Renter-Friendly Updates Lend High Style to a 1920s Apartment

Follow along as pro stylist Brady Tolbert shares a peek at his L.A. apartment filled with black-and-white matchups and inexpensive, impactful DIY projects.

Brady Tolbert is not easily intimidated. The designer and stylist started as an intern on a project by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. Then he worked for interior designer and blogger Emily Henderson's company as creative director, a role he now holds for Bobby Berk, the designer on Netflix's Queer Eye.

But the most visible evidence of his intrepid nature is the black-and-white checkerboard floor he installed in the kitchen of the 1920s Spanish-style apartment he shares with his partner, Jason. "The whole project cost $50," Brady says of the peel-and-stick vinyl tiles he laid on the diagonal. "And I did it in one weekend." The new floor gave him the graphic impact he was looking for in a style that wouldn't ruffle his landlord.

man standing next to curved doorway
David Tsay

Brady credits his parents for his crafty nature and fearless approach toward home improvement projects. "I was raised to be thrifty and creative. If you don't know how to do something, you read about it and figure it out." To that end, Brady has added basic electrical work to his repertoire. "One of the first things I did was swap out all the lighting. It's a really easy way to make a big change," he says.

As a designer and creative director, Brady can't help but constantly change around his furniture and accessories, frequently adding, subtracting, and rearranging. "I treat our apartment like a lab," he says. But his shopping habits make that easy. "I shop within a cohesive palette of black, white, and cream with leathers and wood, so I know whatever I buy will work somewhere." In this case, taking work home has definitely paid off.

white room with dark wood beams rounded doorway
David Tsay

The black-painted beams and white walls of Brady's living room establish the apartment's color scheme. The pairing is timeless so it ably works as a backdrop for both new and vintage pieces. The sofa's flange edges (wide, flat seams rather than the usual inverted seams) are a casual, tailored detail.

Brady's trick to keeping black and white from feeling stark is to layer warm caramel, rust, and brass in a mix of textures. He played off the red brick in the firebox (made a focal point with tiers of pillar candles) with soft linen curtains, a shaggy rug, and a smooth leather and blond wood chairs.

bar cabinet with woven caning on doors
David Tsay

Brady introduced extra storage into the small apartment with freestanding case pieces like this tall, slim bar cabinet by Bobby Berk. Caned doors and the asymmetrical tableau on top lend a decorative quality to the functional piece. The woven texture brings warmth without fussiness.

kitchen with white stove black refrigerator and copper dishes hanging
David Tsay

Unable to change the kitchen layout, Brady focused on adding character. A vintage butcher block, patinated copper, and a retro-style Smeg fridge echo the floor's throwback style.

Sculptural brass chairs stand out in the breakfast nook at the end of the narrow galley kitchen. Above, vintage-inspired, fabric-covered cords (not to mention the shapely bulbs) are made to be seen. The real star, though, is the pedestal table. The chairs can tuck up against the base, and the round top makes it easy for guests to slide in.

white kitchen open shelving over sink brass accents
David Tsay

Brady ripped out some boxy cabinets and replaced them with open shelving. Brass appears throughout the kitchen—on shelf brackets, a faucet he found for $75 on Amazon, and a rod and hooks that hold pans over the stove. The brass is a glamourous contrast to all the black and white.

built-in desk between cabinets modern wooden chair
David Tsay

Brady transformed a dressing area into an office by hanging a corkboard over the desk and installing a library sconce. Graphic wallpaper, chic desk accessories, and brass lighting make the small space feel special and intentional.

small white bedroom wall length green headboard
David Tsay

A traditional headboard would have blocked the natural light. Brady's solution was another weekend DIY. He made a channel-tufted headboard that spans the wall by stapling olive velvet—a rare jolt of color in Brady's neutral decor—over half-round foam bolsters and mounting the pieces on the wall as a single unit. Designed in the '50s by Serge Mouille, the wall-mounted duckbill lights are streamlined and sculptural.

Updated by
Mike Grady

Mike Grady is the executive director of programming at Dotdash Meredith, and he's been producing and creating videos for brands since 1998 with a focus in lifestyle. Previously, he worked at Time Inc., where he directed 6,000 videos and produced over 12,000. Mike holds a bachelor of arts degree in radio, television, and film from Auburn University and a master's of business administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

David Tsay
David Tsay is a New York-based interiors photographer for Better Homes & Gardens. His work also appears in Veranda, House Beautiful and Coastal Living. He has over two decades of experience working with advertisements and lifestyle magazines.
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