Whether you have just signed the lease on your first apartment, or you are working on replacing your college apartment furniture with higher-quality stuff, it helps to have a long-term strategy for furnishing your place.
You may not always have a huge bedroom, or that odd little window nook to fill, so avoid buying things just to fill a temporary space perfectly. (If you do, make it a budget find). But even when your living arrangements are in flux, you can slowly build an arsenal of key pieces that will work anywhere. For these foundation pieces, it's worth it to save for the highest quality you can afford. In the long run, you will save money, because you will have to buy only once, instead of making serial purchases of lower-quality furniture that falls apart after only a year or two.
All of the 13 pieces described here are small in scale, so they are highly portable and versatile - plus, they are design classics, so they will always work no matter how your taste evolves.
1. A ceramic garden stool. These glossy little gems can act as a side table, an extra seat, a nightstand or a spot to hide folded towels in the bathroom. Of course, they are also perfectly at home on the patio or in the garden — you'll never be sorry you have one.
2. A potted tree. Purchasing a fiddleleaf fig (shown here) or another potted tree as a baby is inexpensive, and if well cared for, it will last for many years. Be sure to ask for detailed care instructions when you purchase your plant, and place it in a spot with adequate light when you get home.
3. A pair of chairs with a good shape. As long as they don't have overstuffed rolled arms, a pair of armchairs will work well even in a small apartment, and they make a room look more finished than a single chair or two mismatched chairs would.
4. Classic dining chairs. Choose one style chair you love and commit to collecting a full set over time. Perhaps you need only two or four in your first apartment, but you can add more of the same style as needed when you move into a larger space.
What to look for: Look for a recognizable style so you can add to your set over time. Chippendale (shown here), Windsor and modern shell chairs are all collectible options that come in a wide range of price points. If you shop vintage, be sure to inspect the chair for cracks and other damage, and measure it to be sure it will work with your table and other chairs.
5. A shapely love seat. Love seats and settees are some of my favorite pieces of furniture, because you can use one just about anywhere and it will look fantastic. In a small living room, it can take the place of a regular sofa; in a large living room, it can supplement a bigger couch. You could also place one at the foot of your bed; in a spacious entryway, guest room or study; or even at the dining table.
What to look for: The most versatile love seats are neutral in color and have a tight back, slender arms and either a single loose seat cushion or a tight seat.
6. An interesting chair. It's common to find single chairs at antiques shops and flea markets, and they generally come at a lower price than those in a set. Scoop up one with a lovely shape and use it as an occasional chair anywhere in your home.
7. A patterned rug. A small patterned rug can be all you need in a small living room, and later it can be layered atop a larger natural-fiber rug to fill a big space.
What to look for: Choose the highest quality you can afford, and think timeless, not trendy. Vintage kilims and Oriental rugs are foolproof, but new designs can be just as worthy — Angela Adams and Madeline Weinrib design modern classics.
8. A leather pouf. The Moroccan-style leather pouf has become a design classic. Use one as an extra seat or footrest, or top one with a tray to use as a table.
What to look for: Natural leather and white are the most classic colors, though a metallic can prove quite versatile, too. Be sure to buy one that is real leather.
9. A decorative tray. A decorator essential with good reason, a great tray can be used to make just about anything into an attractive vignette. Use one to corral books topped with sculptural objects, collect mail by the front door or as a bar area. Or place one atop an ottoman to make it function as a coffee table.
What to look for: Rectangular, square or round; woven, lacquered or fabric wrapped ... the options are limitless. Choose a tray that meshes with your design style and be sure it isn't too big to place on your table.
10. Pretty textiles. Suzanis, Moroccan wedding quilts, kantha quilts and vintage linens are all worth snapping up, because you can always find a use for them. Draped over a sofa, chair or bed, or even hung on the wall, textiles are a quick and easy way to give a space a lift. Plus, they take up hardly any space, so you can easily fold and store the ones you are not currently using.
11. A chest of drawers. A small dresser can do much more than hold clothes - it can also work as a capacious bedside table, an entryway organizer, a dining room buffet or extra storage in the living room.
What to look for: Seek a solid wood version for the most longevity. Vintage furniture stores can be a great place to find a high-quality piece for less than you would spend on something of similar quality new.
12. A beautiful mirror. Propped on your dresser, it can help you get ready in the morning. But a lovely mirror will always find a place in your home — from the entry to the bathroom, there's not a room in the house that couldn't use one.
13. Café table and chairs. In a studio apartment, a café table can serve as your dining table. Later on you can still use it in a breakfast nook or move it into the garden.
Tell us: What piece of furniture have you had the longest? Is there anything you let go of and wished you hadn't?