Polymeric reverse osmosis membranes were modified with antifouling polymer brushes through a 'layer by layer' (LBL) mediated method. Based on pure physical electrostatic interaction, the attachment of LBL films did not alter separation performance of the membranes. In addition, the incorporation of an LBL film also helped to amplify the number of potential reaction sites on the membrane surfaces for attachment of antifouling polymer brushes, which were then attached to the surface. Attachment of the brushes included two different approaches, grafting to and grafting from. Attenuated total reflectance-Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and water contact angle measurements showed successful growth of the LBL films and subsequently the polymer brushes. Using this method to modify reverse osmosis membranes, preliminary performance testing showed the antifouling properties of the as-modified membranes were much better than the virgin membrane with no significant loss in water flux and salt rejection. © 2013 The Royal Society of Chemistry.