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

By Caitlin Kelly

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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…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Re-purpose

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.

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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.

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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.

Paint!

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.

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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.

 

 

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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!

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$31. Score!

As fall arrives…

By Caitlin Kelly

A vintage tablecloth scored this summer in Maine
A vintage tablecloth scored this summer in Maine

As some of you know from my previous posts, I’m obsessed with, addicted to…ahem..enjoy designing our home.

I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design, which has trained some of the best designers in the U.S., and learned a great deal about color, texture, materials and how to create a welcoming interior space. I had hoped to change careers from journalism but decided, for a variety of reasons, to continue as a writer, albeit one passionate, always, about beauty and assembling a space that’s both elegant and comfortable.

We live in a one-bedroom apartment that overlooks trees and the Hudson River. The building itself is nothing special. I find it pretty ugly, frankly — a 1960s red brick slab, six stories, with no architectural merit, even after 20+ years here.

But the landscaping is lovely, and we sit atop a high hill with great views…from our building’s southern exposure, (we face northwest), you can literally see the towers of lower Manhattan.

Inside our (nasty beige metal) door?

I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend's home in Maine
I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend’s home in Maine

It’s English country house:

— layered textiles, a mix of old and new, of flea market finds and some valuable photos and antiques, my father’s oil paintings, my husband’s images and my photos, photos of us and our families, etchings and engravings, posters from Paris and Mexico and Australia…

Fresh flowers and plants, always!

A table set for one of our dinner parties
A table set for one of our dinner parties

I buy and read a range of design magazines, from Elle Decor, House Beautiful and Architectural Digest to Period Living, Country Living, House & Garden (all British) and, occasionally, one of the gorgeous Cote series from France or World of Interiors.

It’s one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon. And I learn something every time I read one — about color, tone, mixing things up, design history. Even if the home featured is, (and in the UK ones, it is sometimes!), a castle or enormous mansion, I always find some inspiration and sheer visual pleasure.

I haven’t lived in a house since 1988 when we rented a flat in a New Hampshire house. I often hanker for a house, (a small, old one — 1840s or earlier), but our finances don’t allow for a second home and I like where we live right now.

My esthetic is eclectic, a little bohemian, but polished.

I like bold and interesting prints (in small doses.) I like patina, craquelure, weathered wood (but immaculate walls, windows and sills.) I love candles in all shapes and sizes, from votives to pierced lanterns that show glorious shadows. Textiles, especially vintage or ethnic.

I find things affordably everywhere: flea markets, auctions, department stores, discount stores, consignment shops, thrift shops, garden supply stores. (Yes, I’ve even traveled with bubble wrap).

From London, Paris, Stockholm, Istanbul, Mexico, Toronto, I’ve brought home early ceramics, 18th century prints, a tray and even our bathroom sink — ($32, handmade copper)  — from Mexico.

Over the decades, I’ve invested most heavily in a few fine case goods, (two armoires, three chests of drawers) and Jose and I both enjoy a small but good collection of classic photos.

I’ve furnished our home (with Jose’s approval!) as I do my wardrobe, a mix of vintage and new, classic and funky, some playful bits, some very good bits.

Fresh flowers -- a must!
Fresh flowers — a must!

As fall arrives, here are some of the changes I’m making:

— Adding two lovely new fabrics, one for our headboard and the other for our bedside tables. I totally blew it on the scale of the check! But, you know what? Better bold than bitsy. (total cost $150.)

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

— An antique Chinese ginger jar lamp we recently found at an antiques dealer in Grafton, Ontario. It needed a new shade and cord.

— A dramatic new hallway rug, a kilim. I love these flatweaves, with their bold-but-faded colors and intricate designs; this one is striped: faded teal, faded carmine with a narrow black and white stripe. I found it roaming on-line; it will be shipped to us from Istanbul after they repair it.

Switching out our art from summer, (pale colors and bleached frames), to winter: deeper hues, gold frames.

Our living room, reflected in that mirror
Our living room, reflected in that mirror

— Rehanging the Victorian mirror I scored in Ontario.

Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop
Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

— Using deeper-toned pillows, table covers and rugs: reds, oranges, bits of black for drama.

As the days shorten and daylight so quickly fades and disappears, I wrap our home in color, texture, style and beauty.

Here in New York, winter lasts from November to March, at least, and we’ll soon miss the brilliant external colors of fall leaves and summer flowers.

Lucky you, readers in more tropical climes and countries — with gorgeous year-round greenery, flowers and and brightly colored birds!

We love these two -- one early folk art, the smaller...who knows?
We love these two — one early folk art, the smaller…who knows?

My husband is a photographer and photo editor (here’s his wedding website and his blog), and we both work at home — so clutter, mess and ugly, especially in a small space, are too much!

Every day, our pretty home soothes and nurtures us both — and the people we welcome.

How about you?

Does nesting appeal to you?

The value of re-making your home

By Caitlin Kelly

Kotowski Palace in Warsaw, interior design
Kotowski Palace in Warsaw, interior design (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As someone passionate about interior design, and who has studied it seriously at the New York School of Interior Design, I enjoy this blog, the public face of an American design firm, McAlpine Tankersley.

I liked this recent post about why it’s worth re-making your home:

Change is always necessary to promote growth and without varying from the comfortable and the everyday, lessons are seldom learned. Faced with potential, however, fear kicks in and says, “let’s just keep things the way they are”; even if a situation is stagnant, it’s my stagnant situation and I’ll sit in it. But how can change have value? An example I can show (because you do tend to come here for visuals to accompany my soapbox) was evident in Bobby’s personal Montgomery home.

In the ten years he lived in this English cottage, the interior underwent three major transformations. As designers, we always use our personal homes as living, active laboratories. We try things out on our tireless, often unsuspecting, families before we suggest them to our clients. Experimentation and change in our environs are personal tools of lesson and discovery.

This is so true!

I’ve lived for 25 (!) years in the same top-floor, 1,000 square foot one bedroom apartment. I doubt I’ll live anywhere else, which is a little depressing, (it’s small and New York is brutally expensive for most larger spaces in neighborhoods we like), but also focuses us intently on making our home the prettiest, most efficient and most comfortable and welcoming we can make it.

It’s absolutely been my design lab.

When I moved in, it was all a bland, boring beige, with cat-pee-stained/stinky oatmeal-colored wall-to-wall-carpet. Gross!

I’ve changed the wall colors here many times, currently a deep mustard in the bathroom, a cool beige in the kitchen, a soft gray in the bedroom and dining room, and a soft yellow-green in the living room and hallway; since there are few doors, the sight-lines make a major difference if the colors and tones relate poorly.

I’d also rather invest in fewer, better items, (like many Europeans do, living in small spaces) than face the expense of designing, furnishing, cleaning and maintaining a large(r) house. Not to mention the cost of new roof/boiler/furnace and all the attendant work of cleaning and maintaining any outdoor property.

If you’re wealthy, great!

But if you’re not, re-using your home-space to its best advantage is often more about being creative and open-minded: re-purposing, re-covering, repainting, moving things around, editing heavily, building your own items and scoring great finds at flea markets, tag sales and auctions.

I read every shelter magazine out there, every month, so I see the blinged-out mega-mansions some people live in.

But I also read blogs like Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy, which feature regular folk with smaller budgets or less opulent taste.

As we finish up our kitchen renovation — one for which I waited 25 years — I already see the enormous difference it makes, emotionally and practically, in our lives. We didn’t pour $50,000 or $100,000, (yes, people do) into our small galley kitchen.

But we did splurge on some items: honed granite counters, high-end appliances (a Bertazzoni gas range and Bosch dishwasher), and spend-y Farrow & Ball paint for custom-made cabinets and walls.

I love the little surprises that (happily) occurred — the shelves we bought have a subtle green-ish gray stain that perfectly matches the cabinets. The narrow grooves in our drawers and cabinets (in lieu of external hardware) create runnels of sunlight reflected from the windows. The new cream tile, with its glossy surface, bounces much more light, both artificial and natural.

At Luxor Design Northgate Mall / louis-quinze ...
At Luxor Design Northgate Mall / louis-quinze style interior. Definitely more formal than our place! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been an amazing experience, and the second reno we’ve done; we re-did our one, tiny (5 by 7 foot) bathroom four years ago.

I gained a lot of confidence from the results, and now hope to find some part-time work as a designer using these as my portfolio.

The next major step?

Refinishing and darkening our hardwood floors.

Have you re-made your home?

Changed its colors or designs?