Making A Beautiful Home

The famous flea market at the Kitano-tenmangu
Treasures lie within every flea market -- for the digging! Image via Wikipedia

I admit it. It’s my obsession.

My home, a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript 1960s red-brick building in a northern New York City suburb, is the beneficiary of most of my time, energy and creativity. It’s always been like that, wherever I live.

I love to putter, paint, make things, design and build bookshelves and windowboxes, find antique frames to hold my drawings and photos.

For me, home is truly where the heart is. When it’s calm, clean and pretty, my world is complete.

I planned to leave journalism in the mid-1990s and become an interior designer, and studied at The New York School of Interior Design. I loved it and did well. Then my marriage suddenly blew up, so starting a whole new career was no longer practical.

Here are some of my inspirations and ideas:

Always include a few lovely old things. Unless you’re dedicated Modernist, it’s soothing and grounding to include some older pieces in the mix, whether textiles, glass, china or furniture, whose weathered surfaces and patina, curves and inlay and engraving add lovely details and shapes. I bought four rush-seated painted ladder-back chairs, two black, two light green — now about 150 years old — at a country auction in Nova Scotia in 1985 and shipped them home to Toronto by train. I still love them. You can find many great things at thrift and consignment shops for pennies. Once you learn the difference between blown and molded glass, silver plate and sterling, reproduction and the real thing, you’ll score some seriously affordable loot.

Re-purpose! Antique textiles can be re-used as pillow covers, bed and table linens, a folding screen. I use battered old wooden tool-boxes to hold my bedside needs, the TV remote and use a square wooden seaman’s chest to hold all the ugly cables, plugs and extension cords that keep our house functioning. A lovely hand-blown or cut crystal decanter can hold dish soap, juice, vinaigrette.

Invest in polish, rags, tools, Goo-gone, steel wool, paint. Many of the nicest things in my home sure didn’t arrive pristine, but needed sanding, painting or cleaning. (Goo-gone, a liquid available at hardware stores, will get rid of the leftover adhesive from an old sale sticker, for example.) I recently spray-painted some basic red clay pots a gorgeous glossy navy blue to match my ceramic pots of the same color.

Develop some reliable, affordable sources. I have a fantastic fabric store that does all my pillows and curtains, in Rhode Island, for much less than I’d pay locally, and she does great work. (I discovered her on a vacation there.) Quinny, my auto-body guy, sand-blasts and cleans all my old metal (paint-encrusted radiator covers, a Moroccan lantern.)

Read books for inspiration. I have a terrific collection of auction catalogs, and hardcover books on design, antiques, art and decorative arts, from Asia, Mexico and Europe. I dip into them occasionally for sheer visual pleasure — and fresh ideas. I love The Well-Worn Interior, with some exquisite photos of homes in Ireland, France, England and even New York City.

Watch the pro’s and talented amateurs. One of my favorite websites is Apartment Therapy, which every day features the home of a real person with amazing style. Not rich people, just those with a great eye willing to share. Its founder and creator, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, also wrote this terrific and helpful book. Here are 10 fab tips for fixing up your kitchen from the recent AT contest.

Go abroad, even just visually. Even if your budget hasn’t room for a trip to Bangkok or Paris, there are so many great websites and books and magazines full of ideas. My favorite design magazine is The World of Interiors, a British publication, followed by the various editions of Cote Sud, which focus on on regions of France. The French and English are masters of elegant but laid-back beauty, full of ideas you won’t find in an American magazine. I also like Canadian House & Home. I love this British website for amazing textiles and wallpaper.

Small items can have a huge impact. A perfect, tiny frame; some fresh flowers in a vase; a fragment of lace on a pillow cover; a silver or glass or brass candlestick. Splurge on super chic or costly designer fabric for one or two small throw pillows. Give your eye somewhere lovely to land. Check out antiques fairs, art supply stores, flea markets, garden supply centers, Etsy. I recently scored a perfect, round, gold metal Victorian picture frame about 5 inches in diameter for $20 at an outdoor antiques show. A creamy white frame, on sale from Pottery Barn, now holds a sepia photo of my great grandfather, with sepia cursive writing wrapping paper as the mat on which it lies.

Perfection is boring! My hand-woven white summer rug, (found in a Quebec antique store), needs some repair. It’s old and that’s OK. While you want your home clean, sweet-smelling and tidy, matchy-matchy perfection is a surefire style killer. Think quirky, charming, curvy. If everything in your room is a pale neutral, add a pop of scarlet or yellow or black. Especially black. If every shape in a space is a square or rectangle, consciously add a few softening pieces — a mirror, a demilune table, a throw rug — that are circular, oval or curved.

Use your scissors, camera, printer. Photos can look strikingly different — better! — in black and white or sepia. Look for old magazines, ads, postcards, signage. Anything can work as art if you use it, frame it, and hang or display it well.

Color! A hit of terrific color (scarlet, lime green, turquoise, white, black) in a throw pillow or accessory can punch up a sofa, chair or bookshelf.

Flea markets and antique shows are your new best friend. Take cash in small denominations and a check book and an open mind. I need nothing, but am always up for adventure. My last flea market tour, (the Sunday market at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall), netted me a gorgeous pink glass compote I gave away ($10), a tiny silver-plate engraved cup ($10, now on my desk holding pencils and pens) and a huge swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.) Score! The silk now perfectly covers my folding screen (the one I made).

Multiples and scale matter. Items in threes are more interesting than a pair. If you’re going to have one…of anything…make it huge or tiny. Put related items together. Mix it up while using similar color, tone, pattern. Our bedroom wall has two sepia-tone female nude photos, each framed in gold, hung together.

Here’s a link to {frolic}, one of my favorite lifestyle blogs, with five fab books on home decoration — two of which are on my bookshelf.

And here’s an apartment that embodies much of these ideas, from Apartment Therapy’s great website.

What have you done to make your home lovely?

Where do you get inspiration?

19 thoughts on “Making A Beautiful Home

  1. I never met a flea market or antique show/store that I didn’t like. It’s incredible the treasures you can find for just a few dollars sometimes. You just have to be a creative thinker! My home is an eclectic mix of brand new & very old. Sometimes I buy a fun vintage piece just because it was cute or unique–I figure out what to do with it later. I did learn to buy when you see it because once you walk away, too often someone else scoops it up. I enjoyed your suggestions–the best part of decorating today is that there aren’t any rules–mix it up. I love it.

    1. I do this as well…buy a few things I have no specific use for and voila! The yellow silk was simply too gorgeous to pass up and has really transformed the screen. I like how flea markets force you to be decisive and BUY! because someone else will if you hesitate.

      I’ve also learned that even fairly high-end antiques shows can still have an affordable object worth splurging on.

  2. jacquelincangro

    I learned a lot from your tips! I was very excited to decorate when I bought my first apartment and spent a lot of time figuring out “my style.” I don’t really know what that is exactly, but in the end, I go with what I like and hope it all fits together in some cohesive way.

    I may have read this on Apartment Therapy, but I thought it was a good tip: pick your paint color after you’ve chosen the focal point of your room, or if you’re remodeling, pick the paint color last after you’ve decided on the other major items. The reason is that paint is generally the least expensive and easiest thing to buy. Of course I did exactly the opposite, but I think I’ll try that in the future.

    1. Cool! One of the easiest ways to create a color scheme for a room (and set the tone for furniture and accessories like mirrors or vases) is to choose a terrific curtain fabric or rug, with several tones and/or colors within it to work from…We were taught that a room can handle five different patterns, and no more. And “pattern” can be simple like a solid colored linen with a coarse weave, or black and white ticking (which covers one of our antique chairs.)

      One of the keys is to decide if your major (and it needs to be the majority of the things in a space) style is modern (1960s? 2010? Art Deco?) or antique (Victorian? Edwardian?) All these terms can easily be looked up to get a better sense what they mean and what shapes go together. My point is that if you mix a 1950s style fabric with a 1920s-era chair, it might look horrible.

      Our style also tends to evolve — with income (up or down), travel, movies we see, hotel or restaurant designs you like…Inspiration is everywhere. Our last living room design (with Chinese red walls and deep scarlet plain cotton curtains) was inspired by the living room in the film Gosford Park. Now the walls are a soft yellow with some green it; sage green velvet sofa; olive cotton loveseat…with touches and art throughout the room in cream, tan, black, red, gold (picture frames, lamp base) to pick up all the colors in our striped curtains.

  3. Lillian

    Great tips! I’m in the process of trying to start finally working on our downstairs and it seems so daunting. It’s a small house and the whole downstairs is one large space minus the kitchen, so I have to incorporate the entry living room and dining room like in an apartment, so all of these were very helpful- thanks! Now I need to start pulling together all of the millions of inpsiration photos I keep saving…

    1. Ooooh. Yes. We have exactly the same problem…our apartment foyer, living room and dining room are all visible from each other so the spaces MUST relate visually.

      It took a lot of trial and error to realize that the colors have to be very carefully chosen — with bits of one color moving throughout the space (i.e. choose a color, even the cream of a baseboard and repeat it in the next room)….i.e. one room relates to the next (not a red wall next to a blue wall next to a green wall….exhausting.) Our living room is this soft green/yellow (Farrow & Ball make the most subtle and gorgeous paints) and the dining room a fab soft gray — Sherwin Williams’ Modern Gray…and I chose these colors because our top floor windows overlook trees (green/yellow) and sky (often gray.) The foyer is the same color as the living room to the eye sweeps easily and calmly through all these spaces. Much of our artwork is framed in thin gold or antique gilt frames; all the materials in the gray dining room (pendant lamp, framed art, accessories) are silver.

      Inspiration photos are so helpful! I have stacks, literally 2 feet high, of Elle Decor, House Beautiful, World of Interiors, Country Living and keep favorite issues for years.

  4. Great ideas and tips. Thanks for sharing. I, like you put a great deal of thought and effort into my home. We will be moving soon and I hope to incorporate a lot of new ideas. These will be among them.

    1. Thanks! It’s such a pleasure to be able to create a space you love and that nurtures you, and your family and your friends. I feel so blessed to have the training and eye and have been able to acquire some nice things at decent prices over the years. Once it’s layered in, you really start to see themes.

  5. Great advice! I just spent the week helping my daughter set up her first rental…she’s been well trained, and much of my advice is the same as yours. Something beat up, something black, books, mix of patterns and textures, a bit of animal print. Years of Brimfield excursions and an obsession with decorating mags have paid off! Other than Apt. therapy, any blogs you can recommend? The online mag Lonny is fun, but I’d love to find someone inspiring more frequently…Tracy Porter was good for a while but she got weird…

  6. My home has always been ever changing. Me and my family were kind of gypsies, moving from apartment to apartment, so we could never quite make the place feel like ‘home’ because we couldn’t do too much to it and would be moving soon. Now, I’m in an apartment with my fiancee so I’m trying to work his style with mine. It’s nice to put your taste on a space, it does help to calm you to have things just so.

  7. It can be a challenge to blend two people’s styles. Sometimes it’s easier, if affordable, to sell the things one of you utterly hates (if so) and get stuff you both love. I love having my home the way I like it — years of boarding school and summer camp, all in shared spaces, may have contributed to this!

  8. I wouldn’t know where to start to make my house a home – I’m content if the house is simply clean and tidy (my other half is a disorganised pack rat, so this can be a challenge), but I’ve never been one to yearn for a place to call home. I guess zero nesting instincts plus living in a rental every year or two contributes to that.

    That said, I am thoroughly fascinated by other the way other people just have this magic touch with interior decoration. I actually wrote a long post on this topic some time ago:

    1. It’s funny. I’ve been like this for a while…at least since my 20s. I just get so much pleasure from it….but it would be very very difficult for me to share space with someone who wasn’t (as Jose is) tidy and who also really appreciates a lovely home.

      1. I have to admit, it was fairly hellish in the beginning, as I was a freak for the clinically organized (i’m the sort of person who’d ideally live in an empty space with 3 pieces of furniture – a bed, a chair and a table with as little as possible to go along with them), and he thrived in complete clutter-filled chaos.

        But more than a decade of living together has seen us both chip away at each other’s neurotic edges and learn to compromise. So we live in a place that has defined areas for chaotic revelry, and tidy/clean at regular intervals to maintain my sanity levels. Hence we’re both now only a little crazy, as opposed to stark raving mad like we were in the beginning. Heh 😀

  9. Such an inspiring post! Home is where my heart is, too, but we are currently in a place that offers *no* storage space. Unfortunately, we both work from home and have a lot of work supplies, so it feels like we are living in a warehouse. I’m going to use the tips in this post to help fire up the old inspiration and make little changes where I can– thanks!

    1. Thanks!

      The ONLY way we survive is having a lot of additional storage space nowhere near the apartment. We rent a storage locker and have a lot of things in the garage. Clutter is death to even the prettiest and nicest home!

      Right now, in the apartment, I use for storage: 1) a plastic tub hidden beneath my desk (which is covered in fabric, so the tub is invisible); 2) lots of bookshelves; 3) an armoire with four very deep, wide shelves; 4) a pantry space with one of those four-level storage baskets that slide in and out (Elfa makes great stuff.) As a writer, I am constantly buried in paper, magazines and newspapers while I work on a bunch of projects at once and need things close at hand.

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