How to create a lovely outdoor space

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By Caitlin Kelly

Our balcony is on the top floor — sixth — and it’s 72 square feet of heaven. The minute it’s warm enough, we’re out there from dawn to dusk, savoring birdsong, Hudson River views, stars and cool breezes.

It’s not that difficult to make a small space affordably cheery and welcoming, but it can feel overwhelming when you start. Ours has zero inherent charm — red brick walls and a grey painted concrete floor.

Think of your outdoor space — whether a patio, balcony, terrace, verandah — as another room of your home with the same needs: comfortable seating, lighting, something soft and pretty underfoot — lots of color and texture.

Some tips:

Choose a color scheme and stick to it

Blue and green are perennial favorites, mimicking the colors of nature. If you’re in the city, surrounded by concrete — maybe bright yellow or brilliant fuchsia is more your speed. Ours are a light olive green, cobalt blue, navy blue and white. I chose our plant colors as well to play nicely with our cushions and tablecloths — planting only blue/purple lavender and salvia, deep purple lobelia and lantana — plus bright pops of orange.

 

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Invest in solid, attractive planters, pots and window-boxes

Jose’s my in-house carpenter and has twice designed and made lovely wooden planters, lined with plastic and gravel. Made of simple plywood, we painted them green and added a glossy navy blue trim for contrast.

Over the years, we’ve added some quality pots of varying sizes, (all in blue and green), a growing investment. If terrible weather looms (hail!), bring them indoors when possible and store them away from ice and snow. I found these fantastic navy blue ceramic planters this year at Home Depot.

 

Create a comfortable seating area

It might be a few chairs (please, not flimsy plastic!) —  woven bistro-style or durable powder-coated metal or a wooden bench or a lounger. Years ago, my first husband built a solid six-foot-wide wooden bench that I’m still using 25 years later, albeit with replaced top and bottom. With three wide cushions on top, it becomes a banquette, while also storing all our hardware, painting tools and leftover potting soil.

We’ve collected throw pillows for years, some custom-made from vintage fabrics, some custom-made of new fabric and some store-bought. We lean them against the (sturdy) glass divider separating us from our neighbor and — voila! — dining/seating area.

 

Shade?

If your space offers no natural shade, consider a patio umbrella or, if you own your home, an awning.

 

Table?

How big a table can your space accommodate? Ours is 36 inches wide and perfect for dinner for four. Yours can be made of pretty much anything, (wood, metal, glass), but will need to withstand weather! Ours is a powder-coated model from Crate & Barrel, and has lasted for many years. It’s light enough to move easily and folds flat.

 

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Lighting matters

This can be the most challenging. This year I scored three gorgeous, huge lanterns from one of my favorite sources — Jamali Garden — a Manhattan-based company whose selection of every possible garden-related item is both fantastic and surprisingly affordable. Mine were (!!) only $17 apiece — much less costly than competing offers from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. I also bought 12 navy blue votive holders to line our windowsill. You can string Christmas lights, use hurricane lamps, even (if safe enough!) old-time kerosene lanterns.

 

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Rugs!

We have a very large plastic one (blue and white, of course) but this year I added a small blue and white rag rug for under my feet. Much nicer! There are many options now for outdoor rugs and even if it sounds impossibly splurge-y, it’s a great choice: they can be hosed down, stored during the winter and soften and cover nasty stone/concrete/worn-out wood beneath.

 

Plants and flowers

I’m not a great gardener, for sure, but opening our balcony door to a profusion of color and scent is such a treat! The tallest planter this year holds fragrant lavender and rosemary, while the purple salvia is a positive bee-fest. Make sure whatever you choose is suited to the amount of sun, shade and wind of your outdoor space.

There are so many great retail sources for all of these items — but don’t forget your local thrift and consignment shops, estate sales and flea markets, with lots of charm and low prices. Consider re-purposing a bright Indian-print coverlet as a tablecloth…

My favorite (American) retailers for outdoors design and accessories include:

Ballard Designs, Serena & Lily, Fermob, Wisteria, Frontgate, Jamali Garden, Crate & Barrel, Mothology, Anthropologie.

Making a pretty home: customize, re-purpose, DIY and upcycle

By Caitlin Kelly

The next instalment…stay tuned for the final one on framing your art and photos!

The real fun of making your home pretty is, for some people,  also the satisfaction of making it yours in small and telling details — from nice dishtowels that pick up the room’s colors to choosing and replacing nasty/worn/outdated hardware, whether on a chest of drawers, closet doors, kitchen cabinets and/or your front door knocker.

Even if you’re renting, there are many ways to make a space personal and absolutely individual.

Here are a few ideas:

Repurpose

When I decided we needed a fresh new look for our tired-looking fabric headboard and old curtains, I dreaded the yardage cost of nice fabric, let alone all the labor required to cut and sew it. Solution? Three $25 shower curtains from West Elm, whose large scale and clear, fresh colors were exactly what I needed; two curtains became our curtains and the third, torn to fit and tucked into the old headboard’s crevices, became basic fabric to use as needed. (Fabric sold by the yard is typically 54 inches wide, while most shower curtains are 72 inches in width.)

I found two great-looking bamboo/rattan storage boxes at my local garden supply store and, stacked one atop the other, they hold CDs in the lower one and all our nasty-looking extension and electronics charge cords in the smaller one on top; stuff is easy to find, and all that clutter is hidden. Sitting on top of that is a lovely early cutlery or candle box, bought at an auction or antique store, that perfectly fits/hides/keeps handy all our television remotes.

Olive, cream and taupe -- oh, my!
Olive, cream and taupe — oh, my!I fell in love with these gorgeous heavy cotton print napkins  — imagine what a gorgeous pillow cover they would make when (hand)-sewn together!

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This fabulous purple, cream, gray and black print fabric is a shower curtain at Anthropologie, for $88 and could make a fantastic headboard cover large enough even for a queen or king headboard. There’s a whole color scheme right there.

Customize

I found a great red and black wool flat-weave rug in a Toronto antique store for $125. It just needed some trim or edging; I bought two wide pieces of black Ultrasuede and added them to each end, (sewn on by our local dry cleaner). Much better!

Even the most tedious of dressers — found on the curb? At a consignment shop or thrift shop? — can be sanded and then painted any color you like and jazzed up with new and unusual knobs, like these ones below I selected from the dozens on offer at (yes, again) Anthropologie. Even your local hardware store or Home Depot has some great options for very little money, like these or these. Changing the knobs or handles on your furniture or kitchen cabinets can add a totally new look for little cash.

Ceramic, enamel, glass...lots of choices!
Ceramic, enamel, glass…lots of choices!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upcycle

The world is full of great finds — but some need your creativity, vision, and sweat equity to get them there. When you need a piece of furniture or a lamp, especially, haunt your local thrift and consignment shops, flea markets and antique stores first for interesting options. If a piece is cheap enough, (i.e. has no intrinsic historic or esthetic value as is, to you or others,) change it! Paint it, stain it, or chop a dining table’s legs down to make it into a coffee table, for example.

Focus on the shape, size and condition of the object, not just its current color.

If it’s a lamp base, for example, it might be perfect in another color, or with a fresh new lampshade, maybe in a different size, color or shape. (Lampshades come in a dizzying array of options — round, rectangular, square, curved — and in thick paper and fabrics from burlap, linen, cotton and silk. Check out Ballard Designs for inspiration.)

$55 for the base + paint + new shade and finial. Done!
$55 for the base + paint + new shade and finial. Done!

Here’s a bedside lamp I found I found in an antiques shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for $55. It was then a sickly pale mint green with pink striping, but (measure!) I knew it was exactly the height I needed and could (being plain wood) easily be spray painted the creamy white I wanted to match another lamp already in the room. I bought a new cream silk lampshade and a ceramic finial. Voila!

Finishing touches

I found the fabric for these and had covers custom-made to match my living room's color scheme
I found the fabric for these and had covers custom-made to match my living room’s color scheme

Our pale green velvet sofa, (bought from Crate & Barrel a decade or so ago), had come with narrow piping that, on its cushions, had worn down to the interior threads from daily use. New covers were hopelessly expensive. I racked my brain, then sent the pillow covers to my favorite fabric workroom in (where else?) Middletown, Rhode Island. The owner, Cheryl, is amazing — she chose the weathered rust-colored linen she made into finger-width piping and gave our sofa a fantastic new look. Yay!

It’s not terribly expensive to custom-make (or sew by hand) gorgeous pillow covers for your sofa(s), bed(s) and chairs. A custom look (add welting, piping, ribbon) is easy to accomplish and looks like a million bucks, for much less.

Need help figuring out your next decorating steps?

Send me some photos and let’s do a consult — $150/hour.

Making a pretty home: grace notes

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s the next in my ongoing series, which includes 10 tips; lighting; choosing and using color and customizing/DIY.

If you’d like personalized help or advice, send me some photos and I’m happy to help you find a solution to your decorating dilemma. I charge $150/hour.

As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot in those classrooms!

The smallest home — even a shared dorm room — can still be made personal and lovely. And it doesn’t have to take much money, but a bit of imagination.

A few ideas:

 

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— Look for items that are similar, in size, shape, color and texture. Group them together

A small (or large collection) has much more visual impact than one item. Here are two wooden horses I found in Port Hope, Ontario, a small town east of Toronto. I found the smaller one (new? not sure) at auction for a few dollars. The larger one, hand-carved folk art, was more than that, just over $100. But the pair work nicely together.

— Don’t overlook the beauty, color, texture and life that flowers, greenery and plants can add

But have fun with it. Don’t keep them in their sad little plastic nursery or grocery store pots! A funky antique or vintage tin, a glass jar, a pretty pottery container are so much nicer; this site, Jamali Garden in New York City, is a trove of amazing and affordable ideas. Keep an eye out at your local thrift and consignment shops for affordable ideas and inspiration. I found this terrific metal cachepot at a local consignment shop for $25 and have been adding various pieces of greenery and flowers over weeks, replacing them with fresh ones as needed.

 

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Treat yourself to a few tools, like Oasis, the green foam used by florists to line pots and dishes so you can adapt a wide array of containers to any design you like. A frog, a glass or metal holder into which you stick plant stems, will also offer you more arrangement options.

 

$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!
$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!

— Color!

A calm soothing white/cream/neutrals color scheme is gorgeous (albeit difficult with small children and/or pets). But adding pops of color keeps it fresh. I scored five of these lovely wine glasses for $10 at my local thrift store. So pretty with a holiday table!

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— Add a personal and unexpected detail

This velvet sofa is at least a decade old and the welting had worn thin on the cushions. Replacing it was too costly, so was re-upholstering or slip-covering. All that needed fixing was the welting. But the scale of the welt was also key, something bold and interesting. I looked at plenty of polite, safe pale green options on-line before going in this direction instead. Love it.

 

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— Relate texture and colors to one another

I found this Victorian mirror in Port Hope as well; its soft apricot velvet interior echoes the color of fabric on a table below and several frames we hung nearby. The table-covering is dark embroidered silk (texture, color, pattern), with a pierced copper-colored lantern (texture, color, pattern) atop a bold cotton print (pattern, color.)

 

At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!
At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!

— Keep your eyes open for surprises

I found this pierced metal lantern in, of all places, a shop at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis, when I was out there for a presentation at the University of Minnesota about my book, Malled. I’m a curious traveler and, no matter where I journey, even for a short business trip, I build in a day or two to explore local shops, museums and/or restaurants. Regional tastes can vary widely and you never know what you might find. This one cost very little — $13.50 — so I bought two, (pairs always have more impact!), and shipped them home via FedEx since they were light but too bulky for my suitcase.

 


 

One error many people make is assuming their rooms have to be all-done-all-at-once. Buying everything from one place, whether Ikea or some other retailer, can make a room look cookie-cutter and boring.

If you’ve inherited some nice pieces, find ways to incorporate them, whether some lovely china and glassware or a great old chair (if the shape and condition is good, re-upholstering is well worth it.)

Read design magazines and borrow some books from your local library, (not to mention hundreds of on-line sites for inspiration), to find rooms you find really attractive — so much so you want to go live in them!

Don’t worry if they’re in a huge mansion or tiny cottage; don’t focus on cost or whether you’ll find something just like it. Look at all the details you find appealing and figure out why so you can make (more) thoughtful and informed choices when you buy something to add to your home. 

Clear, fresh colors (lemon yellow, aqua, fresh white) or moody, jewel tones? Worn and weathered surfaces or clean, shiny modern ones? Do you prefer a floor of bare hardwood (and what color)? Or an area rug? Maybe sisal?

The most interesting of all rooms are added to, (and subtracted from!), layer by layer, year after year, decade after decade. The richest, visually, use different textures, tones, materials — like wood, glass, stone, metal, wool, silk, cotton, velvet, mirror and ones that relate to one another the way old friends find much in common to discuss.

Also look at some specific styles of design, whether French, English, Japanese or Swedish; you might find you’re suddenly and deeply passionate about tansu chests, Navajo rugs or bergeres. (Hello, Ebay….)

This book, from 1977, A Pattern Language, is widely considered extremely helpful.

I like this one, Decorating With Pattern, from 1997; (as you can see, the newest books aren’t necessarily the best!)

Of all my many design books, I love Home, by Stafford Cliff, with great photos and interviews with people about their quirky, lovely homes. Certainly the only design book I’ve ever seen with an athlete included (Sebastian Coe)!

Have fun!

 

 

 

Making a pretty home: choosing and using colo(u)r

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the first in a series of four posts, each one focused on an aspect of making your home (more) attractive. As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot, and color theory was one of my favorite classes…

All those teeny, tiny paint chips!

Few decisions are as stressful for many people as choosing the colors for their homes: walls, ceiling, baseboards, floor, front door, interior doors, window trim, shutters.

Not to mention all the rugs, pillows, bedding, furniture, lighting.

Your wisest first step?

A few basic questions:

— Where does the majority of the light in each room come from? If north light, which is cooler in temperature (i.e. bluer), factor that in. If the room gets little natural light, will you paint it a rich, deep jewel tone that absorbs even more light?

The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott's window
The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott’s window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— What do your windows look out onto? We live on the top floor of a suburban building, and face trees, hills and a river, i.e. all natural tones. Maybe you live in the middle of a noisy, crowded city, or out in the quiet countryside. Consider your outdoor surroundings as well.

— What mood to do you hope to create? Bright and cheerful? Calm and soothing? Warm and welcoming? Bohemian gypsy? Formal and elegant? Every color, and combination of them, carries a feeling and a mood. Make sure it’s the one you really want!

— What are the most flattering colors in your wardrobe, the ones you wear again and again? Yes, really. Interior designers often take many of their initial cues by carefully observing what colors their clients wear. Makes sense — if you absolutely love black or navy blue or creamy white, (or coral or pale yellow), why wouldn’t you want these in your home as well?

— How adventurous am I willing to be? Unless your landlord forbids adding color to your walls, it’s all up to you to decide what your choices are: a ruby-red dining room, a bright yellow hallway, a charcoal gray bedroom? Simply defaulting to safe/boring white or beige can leave you and your family stuck in neutral (pun intended.) My living room, over 20+ years, has morphed from grey/beige sponge-painted to a rich deep Chinese red to its current pale yellow/green. The hallway has been several shades of yellow, coral and now the same color as the living room. Paint is the least expensive way to change the look and feel of any room.

— How much physical work/time are you willing to put in? Almost every piece of furniture can be painted to a more interesting and beautiful color. Some of my best finds have been objects that I bought in another color and later painted, like the wooden table lamp whose base was a sickly pale green with pink (!) striping, but the shape, size and price were perfect — $55; a $7 can of matte finish cream color spray paint and it looks fantastic. Ditto the enormous baskets I bought at Crate & Barrel but whose unfinished surfaces didn’t match anything. Two coats of pale turquoise paint later, they’re a nice accent atop an 18th century teal-toned armoire of the same color.

— Find inspiring colors and color schemes everywhere — from hotels, restaurants, even the movies! One iteration of our living room was inspired by the film “Gosford Park”, with deep ruby-colored curtains against rich red walls. Gorgeous! I’m still dreaming of the deep, rich turquoise walls in “The Last Station” about Tolstoy’s final days. The kitchen in “It’s Complicated” is often cited as one of the dreamiest ever.

A fact many people easily forget — the floor itself adds a large block of color! 

Before you start piling on even more new colors, look carefully and critically at each room’s floor color to make sure it will work well with everything else in the room. A common error is buying a bold carpet that ends up visually dominating the space when a softer mix of tones gives you inspiration instead.

The loveliest rooms are so harmonious in their mix of colors that nothing stands out on its own but adds to the overall look.

How, then, to choose the colors for a room?

If you’re starting from scratch, the two common and easiest inspirations are curtain/bedding fabric and/or your rug(s), as most will have a mix of several colors and tones to work from.

 

I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy
I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why solid-tone curtains are difficult! Do you really want an entire wall of…beige? Dark blue? Cold white? Check out the lovely linens from retailers like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie and Zara Home and see what sorts of color combinations speak to you; once you’ve  chosen a harmonious palette, look for ways to repeat it throughout the room, remembering that every piece of furniture in the room, even just the trim, (if it’s wood, for example), adds yet another color to the mix as well.

Download or buy a color wheel, so you understand color relationships.

Red and green are complementary colors, and we tend to associate bright red and deep green with Christmas…but color comes in every possible tone and shade. Our living room works well visually because its color scheme is, at root, red and green — but a variety of reds, from rich bright red (rug) to Chinese red (a chest of drawers) to a burgundy/rust tone as the sofa’s trim. The greens range from sage (velvet sofa) to olive (cotton, loveseat) to pale yellow-green walls.

We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room
We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue and yellow work beautifully together for the same reason. Consider a room in the same tones on the wheel: cool tones like blue, violet, lavender, leavened with cream, silver, white, for example.

I love an English country-house look — a bit weathered, lots of antiques, pattern — and that sharpened my eye when I chose this fabric for our lined bedroom curtains, a metallic-printed linen from Ralph Lauren (yes, he makes fabric, too.) It was surprisingly inexpensive and adds a depth and warmth to the room that thinner, plainer curtains never did.

A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale as well!
A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our vertically striped living room curtains, (like the bedroom, custom-made and lined), also offered a very wide palette of possibilities and I’ve used almost every single color in them, whether in pillows, sofa trim, rug, lighting.

Once you’ve chosen a color palette for each room, find ways to link each object in the room to that scheme — I repainted plain white Pottery Barn picture frames a deep turquoise, for example, in the bedroom.

And keep your color scheme coherent! Few things are more visually exhausting and confusing than a rainbow riot of color in every space.

In our one-bedroom apartment, the dining room and bedroom are a pale, soft gray (Sherwin-Williams Modern Gray), the living room and hallways are Gervase Yellow (Farrow & Ball), the kitchen Clunch, a cool cream (also F & B) and the bathroom a rich mustard (F & B again.)

The pale gray in the bedroom is starting to feel tedious, so it’s soon to become a clear, crisp pale apple green.

When in doubt, look to nature…it’s all there!

 

Gorgeous!  A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom
Gorgeous! A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I can help you — send me your questions and photos! $150/hour.)

 

Making a lovely home: adding grace notes

Every home — even if it’s only one room — needs grace notes,  a few items that simply lift your spirits and make you happy because they’re part of your daily life.

They’re not necessities, and you can always save money by not having them.

But here are some things I love having in our home:

Candles
Candles (Photo credit: magnuscanis)

Candles

Every night, as we sit down to dinner, we light candles around our small, (11 by 10.5 foot), dining room, a mixture of votives and tapers. We dim the chandelier and enjoy our shared meal in soft light. No TV. (We don’t have kids, so this is our choice entirely and probably unthinkable if you do have kids, especially small ones.) But even if you’re eating alone and it’s just mac and cheese, light some candles! A meal is an occasion. It’s an important time to nourish your body and your spirit.

Candlesticks

I have a variety: wood, silver plate, pewter, brass and glass. Check consignment, thrift and antique shops. Buy singles in one material and mix up the shapes and sizes.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Fresh flowers

Every week. Yes, they die. (So do we.) But oh, the beauty! Even one small bud — a freesia or a rose or a peony — in a vase beside the bed gives you something charming to wake up to. Nothing makes me feel richer than when our small apartment has fresh flowers in every room, do-able on a budget of $20-25. This time of year, some pussy willow or flowering branches are nice, and the sharp scent of some eucalyptus stems is always a great-looking option. Stock up on Oasis, (the green foam blocks that florists use, and sell) and a few frogs (the metal or glass stem holders you drop into a pot or vase) and you’ll be able to make interesting arrangements, in a wide range of containers, (a vintage teacup?), with ease.

Plants

Something fresh, green and growing reminds us, especially during an interminable winter, that life is all around us. I put my plants in funky containers I find in flea markets or antique stores, like a round turquoise metal tin that once held honey. A plant can cost as little as $5 and last for months, well cared for.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Objects

Whatever your heart desires! Some of the objects currently on display in our place are these carved wooden horses. I found them both in Ontario — the larger one in an antique shop, the small one at auction. The larger one, whom we’ve named St. Andrew for the church we were married in, is a piece of folk art; the smaller one has no markings of any sort. He might be brand new, or not. But I love how they ended up, by accident, going so nicely together.

This early heavy glass bowl is now (sigh) badly cracked, (I placed a candle too close to it), but still works, holding a collection of Christmas ornaments I bought at Pottery Barn a few years ago. In candlelight they glow.

Here’s a perfect example of what I mean; a small collection of small vintage clocks, from a house tour on Apartment Therapy.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Picture frames

So many choices! The simplest sketch, or magazine photo, or your wedding invitation or a ticket to a show you loved gains prominence in a handsome frame. A small collection of similar color/shaped frames makes a great little tablescape.

Textiles

I collect textiles of all sorts, from antique paisley woolen and cashmere shawls to bits of new stuff I make into pillow covers or tablecloths. Vintage linens have fantastic details, like faggoting, crochet, cross-stitch — all the sorts of handiwork almost no one does anymore.

Photos

Don’t just store them on your phone or computer. Spend an afternoon going through your favorites, from a holiday or a family gathering, print them out and assemble them on a memory wall or family wall.

Trays

Nothing is nicer than breakfast in bed! And the only way to have breakfast in bed, comfortably, is with a small tray with deep sides, (so things don’t slide off and crash to the floor.) Also useful for holding teapot, milk, cup and saucer, spoon and a little dish of something, say about 4:30 p.m on a cold, gray Sunday afternoon.

Aprons

Easily forgotten, a large apron, preferably with pockets, makes food prep and cooking a lot more fun when you’re not worried about getting grease or sauce on your clothes. Look for a butcher-style, so long and wide it wraps around you.

Cloth napkins

Linen or cotton, they add color and style to every table. I’ve never used paper. Flea markets are a great place to pick up old soft linen napkins in bundles of six or eight, sometimes with fantastic embroidery or colors.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Interesting containers

My desk holds a Victorian silver-plate child’s cup (pencils) and a green glazed ginger jar (pens.) Our television remotes sit in an antique wooden cutlery box, both organized and unseen in a handsome container that’s nice to look at. I recently bought a small ceramic dish for one of my favorite editors, (a man of impeccable style), useful for pens and pencils on a desk or as a vide-poche — a place to dump out change from your pockets at day’s end; literally, a pocket-emptier. We use covered baskets, including this one, to stash magazines, extension cords and our insane collection of ugly electronics chargers.

Dimmers

We have a dimmer on both bathroom lights and in the dining room. Few things are as depressing and unflattering as light glaring into your eyes 24/7, which is the lot of anyone working in an office under fluorescent lighting. The only thing nicer than a long bubble bath is one enjoyed under soft lighting.

What grace notes make your home happier?

Making a lovely home: what to buy and where to put it

English: A tape measure. Deutsch: Massband
English: A tape measure. Deutsch: Massband (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This comment on my last post has made me wonder how to be more helpful:

“The best way to have an attractive home is to have a design sense. It is not about how much it costs or where you buy it, but about what you buy and where you put it.”

Buying and placing furniture and objects feels intimidating and overwhelming and confusing to many people.

There are so many choices — and money is never endless — so what is the right thing to buy?

Think of your home as you do your wardrobe, something you build over time, adding better quality when possible.

Whatever your gender, you always need basics: a dress or suit (something elegant); some casual trousers (khakis, jeans, leggings, whatever), and so on. We tend to buy clothes without a ton of hand-wringing, and know that our tastes are bound to change over 5 or 10 or 15 years — or maybe months!

We also know, intuitively, that buying better quality means enjoying your things longer.

Then we add fun, color and personality with ties, scarves, socks, jewelry, stockings, pocket handkerchiefs. Your home needs some of that as well, not just the basics.

What to buy:

A sofa or loveseat

I’d vote for a loveseat: cheaper, more versatile, easier to move (physically) and less expensive to re-upholster or slip-cover. Much as it seems like a fab choice, I’d skip brown or black leather. What people forget is that every single thing in your space, (including the color of your floors), adds a color to the overall mix. Do you really want a huge hunk of something shiny and black or brown in the middle of your living room?

New Orleans This is the living room finished. ...
This room has  a nice mix of colors and shapes (note the three circles). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An attractive and sturdy bookcase

You can make one from plywood and paint or sand it any color your like, not just white, black or brown, the normal colors you’ll find at Ikea, for example. Don’t assume you have to buy stuff from a store. You can design one and even have a carpenter make it for you for the same price. Our living room bookcases, low enough to double as end tables, are painted a deep olive green.

A table large enough to seat four to six people

Round, oval, square or rectangular. Glass? Marble? Wood? Antique or reproduction? Some tables come with leaves so you can easily expand them. The best tables are adaptable for use as a desk or dining area. In a small space, a glass table takes up much less visual room than a chunk of dark brown wood.

Table lamps

No overhead lighting! (If you must, on a dimmer, always.) Very few sources of overhead lighting — certainly ceiling lights — shed sufficient light to read, cook, work or relax, or offer a flattering light. Table lamps, with customized shades in fabric or cardboard, can add color, interest and style to any interior.

Rug
Rug (Photo credit: Irish Typepad)

Throw rugs

Rugs do not have to be dark or wool or huge. Nor should they add eye-blasting hits of color or pattern. Exhausting! So much of what’s on offer is really ugly. Flat weave rugs — like kilims and dhurries — are easy to move from room to room, easy to wash, (I clean mine in the bathtub with Woolite) and add lovely color and pattern. Sisal with a colored border is crisp, clean and adds texture. Wall-to-wall can look granny-ish and get really dirty and smelly if you have kids and pets.

A mix of shapes

This is easy to overlook. So many pieces are rectangles, (sofa, tables, bookcases, rugs), or squares. It gets really monotonous. Look at every item you own, or are thinking of adding — can you soften the room by adding in something that’s a circle, half-circle or oval? That might be a mirror, a demi-lune table, a side table or a pair of stools.

Something old, weathered and interesting to look at

It might be an old store sign or a tin toy from the 20s or a mixing bowl from the 1940s. Unless your taste is 100 percent contemporary, you’ll want a mix of old and new to add character.

Decorative mirrors and frames

We have two in our living room and one (so far) on the bedroom wall. They add light, depth and fill up the space nicely without adding a lot of additional color. Frames in silver, gold or cream are easier on the eye and more versatile than (yes, she repeats) black or brown. I buy cream-colored frames from Pottery Barn and paint them whatever color suits me.

Throw pillows

Even the most boring, basic sofa can perk right up with some terrific throw pillows. Same for your bed.

Where to put it:

That’s where your eye — and your family’s needs — come in.

In general, you need 24 inches between every item; i.e. sofa and bookcase.

Buy and use a tape measure to educate your eye about scale and proportion. Look at your rooms the way a stranger might — a realtor or buyer — and see what seems to work and what doesn’t.

Move stuff around! I’ve lived in my one bedroom apartment since 1989 and have changed my living room arrangement a few times over the years as I get bored or acquire new items. I bought two round metal side tables for bedside use — one now sits in the living room and another in a corner. A chest of drawers might work better in a hallway or dining room. Don’t be too literal about where things “should” go. Our bed sits in the middle of the room so we wake up every morning facing north up the river.

Every room needs a mixture of textures, colors, sizes, shapes and heights. If everything in the room is tiny, find something large to mix things up — a huge poster, a rug, a cabinet. If everything is enormous, a collection of small drawings or photos on one wall gives the eye a break.

Look for, and create, relationships between things — our dining room is pale gray and almost everything, (photos, engravings, fabric and drawings), is an image of Paris, my favorite city. The color scheme is neutrals, including the artwork: gray, cream, brown and black, (the picture frames are mostly dark wood, for example.)

How much light does each room get? Designers have very mixed views on this. Some say keep a dark room pale and add lots of light and mirror while others say make it cozy with deep rich tones.

Making your home lovely — on the cheap

It’s an ongoing challenge for many of us — how to make your home attractive and affordably? Dorm room, shared flat or your very own first house, the basics remain the same: you need charm, color, texture, function and comfort.

The world is jammed with design blogs, like Design Sponge, so there’s no shortage of advice out there for the taking. I love this post — the Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture — from one of my absolute favorite blogs, Apartment Therapy.

For you Pinterest fans, here’s a post on using it for this purpose.

I’ve been making a pretty home since I left my parents’ house at 19. Few things are as nurturing and healing as a home that makes you smile every time you open the front door, and few as draining and depressing as hating your four walls, (and ceiling and floor.)

In the late 1990s, I also studied at the New York School of Interior Design, which I absolutely loved.

Here are some of my tricks, and some images from our home:

Consignment shops

You can find terrific deals in consignment shops, (places where people leave quality stuff and hope for a percentage of the sale price.) I snagged a glass pitcher for $12 and a reproduction wooden Pembroke table, at one of my favorite spots in Greenwich, CT, about a 30 minute drive from my home. Greenwich is one of the nation’s wealthiest towns, so their cast-offs are awesome! The table wasn’t super-cheap — $350 — but well worth it; light, versatile, classic and well-made.

Thrift shops

People give away stuff all the time without a clue as to its real value, just to get rid of it easily. Visit often and you’ll score furniture, lamps, china, cookware and linens for pennies.

Auctions

Not every auction house is as pricy or scary as Sotheby’s! I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire, and attended a weekly auction nearby for almost 18 months. I learned a lot — like how to distinguish between the real thing and a reproduction or to know that a “marriage” means joining together two pieces that don’t belong together but look impressively old anyway. Read a few books on antiques, and you’ll pick up the basics of what a truly old, (often valuable but underpriced), object looks like. Keep your eye out for lower-priced treasures like quality rugs, serving pieces and candlesticks. This is a fantastic list of every antique term, from a comprehensive British website all about buying antiques.

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I found this flat-weave wool rug for $125 in a Toronto antique store. It had raggedy edges so I bought some black Ultrasuede and had our local dry cleaner add it to each end, for an additional $30.

The wooden box pictured here was about $10 at auction — perfect size for magazines.

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Curbside

Our bedroom door came from the curb, i.e. someone threw it out! It’s probably from the 1930s or so. I like its round brass knob.

Fabric stores

They always have remnants, cheap. Even a yard or two of gorgeous fabric, hand-stitched into a pillow cover, can add pizzazz to your chair, sofa or bed.

We’ve had this Crate and Barrel china cabinet for ages. I got tired of looking at dishes, so added this fun fabric, for about $40, inside the glass. It picks up the room’s theme, which is photos and engravings of Paris.

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Paint

The cheapest way to make everything look fresh and new. A quart of paint  — about $20 or so — can totally change the look of a small bookcase, a stiff cardboard lampshade, stool, chair, table or chest of drawers. Consider adding a hit of pure red, creamy white, glossy black, chartreuse or tangerine.

Save up for the good stuff!

I once waited for years, literally, until I could afford exactly the only lamp I wanted, the Tizio by Richard Sapper, a classic. It cost me a staggering $500 in the mid-1980s, (today, a small version is $300+), but I still use it every day and love it. I’ve never once regretted buying quality. I’m still (!) sitting on the sofa I bought in Toronto in the 1980s, slip-covered. It’s not cheap when you buy it — but if you amortize the cost over 10+ years, it is.

English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972)
English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shop everywhere

Garden stores, gourmet shops, sporting goods stores. You never know what you’ll find. I snagged a pair of fab pierced metal lamps at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis — for $13.50 apiece. I’d actually just gone there for lunch, but decided to poke around. I discovered sheets of soft, pliable, versatile copper at a local yacht supply store, a great material for lamps, votive liners, even covering a kitchen countertop. Jose was in Tucson teaching a workshop when he found some spectacular talavera planters and plates he shipped home. I hand-carried small framed prints home from Stockholm.

Including places you think you can’t afford

Everyone has sales sometime. Anthropologie has lovely homegoods, often on sale, as well as these sites I love, Mothology and Wisteria.

Use your imagination!

I found an old Chinese wooden frame ($75) and ordered up a custom-cut antiqued bit of mirror to put behind it from a glazier. It’s now our bathroom mirror; total cost $125.

Antique shows and flea markets

I scored a fantastic Moroccan metal lantern for $15 by arriving early at a local antiques fair. I had it sand-blasted smooth for $50 by my local auto body shop and painted it a delicious red from Farrow & Ball. (The coppery metal one beside it is a $12 on-sale find from Pier One.)

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Stock a tool box and know how to use it

Hammer, pliers, staple gun, screwdriver, small saw, wood glue, nails and screws. A small hand-held sander is a great help, easily stored. Keep a supply of plastic dropsheets and foam brushes. Be ready to sand, stain, re-size and re-paint your finds as needed. Or make your own stuff to fit difficult spaces; Jose created three fantastic planters for our balcony from sheets of plywood we cut and painted.

What cool things have you done to make your home lovely on a budget?