How to refresh your short-lease rental on a limited budget

by Ibu Jenny

Welcome to At Home, our new Bali Advertiser column devoted to interior design and home ideas. We’ll be sharing tips, tricks and practical advice to help you make the most of your Bali home. In this inaugural column, we’ve invited architect/interior designer Alejandra Cisneros to share her top tips for refreshing your home on a tight budget — illustrated with stunning shots from her newly-launched book, Seen Unseen: Embracing Natural Design in Bali.

Argentinian architect Alejandra Cisneros originally came to Bali on vacation in 2004, fell in love with the island… and never left. Known for creating one-of-a-kind homes for others who, like her, answered Bali’s persistent ‘call’, she’s also personally moved house countless times during the 15 years she has called Bali home.

“What makes a happy home?” I asked her. “A house is like a living being; it needs to be loved, paid attention to”, she answered. “Unused rooms, corners that don’t get taken advantage of, gardens that we don’t sit in or eat breakfast in— they are not animated. It is very important for a home to be fully used: the more it is used, the happier it will be.” The flow, the way you move through the house needs to make sense too, she believes. “When we walk into a house and it makes sense to us on a sub-conscious level, that’s when we feel comfortable and we can relax.”

Imperfection is her inspiration. Alej loves working with ugly ducklings. “I love problem-solving. It can be a big challenge like, how to have the least impact on the land and still create a luxurious living environment. Or the problem can be small e.g. how do we make a space better with practically no budget” — a question that will resonate with those on a short lease and limited budget. So what IS her advice for them?

“Even if you are on a small housing budget and are here for only a year, you can make your life so much more beautiful. Work with what you already have. Clear unnecessary clutter, move around your furniture and art. You will instantly give the space a fresh feel.” In her experience, landlords don’t mind, or even encourage, change; “In other countries, landlords may not want you to do anything, but here it tends not to be a problem.’

Here are a few specific things that you can do to put your own stamp on your rental, or refresh your forever home — Alej’s “little design survival kit to make your beautiful life on Bali even more beautiful.”

Check if you are fully using the house

Take a tour, spend time in different areas, and ask yourself this question: ‘Which areas am I not using?’ If it’s a balcony off a bedroom, for example, and you don’t find yourself using it, go out there and ask yourself, ‘Why am I not spending more time here?’ Usually the answer will be that there is something you could do easily to activate the space and make it more usable. It may be as simple as moving furniture around, adding more lighting … or even just choosing to start using the space.

Improve lighting

This is really important on the island of Bali, where fluorescent lighting and dim lighting are still bizarrely popular with builders and landlords. Just changing the lightbulbs in that Balinese rental will lift the space – Alej buys LED Spotlights and screws them into existing sockets or lamps. Adding a couple of cheap desk or floor lamps that you can move around will also make a huge difference.

Add floor mats

A current favourite decorating idea is to add floor mats. Buy the cheapest —— they only cost around 80,000 rupiah – and use them to cover an ugly floor. Hey presto, you have defined a space, and made it much warmer.

Paint everything white

If you have a little bit of money, get a big 5-litre pot of white paint. (Best to keep a neutral canvas as you can add colour later; but keep in mind it’s really easy to overdo colour, so be restrained). Then paint everything you can get your hands on — or hire a painting kelompok to do it for you: for a little over one juta, three people can paint your house, and white-wash the old furniture in three days. The change is incredible!

Add colour with textiles

Buy some inexpensive sarongs from the market — the cheaper they are, the more likely you will use them e.g. put one on a balcony and not worry about fading as, if you need to change it, you can. Buy whatever happens to be available, and have fun mixing patterns, stripes and prints.

Consider new bedding

If you have inherited a Spiderman bedcover with your rental — as recently happened with Alej’s brother; it’s not uncommon, replace it with a sarong from the market. Or invest in some cotton sheets and pillows, or a hand-quilted bedcover from Sukawati.

Add glamour to the bedroom

Make the most of a beautiful vaulted ceiling in your bedroom. Hire someone to make a bamboo frame – anybody in your banjar can make one for you, as it’s what they do for weddings and ceremonies. Have them fix it to the highest point on the ceiling, then have a mosquito net custom-made to hang from that point right down to the floor. This will give your bedroom a really glamorous feel.

Consider modifying furniture

Sometimes, white-washing a drab piece of furniture isn’t enough; it just doesn’t work. But a little tweaking can work wonders. For example, an almari purchased a decade ago was dwarfed by the space; it wasn’t tall enough. She had some funny little 40cm legs made, painted them green and fitted them to the base of the wardrobe. Immediately it inhabited the space perfectly. “It’s my favourite piece now, and every time I look at those little green legs, I laugh.”

“One more piece of advice from Alej. “Cut some fresh flowers from your garden – it can even just be greenery. And add a bowl of fruit. for a bright splash of colour.

Alej believes that one of the great lessons of Bali is how to live beautifully in simplicity, how to blend what she calls the “poetic and the practical”. As one of her happy joglo owners says, “Alej’s houses all have a humbleness, a serenity and a sense of grandeur about them — a combination that makes people quietly gasp when they enter.” We hope her tips help you find those same qualities in your own home. If you’re interested in taking a look at her book, it is available at Periplus bookshops. Alternatively, Alej has signed 20 copies for sale to readers of Bali Advertiser; if you would like one, please contact Ibu Sri at and she can arrange to have a copy delivered to you.


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