A very quick primer on what makes a room really work, and what can kill even the best-laid plans.
One interior designer, the late legendary Albert Hadley, used to talk about skylines — think about a typical urban one; it has high and low points, spots of light and pools of darkness. It offers inherent drama and a bit of mystery.
The most attractive rooms have one as well.
Our dining room: Custom-made curtains. The wall color is Farrow & Ball Peignoir and the framed image is from a British design magazine.
Look around your rooms. Is everything the same size and shape? (i.e. all chunky rectangle or squares?) Does your eye stay only on the same level?
Is all your lighting (noooooo!) coming from an overhead source (noooooo!) without a dimmer to alter the mood? The ideal room is lit with at least four or five different sources, preferably for task work, reading, mood — a single glaring central ceiling fixture is harsh, unflattering and inefficient. Our living room has two matching tall lamps (symmetry helps!) that illuminate the sofa; a small lamp in a corner that lights up a photo on a wall and a lamp on a chest by the front door. No bulb offers less than 100 watts.
Scale is tricky — people often choose pieces that are too small for a space or too large. Or there’s just too much stuff in the space so you always feel a bit out of breath and annoyed but don’t know why.
Smaller pieces — like light, moveable side tables and stools — can be much more versatile and useful than the standard sofa/chairs/coffee table. We ditched two large club chairs and splurged on two square, low, deep green velvet stools, They offer comfortable and stylish seating without consuming nearly as much space.
Since re-arranged, a glimpse of our living room — looking a bit cluttered! Found the antique mirror in a Quebec antique shop and the small wooden table at a Connecticut consignment shop. Wall color is Gervase Yellow by Farrow & Ball.
The most interesting rooms have a range of different textures: suede, leather, chenille, velvet, silk, cotton. Smooth glass and rough stone. Gleaming brass or lucite.
Color can be challenging to get right, and I’ve blogged on this many times before.
Learn which colors work best with one another, and why. For example, a room combining red and green doesn’t have to look like a Christmas stocking if the red is a soft rusty-burgundy and the green a pale sage (the colors of our sofa and trim) — and it works because these colors are opposite on the color wheel.
Design magazines, books and websites offer a lot of great tips and inspiration, from Apartment Therapy to Insta accounts belonging to designers.
Making a home beautiful isn’t always quick, easy or cheap. It can take longer to afford and assemble the look you want most, but it’s worth it. I saved up for years to buy my Tizio lamp — it cost $500 in the 1980s — but I still use it today and still love it.
I’ve never regretted investing in the beauty, efficiency and comfort of our home.
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.
Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home. Even selecting a white (creamy? icy? blue undertones?) can be tougher then you think.
People also forget, or don’t realize, a few basics when choosing colors:
— What color is the existing floor? If wood, it is pale, orange-y, dark? White tile? Your permanent flooring, unless you plan to change it or renovate, adds a huge chunk of color to your room. Will it go beautifully, or badly, with whatever you put on the walls and baseboards (what Britons call skirting boards)?
— What direction(s) does the room face? A north-facing room will have a different kind of light than one facing south.
— What views does the room have? If it overlooks leafy green trees, (or a red brick wall), do you really want purple? Don’t forget, each color you choose should relate well to all the colors around and near it, (which is why a huge black sofa doesn’t help much.)
— How much division does your space have between rooms? i.e. if it’s mostly open plan with each color immediately adjacent to one another, a stark contrast will look odd and unattractive. The eye should travel easily from one space to the next without jarring interruptions.
— Who’s mostly going to be using that room? A young child? An older person? A teenager? What do they love most?
— How do you want to feel in that room? Calm? Energized? Soothed? Color powerfully affects our mood.
— What colors are your existing furniture, rugs, curtains and other major accessories?
— What color scheme? Our living room is a classic pairing of opposite colors on the color wheel (red and green) — but a soft muted red and a pale yellow-green, not the dark/harsh Christmas combo that mix usually brings to mind.
House Beautiful magazine also publishes, every month, great colors designers select as some of their favorites.
The colors in our apartment are all from a British company in Dorset, Farrow & Ball, who add to their stunning range every year, currently with 132 colors. They also offer their discontinued colors, (like the Gervase Yellow on our living room and hallway walls.)
I visited their paint and wallpaper factory last July, a 2.5 hour train ride and 30 minute cab ride from London. I met their production director and their head of color consulting, Charlie (Charlotte) Cosby, both of whom were warm and welcoming and took me through their facility.
What I like about F & B colors — apart from their great names, like Elephant’s Breath, Clunch and Dead Salmon — is their subtlety and depth. My husband, who’s done all the painting, loves the paint’s texture, which he compares to melted ice cream.
Gervase Yellow is warm but gentle, and goes very well with our mid-brown wooden floor, wooden furniture and mixed art; that room’s colors include sage green (sofa), deep burgundy (rug) and these striped curtains.
Our bathroom walls are Hay (I think!), a deep mustard; I love their acid-bright Yellowcake and Babouche, (the color of fresh egg yolk), one of the best yellows anywhere.
Our bedroom is (I think!) Hardwick White (might be Skimming Stone), the warm soft gray of cigarette ash.
Our wooden kitchen cabinetry and the drawers shown below are in French Grey with Clunch (a neutral gray-white) on the walls.
The sitting room is Peignoir, a very pale lavender, which picks up a color in the existing curtains and is subtle but warm. It doesn’t so much read purple as…almost a pale gray; it also works really well near Gervase Yellow because purple and yellow are opposites (again!) on the color wheel and because they’re very similar in value, (i.e. there’s no huge contrast between a light color and a darker one.)
Gervase yellow (in shadow) meets Peignoir (in light)
If you read interior design magazines, you’ll see, lately, a lot of rooms in two of F & B’s saturated and dramatic deep blues, Hague Blue and Stiffkey — and their pale, gorgeous, ethereal blue of Borrowed Light.
The trick, of course, is to paint a big enough sample before painting a whole room; get a piece of foamcore or stiff cardboard as large as you can — and sit with the color for a day or two to see it in daylight, candle-light, whatever illumination that room will be using. (Every light source adds its own color as well, with incandescent light being warmer than halogen or fluorescent.)
It’s the palest warm lavender, like clouds at sunset, its tones ever-changing with the light. That exact tone is in our curtain fabric and also had to relate comfortably to two adjacent wall colors, difficult in an open-plan 1960s-era apartment. (It didn’t hurt that all three colors are Farrow & Ball. Their colors can work beautifully with one another.)
We already had a color scheme, thanks to a rug and curtains.
I’ll later add some of my own floral images, framed.
A few quick ways to refresh a room; (you can find low-cost options in thrift stores, flea markets, Ebay and Craigslist):
Usually by far the cheapest answer, especially, (if as we do), you do the prep/sanding/spackling/painting yourself. A gallon of paint can cover a lot of wall, (especially over a light color), and a fresh creamy white can punch up dinged/dingy baseboards, (skirting boards to Britons.)
Adding color(s) terrifies many people, and getting it wrong can mean visual misery. No matter what you think you like, when choosing a color, consider:
1) the color of your floor;
2) the color of your current furniture and fabrics;
3) which way the room faces, (e.g. north light is cooler);
4) the mood you want to create.
Read a few smart websites on color and color schemes — then buy a big piece of foam-core and paint a 3 foot square sample, maybe of several colors, or different hues/intensities of the same color.
The floral is our sitting room curtains
The world is full of amazing fabric, from spendy designer stuff to Ikea to Spoonflower, where you can design and print your own. I love vintage textiles and search them out at antique shows, flea markets and auctions, making them into throw pillows and tablecloths.
Even the simplest sofa can benefit happily from a few fresh pillows in complementary colors; Pier One, in the U.S., is a great/affordable resource as are pricier Horchow, Serena & Lily and Anthropologie.
Flowers and plants
Our home is never without multiple arrangements of fresh flowers, whether a single lily — brilliant orange, pure white, soft pink — or a bunch of purple or white or red tulips.
I keep Oasis on hand, (the green foam used by florists you can cut and shape to any size), allowing you to make anything non-leaky into a floral container. Floral frogs, of metal and glass, with holes and spikes to hold stems in place, (easiest to find at flea markets) are also helpful.
They don’t have to be dark nor boldly patterned nor made of wool!
Too many people just throw down a big pile of red or blue or dark green and get stuck with an ugly color scheme as a result.
I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.
If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.
Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)
And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.
I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.
Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.
New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.
The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.
The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.
I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)
The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.
I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.
I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.
This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.
A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.
Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.
I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.
Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.
We’re only passing through.
In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.
A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact
The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.
Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!
Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects
It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!
But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.
Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!
I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.
Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of course, also have a wide range of offerings.
If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.
Invest in the best-quality framing you can
It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.
It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)
I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.
Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?
Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)
Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!
Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)
Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?
Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.
Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.
The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.
A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:
1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!
Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.
It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.
The rest came from antique stores.
Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.
Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.)
— 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.
— Rehanging the Victorian mirror I scored in Ontario.
— 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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 onesbelow 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.
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.)
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!
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.
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)!