DIY Makeover: This decorator updated her Victorian two-bedroom rental with boho touches and Scandi hardwood floors
Total cost: less than $5,000
The renter: Alexandra Gater, a YouTuber and decorator, and Noah Margo-Dermer, head of sales at Branch Furniture
The space: A split-level two-bedroom apartment in the Annex
The budget: Less than $5,000
Shortly after graduating from the University of Toronto, Alexandra Gater clinched her dream job at Chatelaine—first as an intern, eventually working her way up to home editor. “I always loved the process of creating something, especially photography and writing,” she says. When a video from her affordable decor series called The Home Primp went viral, the path forward was clear.
In 2018, Alexandra began using her decor skills to make over her friends’ homes—and filming the results for her nascent YouTube channel. “I started out not knowing how to hang a shelf or spackle a hole. It was really just trial and error,” she says. Now, the same channel boasts more than 500,000 subscribers and six full-time employees, and Alexandra is one of the most recognizable names in interior design in Canada. Her debut book, Own Your Space, a compendium of drool-worthy, renter-friendly decor ideas, hit shelves in late April.
“A lot of people think they need to have a degree in interior design or spend $50,000 renovating a kitchen to have a beautiful home,” she says. “My goal is to break down that barrier and show people that it’s possible to make tiny changes that have a big impact.” Alexandra specializes in revamping studio apartments and small spaces into livable nooks, performing acts of wizardry like separating the bed from the living space in a 150-square-foot apartment and adding peel-and-stick wallpaper to turn a 30-square-foot bathroom into a ’70s Palm Beach–inspired paradise.
In addition to playing Fairy Godmother in other people’s temporary spaces, Alexandra is a renter herself, and she began documenting her own home upgrades in 2019 for a series called My Rental Reno. She began by sprucing up the one-bedroom apartment in the Annex she’d inherited from friends, nicknamed the Treehouse, with a pink subway-tile backsplash in the kitchen and banana leaf peel-and-stick wallpaper in the bedroom closet turned office. She used the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders as an opportunity to redecorate, capturing enough content for a second season.
Related: A Barbie-pink Victorian in Trinity-Bellwoods with a motley collection of curiosities
By 2021, she had outgrown the Treehouse and was looking for somewhere more spacious to settle down with her partner, Noah. That May, the couple moved into a bright, airy split-level two-bedroom apartment on the upper level of a Victorian home in the Annex. “I love how light comes streaming through the windows,” she says, “and all the century home accents that have been preserved, like stained glass and crown moulding.”
As a seasoned decorator, Alexandra received permission from her landlord to make some adjustments that were slightly less renter-friendly than her usual fare. First, she and Noah removed the dingy grey carpets covering the 150-year-old stairs and refinished the steps with matte-black paint ($120) and a natural jute-patterned runner rug ($300). At the landing, they installed black penny tiles ($145) to create a modern, minimal space before entering the apartment. Inside, they ripped up the faux-wood vinyl flooring in the living room and replaced it with blond Scandinavian hardwood from Stuga (Alexandra had a sponsorship deal with the brand).
Alexandra’s father came all the way from England to assist with the kitchen reno. They replaced the plain white pantry doors leading into the space with one solid wood door featuring an arched glass inlay and a crystal doorknob, sourced for $100 from Facebook Marketplace. Then they removed the kitchen cabinets over the sink to add white Moroccan backsplash tile (sponsored) and open shelving (handmade by Alexandra’s dad), painted the remaining cabinets sage green, and added gold hardware knobs ($105 for hex knobs, $29 for pulls). The sunny reading nook in the corner came with blue cushions, which Alexandra reupholstered in a grey gingham pattern ($216).
For the second bedroom, which functions as Noah’s home office, Alexandra initially furnished most of the room with pre-owned items from their respective homes. For her only major purchase, she settled on an industrial pipe bookshelf, which she had custom-made by a person she found on Kijiji for only $300.
To draw attention to the bedroom’s natural hardwood floors, Alexandra opted to keep the space simple and calm. The biggest change was painting a moody accent wall “sulking room pink” to add a pop of colour to the space.
“I’d describe my signature style as a mix of boho and eclectic,” she says. While she admits that the original apartment had “great bones,” she loves being inside the space even more now that it reflects her experimental style, with plenty of colour and patterns. “It was kind of a testament to the idea that if you really want something to feel like yours, with just a little elbow grease, you can transform a space completely.”
She’s completely satisfied with the changes she’s made to her home. “A lot of times, people label decorating as this frivolous thing, but I’ve just seen how much of a difference making over someone’s space can have on their life and their mood on an everyday basis,” she says. “Even though I don’t own the apartment, it feels like mine, and I feel free and comfortable to express myself here.”
For now, Alexandra has no plans to move and prefers the idea of buying a small cottage outside the city to owning a home in Toronto. “I’m just not ready for the responsibility yet,” she says. “I love that, when the stove breaks, our landlord has to deal with it. I can’t imagine buying a home and then having to replace the roof for $30,000.”