When Cam Osborne and her husband, Robert, were newlyweds living in a tiny, dark student apartment in Chicago, she had a U-Haul full of discarded furniture from relatives and not much else. But combine a little imagination with a lick of paint, add a hand-me-down yellow sofa and blue shag carpet remnants, and she was able to turn the drab, institutional interior into something special—and the envy of all their friends.
Thirty years later, Osborne is still a designer—and she hasn’t forgotten the lesson she learned from that first apartment: Style doesn’t have to be expensive.
In fact, good design has suddenly become affordable—and with everyone watching their budgets these days, that’s a great thing. Yes, you can still spend a million bucks to create the room of your dreams, but you certainly don’t have to.
“[Plus] just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s good,” says Brittany Cason Johnston. “It takes a lot of different elements to bring a space together.” She and another Brittany—Brittany Turner Patrick—are principals of Ellie Winston Interiors on Central Avenue and, almost like sisters, they tend to finish each other’s thoughts. Case in point: Patrick quickly continues, “I have $25 chairs in my living room and she has a $15 painting in her kitchen that we bought at an estate sale that are awesome. We get more compliments on those than some of the expensive furniture we have, but we knew where we needed them and we knew they would work.” Adds Johnston, “It’s buying what fits the space and your design scheme.”
That’s lesson one: Always start with a plan. A design plan doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should include the colors you love (and that will work together), measurements, furniture needs, fabric ideas, an overall idea of the style you want for the space and, to help budget appropriately, what your priorities are—and by “your,” that includes the opinions of both the husband and wife. And think about your lifestyle too—a white sofa might look great in a magazine, but may not be the best idea if you have young children and a dog that sheds everywhere, says Osborne. And if you’re stuck, think about what you absolutely don’t like and that will help pare down your choices.
A written plan also serves as your guide when you are suddenly tempted by the amazing teal lamps that are 30 percent off or the 94-inch overstuffed couch that looks so comfortable—when teal would clash with every color in your room and you only have space for an 82-inch sofa. “It’s like anything in life,” says Patrick. “If you have some sort of plan, you tend to do things more organized and spend money more wisely.”
And if you do get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. “There are so many important things about design, but one of the most important things is getting help if you feel like you don’t have any confidence,” says Osborne. It’s a misconception that designers will cost a lot of money—and make you spend more money on top of that. These days, many young couples are hiring designers like Osborne or the Brittanys for even just an hour or two—to help them develop a design plan, pick out colors, rearrange furniture or shop with them.
If you’re lucky enough to have hand-me-down furniture—even if it’s your mother’s scratched end tables—take a second look at it before you decide to toss it. Older furniture is sometimes built at a higher quality and—best of all—it’s free and can look completely new and even trendy with a coat of paint, new knobs or new feet. Antique furniture can even be (carefully!) restained to freshen its look. Again, cautions Osborne, if you need help, get it. Research how to properly remove old paint, sand, prime and paint furniture before you start, or enlist the help of a professional, particularly if you are interested in refurbishing an antique piece.
These vintage pieces can then be mixed with new pieces to create that “collected” style that designers love. “I think things that are more eclectic always work—something that is an antique or semi-antique with something new or mid-century,” says Osborne.
“Everything does not need to match,” says Johnston firmly. For one recent client who had “great stuff of her mom’s,” the Brittanys kept just about every piece—painting some and replacing knobs on others—and added updated pillows, art and lamps plus a great wallpaper. “Wallpaper is coming back with a vengeance,” says Patrick, who cites ’60s and ’70s style metallic paper with geometric patterns among her favorites.
Design has also moved away from dark reds and chocolates and is lighter and brighter. Colors like indigo, fuschia, yellow, orange and celadon contrast brilliantly against white walls and accessories, while geometrics, quatrefoils and ikats are showing up everywhere on fabrics. Gold is also popular as is modern art. Light-colored cabinets, shiny chrome fixtures in bathrooms and unusual fabrics like painted sailcloth or burlap are prominently featured in inspiration magazines like Veranda, House Beautiful and Traditional Home (favorites of the Brittanys) or the addictive Houzz.com—described by the Washington Post as the “Flickr of design idea sites.”
Incorporating these trends doesn’t have to mean an entire redesign. Painting walls is perhaps the most inexpensive—yet most impactful—change you can make to a room. It can also be as easy as changing out the pillows on your sofa (if fabric is expensive, just use it on the fronts and put a solid on the back), buying new lamps (or painting old lamps or replacing shades), switching out artwork and adding fun accessories, like the currently popular glazed garden stools. “You might have just a pop of color, but that one color can make such a statement in a room,” says Osborne, who recently redid a room for one young couple by adding bright orange with pillows and other accessories against neutral fabrics and black painted furniture.
Even just one great piece can change the look of an entire room. For example, Patrick recently added a touch of Mad Men style to her living room with a 1950s yellow and black Chinoiserie style coffee table. “It doesn’t go with anything else in my room, but instead of redoing my entire room, I bought a really cool ’50s coffee table,” she says.
The key, again, is having a plan and choosing classic pieces that can act as a backdrop to more trendy items. “If you buy a $6,000 red sofa, I hope you really like red,” says Patrick. “I tend to go more neutral on large expensive pieces because you tend not to get tired of them….You can put giant red pillows on a sofa and in 10 years, if you’re tired of red, you’re changing out two pillows, not recovering a sofa.”
Another common mistake is buying on impulse, usually because you think an item looks so great in the store or because it’s on sale. Give yourself a day to think about it, advises the Brittanys, and if you decide you still have to have it, then get it. Otherwise, impulse buying often leads to ending up with oversize furniture that looks awkward in the space, says Osborne.
In fact, even though it may have been created on a just a small budget, when done well, design can actually make a room look rich. It’s all about the right chandelier (Osborne insists that a chandelier is one of the most important statements you can make in a room), lamps, pillows and beautifully framed and grouped artwork, prints or photos. Scale and proportion are also paramount. “It’s like clothes,” says the Brittanys. “It could be a $2,000 dress, but if it doesn’t fit you, it doesn’t work.”
All in all, it simply goes back to the plan. Good design is affordable—if you plan well and budget wisely. Both the Brittanys have lived in their homes for several years—and they still aren’t completely finished because they’re sticking to a budget, buying those pieces they can and saving for those they want. “So many people get in such a hurry,” says Johnston. “Slow down, get a game plan first and slowly chip away at it. Don’t feel like you have to do everything all at once. Buy a few good pieces, stop, save some money and, by the time the project’s finished, you’ve got a designed room that’s going to last you 15 to 20 years because you did it correctly.”
Danielle Wong Moores is an Augusta-based freelance writer and public relations consultant.