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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!