Shea McGee Of Studio McGee Remembers Her First Apartment

Before she was known for styling wonderfully airy rooms, Shea lived with hand-me-down Ikea and vertical blinds.

Shea McGee
Kate Osborne

When Syd and I first got married, we rented a crappy one-bedroom condo in Laguna Beach. It was 2008 and we were babies, just 23 years old. The rent was probably $1,400 for 600-700 square feet. When you stood in the front door you could see the living room, kitchen, dining room and even back to the bedroom, all from the same vantage point. But it had vaulted ceilings, so that helped.

Even though we couldn't afford much, I went into major nesting mode when we moved in. Design blogs were getting big, so I really started diving into that world to get inspiration. My design choices were also influenced by my upbringing, although I'm sure I didn't realize it at the time. I grew up in Texas, land of linens and big, natural seagrass rugs. So we had a big jute rug in the living room and black linen dining tables.

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Luckily we convinced our landlord to let us paint the kitchen cabinets white—I loved white back then and still love it now—and we painted all of the walls light grey. I was actually pretty smart about using neutrals on big things. We had a big, white slipcovered sectional from Ikea that was a hand-me-down. Not even new Ikea! And in our dining room, we had those terrible vertical slatted blinds on our sliding glass door which I've never, ever liked. I found cheap drapes with grommets from Target to replace them and it looked instantly better.

I totally regret other choices though—mostly this one chair I found at Target. It was a Thomas Paul bird print, and no surprise, I was sick of it after a year. I was also very big into mustard yellow and had a bunch of too-trendy pillows from Etsy.

Our big splurge was in the bedroom, with a grown-up headboard. It was a simple and neutral with nailhead trim from West Elm. We could hardly even fit the bed in the room with our black Ikea dresser and nightstands (which we found at Goodwill and painted ourselves). Everything was an experiment, you know?

I feel like apartments like this always have crazy neighbors. It's a rite of passage. Our walls were so thin that he could hear our neighbors through the night. One time the neighbor was obviously drunk and tried to come into our house. We moved out soon after that.

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When we're in Southern California and we drive by the condo complex, we'll say to each other 'Remember when we lived in that crappy apartment?' But it was all ours and it was special. One of my favorite memories will always be the Thanksgiving meal we made for each other there. We cooked it in our little kitchen and ate it out on our balcony.

Here's my advice for people living in their first apartments: Do whatever you can to paint neutral colors on the walls. It makes all the difference. And also don't let people in a different life phases get you down about where you're at. Try to enjoy whatever space in whatever place you have, and take pride in being out on your own. Because you're doing it!

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