Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Starting Out: How to Furnish Your Home, Cheaply and Stylishly

I'm always hesitant to pick up any of the effusive books/magazine articles that promise to let you in on the secrets to decorating your home cheaply and stylishly. Why? Because the tips are usually ridiculous--written by the sort of person who finds bliss in suggesting $300 towels, are far craftier than the general population (Make a lamp out of an old vodka bottle!) or are putting cheapness at a higher priority over quality.

It IS possible to furnish your home on a slight budget without sacrificing quality, style or even comfort. I know because I've managed to do it over the course of a year and a half, right down to the collection of 14 platinum-edged porcelain dinner plates ($3.50-$7.99 a piece) that I bought last week.

So get your piggy banks, here are the secrets to charm on the cheap, even if you're just starting out in your own hovel of an apartment:

1. Develop an eye for quality and style. Browse the high-end magazines for furniture ads or general setting photos. You're not doing this to follow trends, you're just honing your ability to spot high quality and expensive-looking styles. If you study, you'll be able to go to most secondhand stores (read: not vintage, not overpriced nonsense) and come out with something that looks antique. Or will at least know how to re-work a questionable item so it does look special.

2. Start saving--you'll need about $1,500-2,000 at most for this step. Winter (specifically January) and Summer (usually August) are the best times to buy high-ticket furniture for insane discounts. Really. I just bought a $3800 hand-carved table for an insane price. I have bought dresses for more than this table. Waiting for clearance sales=great payoffs.

3. Paint your rooms, if needed. As much as I hate saying this, do a neutral color. I know, I have coral pink walls, but if you're just starting out, it's hard enough buying furniture without having to worry about it matching a silver-and-watermelon-pink wallcovering. Pale buttercream, grey with the slightest twinge of pink, and regular cream are always flattering. Extend the paint on to the ceiling if you can for a more-finished look.

4.. Where to invest. Learn to live with the couch (or upholstered chairs) and dining room table you presently have. These two furniture pieces make a HUGE difference on your overall decor, you have no idea. Even if you fill your home with priceless curiousities, a cheap futon will ruin everything. Same goes for cheap tables with thick layers of plastic-looking veneer. Invest modestly in these two pieces. You will always use a couch and a nice big table. You can even use the table as desk, if you're pressed for space.

If you own a very tiny space--meaning no possible room for a dining room table--replace your counters and/or cabinetry. Huge difference.

In the meantime, get rid of your cheapest-looking, dreary stuff. If it can't be painted to look better, give it away.

5. Almost always, buy these items on sale at high-end places: Plates, drinking glasses and goblets, blankets/bedding, end/accent tables, decorate storage, pillows, drapes, rugs and tablecloths. Buy more plates and glasses than you think you need.

5.a. Usually buy solids, unless you see a pattern you adore. Make sure the curtains you buy aren't see through.

6. Almost always, buy these things second-hand, looking for the highest quality possible: Coffee tables, chairs, bureaus, headboards, mirrors, tall cabinets (instead of bookshelves or wall-mounted cabinets). Look for classic lines, good detailing and convincingly good construction. Don't worry about color or hardware--these can be replaced.

6.a. Don't buy anything with a cheap veneer. You know those cute chain stores that specialize in quasi-contemporary furnishings? Good for accessories, not for furnishings. In the catalogues, the stuff looks adorable, in person, terribly cheap. Save yourself the trouble.

7. Chandeliers and lamps can be bought anywhere, even chain stores. Remember that people will notice them, and that you can also paint these (albeit carefully). Don't buy torchiere lamps.

These are the general rules for starting out in style, while not spending too much. If you always buy high-quality in a neutral pattern, you won't have to worry about mixing and matching. You'll look charming, not adrift.