Making a pretty home: 10 tips

By Caitlin Kelly

Most of us want to create a pretty, tidy and harmonious home, whether you’re living with four room-mates and in college, jammed into your first tiny solo apartment or making sense of a larger home.
It seems like it should be easy, as there are so many resources online now, from Apartment Therapy (which includes houses and is excellent) to Houzz.

But it’s still, for many people, a deeply confusing and overwhelming process: choosing the colors for walls, floors, ceilings, front door, baseboards; selecting the size and shape and color of your sofa and chairs; rugs, lighting, curtains (or blinds? Or none?)…

And most of us have limited time, energy and budgets.

I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan and planned to leave journalism to work in that field. I didn’t, but I learned a great deal and it’s reflected in our home, a one-bedroom apartment in a 1960s six-story apartment building north of New York City. We own it, so we have also invested some money in a full renovation of our one very small (5 by 7 feet) bathroom and galley kitchen.

Here, with lots of photos, are some ideas you might find useful as well:



























1) Seek inspiration!

It’s really difficult to design a room, let alone a home of any size, without some inspiring ideas about what you like: Modern and sleek? (Read Dwell magazine.) Historic and formal and elegant? (Try Traditional Home.) Cosy and weathered? (the UK version of Country Life.) I don’t use Pinterest, but it’s very useful in this respect. Your local library will also have gorgeous reference books whose images you can photocopy. Here are four magazines I read often, if not monthly, and have for many years. I get tons of great ideas from them, especially about small spaces (European homes are often much smaller), interesting color combinations (like lime green and chocolate brown) and mixed periods, like a super-contemporary lamp over a battered farm table.










2) Group your art

The focus here, on the long (25 foot) wall of our living room, is a vintage photo given to us by a neighbor cleaning out his garage. It’s an amazing image, probably no later than 1905 and possibly from the 1880s, and we were delighted to get it. He also gave us (!) the two lovely smaller pieces to the left of it, both original framed prints. The small images above the photo I found in antiques shops, the egg in Vermont and the dog in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The image at the far right is my own photo of a staircase in an 18th century building on the Ile St. Louis in Paris.



























3) Look around your home

in every room, for items that — when placed together — will have an artistic or interesting relationship to one another: frames, mirrors, photos, small objects like a box or an animal or bird. This grouping, in a corner of our living room, includes: a pierced metal lantern with a candle in it, ($12 on sale at Pier One); two small metal birds (our local garden shop); a vintage silk embroidered shawl (local antique shop); a Victorian ceramic vase (Toronto antique shop); two marble bits of statuary ($25, antiques show) and a huge Victorian mirror ($125, Port Hope, Ontario antique shop.) I’ve owned some of these items for decades, but it’s the combination that’s fun: echoing shape, size, color and texture with a mix of scale. I added a small spotlight ($12, Home Depot) for a bit of drama, adding both shadows and reflections in the mirror behind.



























4) Customize what you have.  We bought this Crate and Barrel armoire many years ago (it’s still available, in a slightly different version, for $1,299), but I hate looking at stuff. Inside the armoire are plates, glasses, serving pieces, candlesticks — a visually exhausting mess. I lined the doors with this charming map-of-Paris print, on linen, which was inexpensive, referenced other Parisian/French elements in the place, and gave us a nice neutral that wasn’t as boring as plain beige would have been.

5) Add unusual and lovely fresh flowers and/or plants. I found this deep, wide metal cachepot for $25 at my favorite consignment shop and have been adding fresh flowers and interesting greenery to it for weeks. I always have fresh flowers and plants in every room, even in the bathroom, as a touch of color and beauty. Really nice on a cold, gray rainy or snow day, especially!










6) Shop often. I don’t mean spend a lot of money or make hasty impulse buys! But every month or so, I treat myself to a visit to a few favorite shops, whether thrift, consignment, garden or Big Box, to see what’s out there. I scored a gorgeous set of red glass goblets at my local thrift shop — $10 for five — recently. Favorite sources include Anthropologie (on sale!) for terrific housewares and linens and flea markets.










7) Think about including textiles in the mix. If you have pets and/or small/messy children, maybe not. But textiles’ colors, textures and patterns, especially vintage pieces– whether a lovely duvet cover, a knitted throw for the sofa, a cover for a chair or table — can add tremendous charm without a lot of cost or taking up precious space. I’ve covered my desk with a 19th century paisley shawl, my corner table with a 19th century silk shawl and my armchair with a 19th century carriage blanket. None were especially costly; try or regional/country auction houses for great finds in this department.



























8) Upgrade to better quality and design whenever possible.

Unless you’re wealthy and can afford to buy everything you want the very second you want it, you may have to postpone high quality purchases. I recently spent $300, (yes, really), for three new cream-colored silk lampshades. They’re clean, fresh, elegant, and a huge improvement on the cheap crappy ones I was using until I had the spare income to finally upgrade. Even a fresh set of pillowcases or hand towels can make a significantly cheery difference to your space.

9) Visit museums galleries and open houses to see how others have handled space and texture and material. The pro’s know!

10) Use your cellphone camera every day. Whether you see a cool texture on the sidewalk or a colored wall in a store or restaurant that inspires you — or a scene you’d like to frame and display in your home — that little camera will keep your eye fresh.

Here are just a few images I’ve collected in the past year for visual inspiration.

Need help? I can work from photos! Email me at; $150/hour.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Isn't this gorgeous? It's a lamp on the Pratt campus, where I teach
Isn’t this gorgeous? It’s a lamp on the Pratt campus, where I teach
A restaurant table in Brooklyn
A restaurant table in Brooklyn







26 thoughts on “Making a pretty home: 10 tips

  1. I like your idea of collecting cell phone photos for visual inspiration. The problem is that my cell phone is a 14-year-old Nokia, sans internet or a camera! I really should get a new phone….do you have any recommendations? Although I do quite like not having the temptation to stare at a screen when I’m out and about….so many people walk along glued to their phone screens!

  2. Gosh, a great eye. I pour over Architectural Digest and the US Country Living to name just two (I even like to scan HGTV mag at times). But since I have retired I’ve spent no money on decorativepieces. Maybe I will reconsider and scout out the vintage and second hand places more…A very fun and informative piece. More please, Caitlin.

    1. Thanks, Cynthia! Happy to do more on this. I love it.

      The American version of Country Living recently changed editors and their design esthetic changed drastically as a result so I stopped reading it. I like AD but Elle Decor is (while still opulent) is more global and quirky.

      The best ever is World of Interiors. OMG. 🙂

      1. Hmmmm. Have you tried Googling that? I know there are certainly more trade-focused magazines (i.e. written for and read by professional designers and architects) but I haven’t drilled down into it…Some newspapers also cover architecture (spottily) — the NYT and the Guardian do, as does (occasionally) the weekend Financial Times.

  3. Wow that Apartment Therapy website is absorbing! I’m coming up to year 2 as a nomad and the boy (who is on year 5) and I have often talked about having a space of our own somewhere, one day when we’re too decrepit to travel too much anymore. It’s probably going to be tiny apartment like space, as neither of us are mad about owning/maintaining/being caught up in property.

    I have to say, having spent a fair few months in Copenhagen in various friends/family apartments over the past couple of years, I am extremely appreciative of the Danish aesthetic, especially when it comes to making small spaces feel welcoming and hyggelig:
    – light colours throughout,
    – minimal stuff (limited to key pieces)
    – smart storage solutions on walls (keeping the floor free of things contributes greatly to that spacious feeling, i’ve learnt).

    Last summer we rented an apartment very similar in layout and building materials to this:

    But it belonged to a student, so it was furnished sparsely with a couple of new things (bed, kitchen utensils) from Ikea, and everything else in there looked like used office pieces from the 80s. It worked great though!

    Have i mentioned that Apartment Therapy site is really absorbing? 🙂

    1. OMG…I could spent entire days/nights reading and loving AT…shall I make you a teeny bit jealous and say that its founder designed our friends’ NYC apartment? Loved it…admired it…and found out it was his eye. Too funny!

      How much longer are you in Copenhagen? (or are you still in NM? Cannot keep track.) I am in Europe and free to roam from Jan 9-18.

      1. I’m still in Santa Fe, 4 days away from flying to Singapore for the festive season. We only go to Copenhagen during the summer. Presently enjoying New Mexico and a light dusting of snow here and there (I don’t see a lot of snow so it’s really exciting!). I love Santa Fe. I would seriously love to live here for a while.

        How are you enjoying Paris??? (that’s where you are right?)

      2. We love SF…Jose’s home town. Have only been there once, May or June of 2000. I loved Taos, but it’s too small for me to live there.

        Still in NY; we leave for Paris Dec. 20. Can’t wait!

      3. Thanks. I know the city fairly well but it’s my first time there in five (!) years, which is way too long. I’ll have 2 weeks there…and hopefully will post pix as well.

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