I really hate short, dark days, but I do love a cosy home, as regular readers know.
Here are a few ways to ease into the long, dark winter:
Bake something yummy!
I love to bake, and this sour-cream coffeecake was dead easy and sooo good; from the Silver Palate Cookbook. I do love this recipe for Morning Glory muffins, studded with raisins, walnuts, carrot, coconut and more. Be sure to stock your pantry with fresh flours, spices, sugars and a few muffin tins, bundt pan and other tools so nothing can deter you.
Snuggle under a throw
By 4 or 5pm I am so ready for a nap, whether on our sofa or bed, and having a lovely throw makes it tempting. We bought this one at one of my favorite shops, BHV Marais in Paris, on sale, but there are so many options out there, whether faux fur, wool, thick cotton or (!) cashmere. This Irish website has lots of gorgeous stuff, like this plaid throw in soft jewel colors.
This is ours, a pale teal.
Set a beautiful table
Never one to use paper plates or napkins, I collect tableware everywhere — this striped cloth was found in a small Ontario town, the green plates on sale in Montreal, the black glasses in Toronto and the Indian print napkins in Vancouver. The heavy silver forks were a steal in a Dublin flea market.
Few activities make me happier than enjoying a good meal in lovely surroundings.
Is your home well-lit?
Our living room lamps are three-way bulbs and our kitchen, dining room and bathroom lights all on dimmers. I hate overhead lighting as it’s usually harsh, unflattering and inefficient; the most attractive rooms have well-chosen, complementary multiple light sources.
From Elle Decor:
A common misconception is that you need to light the whole room. Try instead to incorporate multiple points of light. “The best-lit rooms have layers of light that blend well together,” says architect and designer David Rockwell. “Choose your light source, and then determine how to diffuse it.” The right lampshade can make all the difference. Rockwell suggests bringing your low-wattage bulb to the store to try it with different shades.
If you can splurge, Circa Lighting has a huge selection of great lamps. My favorite, always, is the classic black Tizio — it even starred in the HBO hit series Succession, as a desk lamp for billionaire Logan Roy. I bought mine in the 1980s and still love it.
A bare floor is efficient and easy to clean, but something soft and colorful indoors is welcome in months when nature offers us only bare trees and gardens. I step onto a small sheepskin rug bedside, and our living room rug was one I bought decades ago for $100, a tribal wool weave. Consignment shops can offer decent bargains, and I’m partial to the wide selection at Dash & Albert, named for the creator’s two dogs.
No bare windows
Bare black glass at night is chilly! Even inexpensive bamboo blinds will add color and texture while thick well-lined curtains, weighted at the bottom ideally, add color, soundproofing and cut drafts. There are so many places to buy them ready-made, like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie — which is offering these fab Moroccan-look blue and white pair.
Avoid flimsy linen or sheers. For winter, think cocooning.
Fresh flowers and plants
These are essentials. I have floral frogs (glass and metal stem holders), Oasis (floral foam) and moss to make arrangements look polished.
We moved this Vlaminck litho, bought at auction two years ago, from bedroom to livingroom
By Caitlin Kelly
Grateful for eight days completely out of the apartment — where we both also work as freelancers, my husband as a photo editor and I as a writer and writing coach.
We save a lot of money not renting office space or a co-working desk, (and can write off a small part of our monthly living costs as a result as a tax deduction), but that also means we’re using every part of our one bedroom all the time: one bathroom, one kitchen, every hallway, etc.
But it means additional wear and tear, even for two tidy adults with no pets or children.
So while we were away on holiday we had the following jobs professionally done:
— had the entrance hallway, wooden floor, re-sanded and refinished
— had the flaking, peeling bedroom window frame smoothed and repainted
— had all kitchen cabinets given a fresh coat of paint (installed 2013.)
That was, certainly, a big investment of $3,000.
When we got home and took another week off to settle in, we got to work:
— moving art from one room to another; we have a good collection of photos, by us, by friends and colleagues and prints, drawings and posters. Sometimes we put them away for a few years to appreciate them anew. We also rotate out intense/dark colors during the hot summer months.
— painted one wall a deep olive green
— moved three mirrors into the dark foyer. All are vintage/antique, none costing more than $300.
— ordered a new chandelier for our dining room and found an electrician ready to install it.
I found that funky old beveled mirror for $125 in an antique shop in Port Hope, Ontario
— added a patterned fabric, (home-sewn by hand, double width), cover for Jose’s homemade computer desk and moved a different lamp into its corner.
— arranged for pick-up by our local thrift shop for a number of items, including a standing lamp and balcony chair.
I’m more obsessed with beauty and good design than many people.
But I’m fine with it.
I studied interior design and learned a lot. And having lived (!?) 30 years in the same space means I’ve made multiple changes over time — wall colors, curtains, art, rugs — to not go mad with boredom and claustrophobia.
We’re not buying all-stuff-all-the-time! I often carry a tape measure with me to make sure anything we acquire will fit into our space, both spatially and visually.
Once you’ve established a color scheme, stick to it!
We use a great tribal wool rug I bought in Toronto decades ago for $100, and a nice repro wooden Pembroke table I found in a local consignment shop and a Crate and Barrel sofa we might soon replace, even though we love it, as the arms are sagging and an upholsterer told us it would cost more to re-do them than buy anew…
I also know what I like and will wait a long time for it….like our black Tizio lamp I bought in my 20s for (!) maybe $500, a huge sum then as now. It’s elegant, efficient, classic and versatile.
To save money, we do most of our own interior painting. We’ve been given some tremendous/iconic images as well — like the famous black and white photo of JFK standing at the Oval Office windows; this one signed by its creator and given to Jose, his colleague at The New York Times.
Same hallway — top image is a rotogravure by Steichen. The lower image is mine, a stairwell shot in Paris. Wall color: Gervase Yellow (archived), Farrow & Ball.
Tips for a quick refresh:
— Whenever you paint a room, note the paint color, brand and date you purchased it. Colors get discontinued! Farrow & Ball archives some colors but will remix any of them for you on demand and quickly.
— Keep some paint handy for touch-ups. Don’t allow it to get too hot or cold as this degrades the product; we keep ours at the back of a hallway closet.
— Replace items as they wear, chip, fray or discolor. If impossible, wash/dry clean/dye or toss and go without. It’s depressing to live in dirt or chaos.
— Throw stuff out! Those of us lucky enough to even have too much stuff have too much stuff!
— Sell whatever you can. I found out a vintage tribal rug I paid $200 for might fetch me $1,200 after I showed it to a local dealer. Next step, hope to sell it on Ebay or Chairish.
— Clean every corner, deeply. I had to scrub one wooden floor with a Brillo pad to remove grime that mopping didn’t address. Baseboards, the back of things (fridge, stove, printer, etc.) All windows!
Old Crate & Barrel cabinet, glass lined with fabric by the yard. Above, a photo of Jose and his parents, long gone, and a Moroccan lantern found at a flea market, sand-blasted at the auto body shop and painted in Blazer (Farrow & Ball, archived.) I hand-carried that huge wicker suitcase home from a Canadian antique show — thanks, Air Canada!
It always feels good to re-fresh our home — it nurtures, protects and revives us.
Mine seems to be shelter magazines, the industry word for magazines focused on interior design. Stacks of them fill baskets, bookshelves and bags around our apartment, and I part with them reluctantly, only because there’s no room.
I grew up, ages 8 to 16, in boarding school and summer camp, which I’m sure has something to do with this. Boarding school meant sharing a room with at least 3 or 4 others, sleeping in a twin metal bed with an institutional chenille or cotton bedspread. Summer camp meant sharing with 3 or 4 others and sleeping in a wooden bunk-bed, its only “decoration” the graffiti of earlier residents on the raw wood.
So beauty, comfort, style and elegance matter a great deal to me.
I’m able to keep my wallet snapped shut and stay off of most on-line shopping sites, but…but…oooohh, I do love a gorgeous fabric and have splurged multiple times ordering fabric-by-the-yard and having it made into custom throw pillows or curtains.
I had our old Crate & Barrel sofa refreshed with new bold piping on the seat cushions and had these throw pillows custom-made. Adding piping or welting always makes it look more finished.
Because Jose and I so enjoy entertaining, it’s nice to open the door and feel completely at ease that our guests will enjoy a pretty, comfortable environment.
I also studied interior design seriously in the mid-1990s at the New York School of Interior Design, planning to ditch journalism and change careers. But my husband bailed and I couldn’t afford to work for $10/hour to start at the bottom. I loved my classes and now really appreciate what training and skill it takes to create a spectacular space.
My parents each had terrific taste, collecting art and antiques. My father had a gorgeous Knole sofa I still remember decades later. My mother brought home lovely mirrored textiles from India and pale mantas from Peru.
And my maternal grandmother inherited a pile of money and hired Toronto’s best interior designer to furnish her apartment and, later, carriage house. I still remember a spectacular orange wallpaper from her powder room.
Our living room curtains, lined, custom-made maybe a decade ago. Lots of colors to work from in here; that pale yellow-green (Farrow & Ball’s Gervase Yellow) is one of them.
So I happily spend hours paging through other people’s homes, whether a villa in Tuscany, a cottage in Muskoka, Ontario or a 17th. century pile in some bit of rural England. I’m not especially drawn to opulence, and much prefer simplicity, like 18th century Swedish designs or the work of Axel Vervoordt.
I love The English Home, as much for its amazing early houses — some 400 or 500 years old — as the distinctly British sense of color and design. All those tall, tall windows, lined chintz curtains and dressing tables.
On my last visit to London, my pal Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — who knows my love of textiles — took me to the Cloth Shop, a legendary London store that supplied fabrics and ribbons to the costume-makers of the Harry Potter films. I bought a lovely teal fabric that now covers our bed headboard.
Two Farrow & Ball colors; French Gray and Peignoir (the lavender one). The drawers were custom-built into a former closet and this is the corner of our small dining room.
And, because I am a complete Farrow & Ball fangirl, I traveled 2.5. hours one-way by train and taxi in July 2017 to visit their paint and wallpaper factory in Dorset and meet one of their two heads of color, Charlie Cosby; here’s an interview with her and some explanations of their quirky paint color names, like Dead Salmon, Clunch and Elephant’s Breath.
Here are a few of my favorite go-to design retailers: Wisteria, Ballard Designs, Jayson Home, Anthropologie, Mothology, Dash & Albert, Serena & Lily.
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.