As someone who studied interior design and spends far too many hours on Instagram and reading shelter magazines for inspiration, I love nothing more than a good zhuzh — making something more attractive.
As winter’s short, gray cold days descend on those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, here are some of the recent things we’ve done to feather our nest, a kid-free, pet-free one bedroom apartment of about 1,000 square feet. We’re both full-time freelance now, so this is also a place we do a lot of writing and editing work as well.
Sanding, spackling and painting all cracks in the walls
So boring! So annoying! So damn necessary. It’s either us and our own sweat equity or shelling out even more money — again — to a company to do it for us. There will still be some bad ceiling cracks and we’ll pay someone to deal with those. For reasons I do not understand, this 60-year-old building still (!?) settles and creates these damn cracks.
A fresh coat of paint on the dingiest spots
The cheapest way to clean and brighten your space. I’m a huge Farrow & Ball fan, and one of the many things I love about them is that they will custom make their discontinued colors, like the yellow-green we used in 2008 for the living room and hallway. Our dining room is painted in Peignoir, and our bedroom in Skimming Stone.
Steam-clean major upholstered pieces
Seriously! We spent $180 recently to have our seven-foot-long velvet-covered sofa and two cream-colored wing chairs professionally cleaned (in home.) It’s well worth it given how much we use these pieces.
Invest in a few good rugs
Nothing is cheerier than a few great rugs on a clean, shiny hardwood floor, adding color, warmth and texture. So many great choices out there, from flat-weave dhurries (a favorite) to bright, cheerful cotton ones (like these from Dash & Albert, whose stuff I keep buying.) Avoid harsh, bright colors and crazy wild designs as you’ll soon grow sick of them.
Throws for bed and living room lead to much happy napping
Is there anything nicer than a snooze under a soft, comforting throw? We have several, in cotton and wool, and they’re very well-used. These, in waffle-weave wool, come in gray and cream. Classic,
Are your light bulbs/shades clean and bright?
Everything gets dusty!
Stock up on flowers, plants and greenery
A room without a plant or fresh flowers — especially on gray, cold, rainy days — can feel static and lifeless.
Get out the polish!
I know, I know — very few people even want to own silver, or silver-plate or brass now, but few things are as lovely as freshly-polished cutlery, (ours is all flea market) or gleaming brass candlesticks.
Lots of candles
Obviously not a great choice, perhaps, if you have cats or small children, but we have neither. I keep a small votive candle bedside and light it first thing every morning, a softer way to wake up. At dinner we use votives, tapers and a few lanterns; I buy my votives in bulk at Pier One so they’re always handy and within reach. Here’s a candle-maker I follow on Instagram with a great selection.
Treat your home to something pretty, new and useful
Could be a score from a consignment shop or thrift store, estate sale or something new. It might be fresh tea towels for the kitchen, a bath sheet for the bathroom, soft new pillowcases, a vase for flowers…Your home should be a welcoming, soothing refuge. Its beauty can and should nurture you.
Two years ago, I splurged on the above-pictured early 19th. century tea set — with cups, saucers, plates, teapot, tea bowl. Every time I use it it makes me happy.
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.
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.
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:
— 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.
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!
— 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.
— 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.)
— 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….)
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)!
And so it arrived — all 4.5 inches of it — and all seven editions:
Have you seen it?
For those of you living beyond the U.S., RH offers one-stop shopping for all manner of weathered, patinated objects, from enormous replicas of German lighting and railway clocks to a wall-hung glowing ampersand. (Do I really want to sleep beside a piece of punctuation?)
The tone is regal, imperial, seigneurial — and the scale of many of the objects and furniture designed for people who inhabit extremely large homes and estates. Their catalog named “small spaces” offers tableaux named for a Chelsea penthouse and Tribeca loft, each of whose entry point is about $2 million, in cash.
It’s exhaustingly aspirational, and references abound to “landed gentry” and “boarding school”, clearly meant to appeal to people who have experience of neither. (As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary said, witheringly, to her self-made suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle: “Your lot buys things. Mine inherits them.”)
What to make of it all?
1) Fly into shopping frenzy, wanting allofitrightnow!
2) Read the descriptions in wonder and dismay:
“Crafted with Italian Berkshire leather…” — it’s an ice bucket, people. And it’s $199.
3) Sneer at the hopeless addiction to more stuff it inculcates and rewards
4) Dog-ear a few of the pages, however guiltily, because some of it — yes — is really gorgeous, like this bed, oddly featured in the baby and child catalog.
5) Wonder why our possessions are deemed “treasured” and whether or not they even should be; (see: Buddhist teachings and the ideal of non-attachment)
6) Consider attending an auction to watch the detritus of a hundred other lives, wondering when this stuff will end up there, too
7) Might children raised in these formal and fully-designed rooms, amid thousands of dollars worth of wood and linen and velvet, emerge into the real world of independence and employment with overly hopeful notions of pay and working conditions? Let alone college dorm facilities?
8) If a baby projectile vomits or poops or pees onto the immaculate washed linen and velvet beds, chairs and cribs shown here, how elegant will they really look (or smell)? Much as I love the idea of refined aesthetics (not pink or plastic everything), this seems a little…excessive.
9) I love their restrained neutral palette — pale gray, cream, brown, white, black — and their industrial designs for lighting. But if I were six or eight or 14? Maybe not so much. Your kids have decades ahead of them to stare at wire baskets and faux-Dickensian light fixtures.
10) Have you ever noticed the echt-WASP names included in these catalogs, as would-be monograms or examples of personalization? You won’t ever find a Graciela or Jose or Ahmed or Dasani here, my dears. Instead: Addison, Brady, Lucas, Mason, Ethan, Grace, Charlotte, Chloe, Sarah. Such a 19th-century white-bread version of “reality” ! Am I the only one who finds this pretentious, silly — and very outdated marketing? Many people of color have money to spend on these items as well. My husband’s name is Jose and he’s got great taste and good credit. Include him, dammit!
11) OK, OK. I admit it. I love this chair. After a long crappy day, even a putative adult might enjoy the soft and furry embrace of a stuffed elephant.
12) “Understated grandeur” and “Directoire-style daybed” — in a nursery?!
13) People put taxidermied animal heads on your walls to prove that: a) you know how to shoot accurately; b) you own guns; c) you can afford to spend time in some foreign land on safari; d) you enjoy killing things; e) you have no shame showing this to others. Putting up faux images of wood, paper and metal like these ones seems a little beside the point.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just went to my first small-town auction in ages. Score! The photo above shows my loot: a folk art horse, two Victorian transferware platters, an early Oriental rug, an early mixing bowl and a handmade wooden box.
Did I need them?
How could I resist?
I saw in the front row with my Dad, (who scored a pile of picture frames, a lovely wooden side table and a double bed — a great wooden bed-frame for $20.) There was a serious bidding war over a set of china — that went for $2,100 — but many items went for crazy-low prices, like a gorgeous Victorian wicker rocker for $5.
You can’t buy an hour of street parking where I live for$5!
The lady behind me was thrilled to nab a Victorian platter in her great grandmother’s pattern for $20. A dealer came with her 13-year-old parrot, Winston and he hopped happily onto my hand. The woman beside us beat us out for a pair of Victorian silver plate candlesticks for her daughter’s wedding gift.
I’ve scored many of my favorite things at auctions, whether in Bath, England, Toronto, Stockholm, New Hampshire or rural Nova Scotia.
In Bath, in the 1980s when my mom lived there, I got a lovely little hand-painted pottery jug, (which perfectly fit a Melitta filter holder and became my default coffeepot), for $18. In Toronto, a gorgeous brass bed. In Stockholm, a huge black metal tray with elegantly curved edges and in New Hampshire, all sorts of things, from a senneh kilim for $50 to drawings, etchings and funky objects like early wooden candleboxes or tool trays.
I still own, use and love three painted, rush-seated chairs I bought at a Nova Scotia rural auction (and shipped home to Toronto by train.) Their original paint is alligatored, their rails and stiles weathered and worn.
My most recent major auction acquisition is a lovely teal-tinted armoire, said to be 18th. century, which — including shipping from New Hampshire to my home in New York — still cost less than junk-made-in-China-on-sale from a mass market retailer. I bid on it by phone, having only seen a small-ish color photo on their website. Talk about a blind date!
It arrived with a few unexpected scratches and cracks, but I love it.
At yesterday’s auction I saw its twin, and a lady standing beside me said, “I have one just like it. It’s really old.” So maybe mine is 18th century after all…
When I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire I had no friends, family, job or other distractions so for amusement I began attending a local regional auction house every Friday. I learned a lot:
what’s a marriage (two pieces of different origin, materials and/or period that have been recombined)
what local dealers wanted (early American furniture) and did not (rugs and drawings)
how to make super-quick decisions
how to trust my gut (after doing my research on periods, materials and construction)
how to decide on my top price and stick to it (buyers usually pay an additional 15 percent premium, easy to forget if you get into a bidding war)
Some things are best enjoyed shiny and new: electronics, cookware, lingerie. When it comes to decorative and functional objects, patina rules. Patina is the change in appearance that occurs after years, decades, centuries — even millenia — of use. It comes with delicious names: craquelure, foxing, crazing, all of which denote what is, in effect, decay and ruin of the orginal, but a ruin that shows its age. Some can be repaired or restored and some must be left alone — like the paint on good, old furniture — to retain its commercial value.
I love patina. It reminds me that whatever objects I own today once belonged to someone 60 or 160 or 300 years ago. It passed through their hands as it will pass through mine. Shiny new stuff is so deeply seductive because it’s yours alone. But only for a while. Patina is a sort of memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience and the urgency of appreciating its beauty, now, in whatever form I can discover it.
These three images are from my home. The gilt frame is probably 19th. century, 1860s to 1880s, maybe earlier. The chair, one of three I bought at a country auction in Nova Scotia, with rush seats, even earlier. The teapot, a gift from a friend who is equally enamored of fine old things, was found at a Connecticut estate sale, also 19th. century.
One of my favorite books, a real inspiration if you, too, love patina is The Well-Worn Interior, with images from Ireland, England, France — and Manhattan’s East Village, with an apartment interior of delicious decay. Drayton Hall, a house built in 1738 near Charleston, South Carolina remains one of the U.S.’s finest examples of simple, understated elegance. I still remember the sense of stillness and light inside its enormous bare rooms.