Style notes: 12 ways to make your home (more) lovely

By Caitlin Kelly


I admit it.

I’m obsessed with style, the ability to make our home comfortable and memorable, usually on a budget.

Our home is full of books on design, art, art history — and stacks of interior design magazines. I also studied it in the 90s and now teach at my old school, The New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan.

I was lucky to grow up with parents whose visual sense, always, was strong, eclectic and interesting — from Eskimo sculpture to Japanese uki-o-ye prints to faded wool rugs from the Mideast. Mirrored pieces of bright cotton from India, woven shawls from Peru, early silver.

Having studied art and antiques has also helped me recognize good/old things cheaply and quickly when I find one — like the teapot from 1780 I found upstate for $3, (whose exact twin made the cover of House Beautiful.)

Then I married another highly visual man, a career photographer whose own home when we first met was filled with quirky details and strong colors.

Today, 16 years into our marriage, our apartment is a mix of objects old and new, photos and drawings and posters, things and images we’ve collected on our various travels and adventures, from Ontario to Paris to Mexico.


We even bought our hand-made hammered copper bathroom sink in a small town in Mexico — for $30; knowing the exact dimensions we needed allowed us to buy it with confidence, (and bring it home in our suitcase.)


Here are some images and some ideas…

The ikat is for the headboard, the checks for the tables


Pick a few colors and start collecting textiles, art and objects that relate to one another

It might be bright yellow or hunter green or pale blue. Once you’ve chosen your palette, your eye will start to see it everywhere and you’ll know it will fit nicely with what you already own.


Breakfast on the balcony — everything in the photo acquired through a mix of retail stores on sale (pillow covers, blue bowls), auctions (vintage blue platter, creamer), antique stores (tablecloth), flea markets (coin silver spoons, blue transferware dish and silverplate cutlery) and on-line sites.

Our main living room colors are sage green, a Chinese red, black and cream, echoed across the sofa, rug, throw pillows, curtains; the bedroom a range of soft blues and greens. The living room and hallways are painted a soft yellow-green (Gervase yellow, Farrow & Ball) and the bedroom the crisp green of a Granny Smith apple.

We live on the top floor, staring at tree-tops — inspiration!

A vintage tablecloth, scored in Maine

Mix old and new things

If you love clean, simple minimal design, mix in some older elements to soften the feeling of all that metal, plastic and glass.

You can often find gorgeous bits of silver, glass, crystal and porcelain at local thrift and consignment shops for very little money.

A mix of textures helps as well — linen, wool, velvet, cotton.

Brown furniture is currently deeply unfashionable — hence cheap — and often of terrific quality

Flea markets, auction houses, tag and estate sales and thrift and consignment shops are full of this stuff, often inherited.

One of my best finds, a reproduction Pembroke table, (a style with a drawer and two leaves), came out of a consignment shop in Greenwich, CT. It wasn’t super-cheap ($350) but in excellent condition and is light and versatile.

If you really hate a brown piece of furniture, but it’s well-priced and handsome, you can always paint it.

Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

Keep your eyes peeled


You never know where you’ll find just what you’re looking for, and sometimes in the least likely spot.


We recently dropped into West Elm — a national retail brand known for modern pieces — and found, on sale, four metal brackets to hold wall-mounted plants for our balcony. We also scored three faux branches of mountain laurel, for the price of one week’s fresh flowers.

One day, out for lunch in small-town Ontario, we stopped in at antique shop across the road. Boom! The perfect small lamp we needed for a corner of the bedroom, an early ginger jar, in an unlikely shade of gray. (I had a new white linen shade made to fit.)

Five red goblets — $10 — at our local thrift shop. Score!


I found two large wooden storage boxes at a local plant nursery. I’m not sure what they were supposed to be used for, but I stacked them and made them into a side table. A former grain measure (I think!) now holds magazines.

When I needed a lot of fabric, cheaply, I found a couple of printed cotton shower curtains on sale and used them for curtains, a headboard cover and a table cover.

A table set for one of our dinner parties. We love to entertain and do it often.

Keep a tape measure handy and use your camera phone

The only way to be sure that a piece of art of furniture is going to fit into your home, (and play nicely with your current belongings), is if you know exactly what dimensions you need.

If you see something you love in a store but aren’t sure, snap images of it from every angle and measure it carefully.

You can have things shipped

Two of my favorite pieces came from very far away — a great vintage Chinese chair I found in New Orleans and shipped home via UPS and a teal armoire (possibly 18th century) no one wanted (!) when I bid by phone on it through a regional auction house I used to visit when I lived in New Hampshire.

Even with the shipping charges, it cost less than a new piece on sale, made in China.

One of my favorite belongings is a photo I found in Sydney, Australia and sent home to wait for me.

Fresh flowers — a must!

Don’t forget the charm, color and texture of live flowers and plants

We keep fresh flowers and/or plants in every room year-round.

Invest in a few frogs (metal and glass holders for floral stems) and some blocks of Oasis (the green foam florists use to make arrangements), and you can use almost any container to make a pretty display.


Nothing is less expensive or as easy to change if you need a new look — and it can be a chair or stool or box, not an entire room.

If a wooden floor is hideous, paint it!

Don’t be terrified, as so many people are, of: 1) using color; 2) choosing the wrong one. There are tremendous design websites all over the internet to help; I like Apartment Therapy.

A few things to consider: 1) what direction does the room face? (north light is colder); 2) how do you want to feel in that room? Revved-up? Soothed? (choose accordingly); 3) remember that the floor and ceiling are also “colors” in themselves; 4) choose the right finish — glossy is a nice touch here and there, but matte finish usually looks more elegant.

Keep it clean and tidy

There’s no point creating a lovely home if it’s dirty, dusty and cluttered.

One simple and good-looking solution is using baskets to hide magazines, books, assorted mess you haven’t gotten to yet. Like this one, well-made and strong.

The Container Store also offers some great-looking boxes, like these, which we own.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead. I also had to wait years until I could afford it!

Love where you live, right now

It’s easy to say…why bother? It’s a rental or a dorm room or I’m only here for a few years.

It’s your life! It’s your home, whether shared or solo.


Let its beauty nurture you, every single day.



I spied this little guy in a shop window of a children’s clothing store in the 7th arondissement of Paris. I love having him home with us now!

Seek inspiration

There are people who couldn’t care less about how their home looks — but some of them are simply freaked out by the whole idea of decorating or home improvement: Where to start? What to choose? I’m broke, dammit!

Every image, every bit of light and shade I see, can inspire me visually. It might be the symmetry of an allee of trees or the curve of a Moorish arch. It might be the bubbled glass of a 17th century window.

Put down your phone/computer and really look, long and thoughtfully, at the world around you.

Snap photos. Make notes. Revel in beauty!

$31. Score!

30 thoughts on “Style notes: 12 ways to make your home (more) lovely

      1. That was my plan…but I decided (for better or worse) to stay in journalism.

        Interior design, if you work for yourself, relies on a very steady, solid stream of work from people with a lot of money to spend. I didn’t want to work in a firm but knew I needed more skills than we learned in school.

      2. I am a Kindergarten teacher… I proudly design young minds right now…I’ve been sidelined with Lyme disease for the better part of this past school year, but with a lot of work on my part and help from natural practitioners, I am slowly getting back to a more normal life style. I started my blog to chronicle my learning but also as a way to help those who may be newly afflicted. Thank you for reading and commenting! I look forward to more design inspired posts by you to learn from! I do put flowers all around my home…I have a perennial garden, but I definitely need to be more creative in my room design.

  1. I’m definitely doing the one on old and new. Most of my stuff is secondhand, though there are a few new things mixed in.
    I’m hoping to get a couch eventually, but first I have to save up a bit more money. That might take a couple of paychecks, but I’m hopeful.

    1. You might be able to find a very high-quality couch very affordably at a local thrift or consignment shop. Even if it’s not your exact taste, you can toss an Indian bedspread over it and eventually get a nice slip-cover made.

      But I suspect that’s too much work. 🙂

      1. Yeah, I’ve been considering the thrift shop near me for a while. They actually have some quality furniture there, so perhaps it’s a possibility. There’s also a furniture shop down the road from me. The exterior looks a little on the skeazy side, but there’s no reason to think the inside isn’t cool and the prices aren’t affordable. We’ll see what happens in the next few months.

      2. Buy the very best quality possible, even if used. We’re still (!) sitting on a loveseat I bought in the 1980s, since slip-covered a few times. It’s held up well.

      3. An eighties loveseat? Somehow that’s stirring something in my imagination.
        Ever since I moved into my new apartment and started working, I’ve been having ideas up the wazoo. I wonder what I’ll come up with based on what you said. 😉

      4. Just try to make it cohesive! The worst error a lot of people make is throwing all their ideas into a room at once — and it’s visually exhausting!

        Often, people will choose a color scheme based on a rug (NOT BLACK!) or a poster or piece of artwork. I would avoid (very male) a HUGE black or brown leather couch. It’s just a big fat shiny lump of color. 🙂

    2. deborah wilburn

      two words: Craig’s List. I bought a fantastic couch for about $200, a Restoration table and two matching chairs, a Restoration Hardware flute lamp ($100), a Pottery Barn armoire, fraction of the cost, perfect condition. The thing about CL is you need to be patient. But you can find the underpinnings before adding the finishing touches that make a house a home. Caitlin has an amazing sense of style and her apt. is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing these tips …

  2. Hey Caitlin – I was re-reading this old post and have a question. In terms of the re-purposing of the old shower curtains, is that something you’ve done yourself, or something you had a professional do? I have a very oddly shaped vintage sofa in my house that I’d love to cover, but don’t know how!

    1. I have never dared trying anything like doing my own upholstery!

      It’s not cheap to pay someone but I think it’s a pretty specific skill. Would also caution VERY strongly about choosing the right fabric — I bought a very pretty cotton years ago to recover a love-seat, and within a few years it had shredded because it wasn’t upholstery weight for a sofa; those fabrics are subjected to specific testing to make sure they last.

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