an interior designer.

Even then, she stumbled a bit. “I painted the bedroom hot pink because I was coming from bright California and sometimes it gets so dreary here. But it was over-the-top,” she says, admitting to “three tries to get the walls right in there.”

Today it’s espresso, while the main living area is wheat complimented with cream moldings. She splurged on the foyer with a richly burnished faux finish that blends copper, bronze and gold, and let her children choose their own hues. Her daughter, Katie, 11, chose paraquet green, and her son, Matt, 17, chose steel gray.

Basics on the go

Furniture was the next hurdle. She didn’t have much, and most of it was too sleek and low-slung to be appropriate for the high-ceilinged vintage space. “It made me mindful that I needed to get things I could use anytime and anywhere, no matter where I move next,” she says.

With that caveat, Marienthal splurged on a few fabulous basics that she will be able to use anywhere, such as a stately British Colonial bookcase, clean-lined ribbon-back dining-room chairs, a frothy crystal chandelier for the foyer and a handsome bamboo dresser in the bedroom.

She was a bit more playful with the moderately priced pieces she bought, like a chaise in the bedroom that she dared to upholster in hot pink and a flowered area carpet in the living room. She used her ingenuity to find other items, like the classic dining-room table she snagged at a thrift store and had refinished to match her new dining chairs.

Today, Marienthal thanks fate for leading her here, realizing, “I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything this nice. It’s large, conveniently close to my children’s school and right near the lake,” she notes. And now it’s also been transformed into that nurturing and reassuring family home of her dreams — almost. “I would love to modernize the kitchen,” she quips.