Nine Design + Homes designer shares tips


Justin Mueller is just 30, but has lived in six rental properties since moving out on his own almost a decade ago. He grew up in Macomb County, and studied at Grand Valley State, where he met his current partner, Lawrence Kashat, who was pursuing a medical degree at Michigan State. When Kashat was selected for a residency in Connecticut, Justin moved too.

“I have always had an eye for design,” Mueller says of his childhood. “Some kids would be watching ‘Power Rangers’ or Ninja Turtles, and I couldn’t wait to get home and watch ‘Trading Spaces,’ ‘Design on a Dime,’ and ‘Sell This House,’” he remembers. 

While on the East Coast, he worked as a design consultant for a smaller home furnishings company, where he learned about interior design, color theory and custom furnishings. From there, he worked his way up to become project manager and eventually the design center manager for a showroom in New Haven, training teams of designers, launching showroom openings and working with local schools, where he taught high school students interior design concepts.

After five years in Connecticut, the couple moved back to Michigan last July when Kashat accepted a fellowship at the University of Michigan. That meant yet another rental. “We were looking for a place that would be able to house our three cats, my mother-in-law, and have ample space for my partner and me,” Mueller explains of the couple’s wish list.

About the same time, Mueller accepted a design position with Nine Design + Homes, the company behind Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas, better known for their hit Detroit-based HGTV show, “Bargain Block.” “As part of my job, I assist them in the design process for their show and help manage design clients for Nine Design + Homes,” Mueller explains of his position. “Keith viewed one of my Instagram reels where I reupholstered an old chair using a Sherpa blanket and told me that he knew I would be the right fit.”

Finding a rental that was the right fit for the returning couple was a little more of a challenge. The plan was to find a “unique Ann Arbor home that we could rent,” Mueller says, “but the market was very competitive.”  They ended up renting a condo built in 2018 that “had everything on our list,” including enough space, room to entertain and a convenient location near the hospital. “Being a new build, it had all the modern necessities,” Mueller adds, as well as an attached garage and outdoor deck.

What it didn’t have was the charm or distinction that Mueller had initially hoped to find. Unlike many renters, however, he had a designer’s bag of tricks that he knew would help him beautify and personalize a temporary space.

Some people wrongly feel that they can’t make a rental their own, he says. This misperception often leads to people not looking to decorate or customize the home, something he considers a lost opportunity.  “Even though you don’t own it, this is still your home,” he says. “I encourage people to change their perspective on renting to create a space that you love to come back to and relax in. “

First step: Check in with your landlord about what’s allowed. Rules can vary widely, Mueller says.  “In some properties, I have been able to paint walls, change flooring, put up removable wallpaper, and change light fixtures,” Mueller explains. In others, there has been limited ability to change things. “Even when I’ve been limited by landlord rules, certain simple tricks such as layering rugs, the use of accent pieces, drapery, art work and greenery … can have a dramatic impact on the feel of a space,” he says.

These tricks of the trade are evident throughout the Ann Arbor condo Mueller shares with Kashat and his mother-in-law, Ghada Juma. Now a stylish and welcoming mix, the space “was just a white box when we moved in,” he explains. He advises fellow renters to seek out something that inspires them to use as a starting point. In his case, it was a piece of pottery that now holds pride of place in the couple’s second-floor living room.

One of his good friends from college is the curator at the Gutman Gallery in Ann Arbor, he explains.  “While I was living in Connecticut, I followed the gallery’s Instagram page and found this artist, Kris Cravens, who makes beautiful handmade pottery. They had a post with a picture of that plate and as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I loved the colors, the abstract design. It just called to me. “

When the couple moved back to Ann Arbor, Mueller decided to use the plate as inspiration and a design theme. “I pulled colors from the plate into the room through art, pillows, rugs, and accent pieces. It’s one of my favorite pieces I own. I love to support local artists and having such unique pieces in my home.”

The plate fits his eclectic style. “I have pieces in my home that are modern, post-modern, contemporary, and traditional.  I have new pieces, vintage pieces, as well as pieces that I’ve repurposed. My design style allows for incorporating color through accents and home decor, while keeping the larger furniture pieces more neutral,” – a tip he also recommends for others.

An avid bargain hunter, Mueller shops resale, thrift stores, garage and tag sales, Habitat for Humanity (he’s partial to the one in Farmington Hills, he says) and online sites. “I’m on Facebook Marketplace every morning,” he admits.

He’s especially attracted to 1970s and 1980s post-modern pieces, he says. He also has a soft spot for vintage green antiques and accessories of all kinds, adding with a laugh “it’s one of the colors that look good on me.”  “I love thrifting because there are many great pieces to discover if you have the patience and willpower,” he says. “Every time I visit thrift stores, I always end up walking away with at least one creative item,” that he mixes with newer pieces, another Nine Design + Homes signature.

Other advice for renters? Change accent pillows and rugs seasonally and often to keep the feel of the rooms fresh, he says. Layer area rugs over wall-to-wall carpet. Try to find ways to reuse things you have in unexpected ways.  “At Nine Design + Homes, we appreciate what clients already have and want to introduce new life into it,” he says, adding that they “think outside the box to maximize the look of a space, whether that be through color, unique art, or vintage pieces.”

His job fits perfectly with his lifestyle and personal design philosophy, he says. “I have always been inspired by Keith and Evan’s ability to beautifully transform spaces with such unique design ideas … I’m excited for everyone to see what is happening with Nine Design + Homes and how we are constantly evolving and elevating our looks,” he says of the business’s latest efforts, which includes a new HGTV season, a new gallery/workroom/classroom in Detroit’s Old Redford neighborhood and the company’s expansion into working with design clients to refresh their homes, rental or otherwise. “I absolutely love what I do and helping people realize their home’s true potential,” Mueller asserts, adding that the team is considering expanding outside of Metro Detroit.

The designer’s professional and personal future looks equally bright. Kashat will finish his fellowship in the spring, and the couple plans to wed in 2023. While they’ve never owned a home, they “would like to plant roots in the Detroit area and hope to find a home in the region,” Mueller says. “Our ideal home is one with unique architecture with modern convenience … think super sleek contemporary or a storybook Tudor cottage juxtaposed with a modern interior” and plenty of space indoors and out to entertain, he says. 

The years decorating rentals have given him a tool kit that will continue to serve him well. “Those basic principles hold true as I design our future home. However, I am excited to be able to knock down walls, renovate, decorate, and really let my creative juices flow,” he says, adding “I’m dying to wallpaper something!” 

Khristi Zimmeth writes the Trash or Treasure column for Homestyle. Contact her at [email protected].


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *