Overwhelmed by bland walls? Stuck with seemingly impractical wooden couches or wicker coffee tables? Bridget Di Certo finds out how to bring a little more ‘you’ into your surroundings. Photography by Chatti Phal.

Turning a high ceilinged, somewhat dark and likely tiled living space with barred windows into a place to call home can prove a challenge in Cambodia.

“It is quite tough, the architecture that is done here,” says French architect Stephane Dawant, the brains behind interior design and architecture firm IChing. “There is no garden, there are no trees. The city is concrete, concrete, concrete. So when you come home, I think that space should give a soft and relaxing atmosphere.”

Major renovations aside, designers recommend some simple tricks and tips to help tenants change the feel of a space, starting with colour. “When I had a client with a budget who did not want the major renovation, the first thing we did was to change the colours of the wall. ‘Finally,’ he said, ‘I feel at home’,” Dawant recalls.

Colour and Light
There are no firm rules on colour selection, and personal preference plays a large role, but using an earthy colour scheme as a generic base can help brighten and makeover most rooms. “Beige, cream, brown, grey — take that as your general chart and then introduce some spots of more vivid colour,” the architect says.

Curtains and blinds can be vibrant additions to a living room or bedroom, breaking up the monotony of the all-cream scheme common in rented apartments. Even a colourful cushion or rug, a dramatic glass vase featuring fluorescent swirls, or a lamp can be enough to shake up a room.

“As well as colour, lighting can completely change a room,” Dawant adds. “The buildings in Cambodia can be very dark and the first thing is to try to bring the light in.”

A bespoke standing lamp, for instance, not only makes for an attractive room feature but is also a versatile investment that is easy to travel with in the future.

Keep It Simple
For those on a budget, Dawant recommends picking one room to work with, using the living room as a first stop. Start by introducing a coloured item, be it a wall, a sofa or a painting. Sometimes just a small change can make a big impact.

Product designer and founder of design store Beyond Interiors, Bronwyn Blue, echoes such advice.

“Keep it simple. Balance the layout and go step by step,” she suggests. “By ‘step by step’ I mean add the pieces you really need now to feel comfortable. After that, add other elements, like having a photo taken on a recent vacation printed in a large format onto canvas and framed. This turns a bare, drab wall into a memory of your travels.”

The designer recommends investing in key pieces of furniture, first and foremost a sofa and a bed, as a foundation for any new home. “After that, often people look for other pieces that can turn a house into a home — like artwork, a great dining table and gorgeous bed covers,” Blue adds, explaining that fitting out a home office is also an emerging trend among her clients.

Tricks of the Trade
Decorating tricks can improve other interior concerns. A common expat complaint relating to Cambodian architecture is the thundering acoustics associated with concrete, tiles and fibro-board. But a room that resonates a little too clearly can also be helped, to some degree, with furnishing.

“Sometimes when the sound of a room is very clear and you can hear an echo, you can help soften the acoustics with curtains and bed linen,” Dawant says.

Cambodian-made fabrics are often thick and luxurious, offering almost infinite design possibilities. A plain fabric in a stellar colour can be taken to a whole new level if a bespoke print is embossed onto the reel. Using such materials as an upholstery base for dining room chairs or a designer sofa will leave a personal mark on your home, and furniture can be taken from place to place if you move on.

With items as simple as a powerful picture frame able to change the atmosphere of a room, whether the desired change is big or small, options abound to transform a uniform space into an ideal, personalised place.