Real Estate

Can You Renovate a Rental? Sure, if You’re Careful.

It’s easy to get lost in the pages of shelter magazines, fantasizing over spare-no-expense interiors built from scratch. But when you’re renting, a down-to-the-studs renovation is usually out of reach.

That was true for Lauren Piscione, the founder of the interior design firm LP Creative, when she began looking for a house to rent in Los Angeles in 2018. Like many up-and-coming designers, Ms. Piscione, now 32, wanted to put her stamp on the home she lived in, but she wasn’t yet able to buy a house of her own.

She was also determined to find a place with a real garden — for true indoor-outdoor living — after making do with a balcony in her previous home, an apartment in West Hollywood.

Lauren Piscione, the founder of the interior design firm LP Creative, put her stamp on a rental house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.Credit…Michael Clifford

“When I was hunting for my next place, that was a major, major prerequisite: I wanted to look outside my windows and see greenery,” Ms. Piscione said. “That’s why I came here,” she said of her move from New York in 2015. “For nature.”

It took four months of touring underwhelming rentals, but she eventually found it: a charming, 1,200-square-foot house from the 1940s in the Silver Lake neighborhood, hidden up a slope off the street, beneath a leafy canopy. “It was like this treehouse situated up a bunch of stairs,” Ms. Piscione said.

It was a quirky home that gave her plenty to work with, including vaulted wood ceilings, a fireplace clad in black pebbles and a bathroom with a tub sunken into the floor. Ms. Piscione signed a lease (she now pays $3,500 a month), moved in and began tinkering.

The kitchen had stone counters and midrange stainless-steel appliances that were functional, but the cabinets, which had a mix of glass and painted fronts, looked dated. And the bathroom vanity had tired, traditional-looking drawer fronts. To update it all, Ms. Piscione asked her landlords if she could install custom plywood fronts, at her own expense.

The living room is furnished with a ceramic Stitch stool by Eny Lee Parker (from $4,000) and a custom coffee table by Minjae Kim. The faux-cement wall is an ideal background for Zoom calls, Ms. Piscione said.Credit…Michael Clifford

“They weren’t thrilled about it at first,” she said, adding that she was going for a minimalist, Donald Judd-inspired look. “I actually had to sell it to them, as if I was pitching a potential new client. I was like, ‘I’m an interior designer and here’s my vision.’ And I had to share a mood board.”

The landlords agreed, and Ms. Piscione hired a millworker to do the job, which included building an additional bank of open plywood shelves for another wall of the kitchen.

She repainted most of the interior walls, including feature walls in the living room and bedroom that got a faux-concrete finish. “I wanted that somewhat-rustic-cabin, somewhat-Japanese vibe,” she said, which turned out to be an ideal background for Zoom calls.

Beyond those changes, the house is a study in how much an interior can be transformed through furnishings, textiles, plants, art and accessories.

The living room is anchored by a Tuareg mat and filled with conversation-starting pieces like a fat-legged Bell Chair from Otherside Objects upholstered with vintage textiles Ms. Piscione ordered from Japan; tripod stools with threaded legs from Lumber Club Marfa, a woodworking club where the pieces are made by young girls; a custom coffee table by Minjae Kim; and a wall-mounted work of denim-colored ceramic chain by the artist Taylor Kibby.

“All the pieces in my house point to either a different time in my life or a special person I got to work with on a client project,” Ms. Piscione said. “I try really hard to incorporate a lot of emerging local artists in the projects I do.” And when she has the budget, she likes to buy an occasional piece for herself, too.

On the patio, she created a dining area under the trees by installing 1970s red metal Sof-Tech chairs by David Rowland for Thonet around a table. On the deck, she added retro folding lawn chairs she found on Amazon between vintage concrete planters by Willy Guhl, filled with succulents.

“I wanted to give it a somewhat whimsical, almost ‘Alice in Wonderland’ type of feel,” she said.

The patio dining area is furnished with 1970s Sof-Tech chairs by David Rowland for Thonet (and with Ms. Piscione’s dog, Jennifer).Credit…Michael Clifford

By the time she finished, Ms. Piscione had spent about $35,000 on the cabinetry, painting and landscaping, and about $50,000 on furnishings she’ll eventually take with her, if she ever leaves. But when that will happen is an open question.

For now, Ms. Piscione is happy to live in her customized rental, and to share it with her partner, Travis Garrett, 36, who moved in two years ago.

“I love it so much, but it is small — it’s just a one-bedroom,” she said. “One day, I have plans to grow my family, so I will eventually have to leave this place. But I’ll stay as long as I can fit.”

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