Ruly Bookshelf: Designing on a Budget

"The FSA (Farm Security Administration) home supervisor has helped this woman make her dress of flour sacks and decorate her curtain with splatter work. Osage Farms, Missouri." (1939) Photo by Arthur Rothstein. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

For my design research this month, I went to my local library and checked out a variety of books on home design. After paging through tons of gorgeous interiors, one thing that really struck me is how much we associate “design” with “wealth.” It is not that hard to have a gorgeous home if you have unlimited funds. There are tons of wonderful choices and you can hire any number of incredibly talented professionals to help you. The 2010 DC Design House, (which you can tour at the Washington Post website by clicking here) for example, boasts a $200,000 kitchen complete with 37” flat-screen TV above the stove, a $14,500 custom-quilted rug made of cowhide, and $40,000 worth of AV equipment in the “man cave.”

But what if you are like most of us and can’t afford any of these things? Are you destined to live in an unstylish and boring home? Not a chance!

If you need a little design inspiration for your home, without spending a lot of money, below are some fun choices from professional designers. See what the pros do on budgets ranging from $2,000 to $500 to nothing (yes, nothing!).

$2,000 Budget

HGTV’s Designed to Sell helps homeowners spruce up their homes on a tiny budget (generally less than $2,000) with the goal of helping the properties sell faster and for a higher price. Seasoned real estate agents tour the homes and give their brutally honest opinions about each room. The designer then addresses the problem areas and the sellers help to implement the changes with a little sweat equity. (I can’t imagine how enormously popular this show must be in today’s real estate market!)

Below is a sample before and after Designed to Sell makeover:

There is a companion book for the series called, Designed to Sell: Smart Ideas that Pay Off, that highlights examples from the series and intersperses designer and real estate agent tips. What are the top four things you need to do to make your house show better?

  1. Finish any incomplete home improvement projects.
  2. Paint walls.
  3. Replace dirty or worn floors.
  4. Green up the lawn and plant flowers in the landscaping.

I really love the concept of this show, the great host, Clive Pearse, and fun designers, especially Lisa LaPorta. The only issue I have, however, is with one aspect of their design philosophy:

“If there’s one thing the Designed to Sell team preaches, it’s that you have to make sacrifices in daily living to reap the biggest reward in selling. In this living room, for example, the new furniture arrangement wasn’t as conducive as it could be for watching TV. [The television is against the wall, blocked by two chairs in the way and practically impossible to watch from any angle.] It was, however, the best way to show off the room’s spaciousness while still making it seem cozy. What’s more important to you: being a couch potato or pocketing more money when you sell your house?”

Designed to Sell: Smart Ideas that Pay Off

To me, excellent design is about matching the functional with the decorative. If you can no longer watch TV in the room designated for watching TV, I would say that is a design failure. Insulting the homeowner for wanting to watch TV occasionally doesn’t seem like a winning strategy here. The buyer may want to watch TV too, after all!

Nonetheless, the book is packed with numerous creative ideas, especially about furniture placement, that could make a huge difference for not a lot of money. Simple selling tips, like decluttering and making sure your house is a comfortable temperature, are also woven throughout the book.

$500 Budget

Lisa Quinn is the queen of the budget makeover. Her book, $500 Room Makeovers, showcases a variety of creative ideas to make dramatic and interesting rooms on a shoestring budget.  She uses a lot of IKEA furnishings in her designs and creatively uses materials for maximum impact. Some of her design projects include using children’s crowns from Burger King as a stencil for wall treatments or even spray painting them and gluing them to windows instead of curtains! If you are looking to stretch your decorating budget it is hard not to be inspired by this book. One of my favorite projects is a painted “slate” floor treatment she used on a patio. There is also a great first apartment makeover where she transforms the bedroom (which starts off as nothing more than two mattresses stacked on the floor) into an asian-inspired retreat with canopy hanging.

For an example of a typical Lisa Quinn project, see the video below.

One of the challenges of budget decorating, however, is that it tends to look, well, “budget.” What I like about Lisa Quinn’s approach, however, is that she doesn’t try to make her budget makeovers look like more expensive alternatives. She embraces the budget aspect and uses fun accents like wild colors, crazy lampshades and unusual homemade art, to make her rooms look fun. You don’t compare a Lisa Quinn room to a more expensive one because the concept is just completely different.

“[T]here’s a lot of fear and loathing out there concerning home decoration. In fact, many people are too full of dread to even start the process. And the ones who do take action are often tethered by the perceived expense, afraid to step outside the boundaries of cookie-cutter decor. I believe that living in a home that doesn’t reflect your personal style is like wearing someone else’s shoes: They may do the job, but they will never feel right. . . . I say go easy on the wallet until you’re more certain of your individual style. In the meantime, take some chances while the investment is small. . . . Eventually, you can create a home that truly represents you and the things you love.”

–Lisa Quinn, $500 Room Makeovers

$0 Budget

Lauri Ward pioneered the concept of interior design through re-using your existing furniture and objects.  Her first book was called Use What You Have Decorating. The book gives excellent before and after examples of how you can refresh a room often by improving furniture placement, swapping furniture from adjacent rooms or just removing excess stuff. In many of the makeovers she spends nothing to improve a room’s feel. The changes are not necessarily dramatic. The rooms look similar to where she started, except more elegant and more streamlined.

“My personal philosophy never encourages the sentiment, ‘Throw it all out and start over again!‘ If there is one fundamental precept that I would never abandon it it the notion that no one is a blank slate; we all have ideas about what we care for or what makes us feel uncomfortable. Your belongings define your own private world and their history merits respect. When you use what you have, your home truly mirrors who you are.”

–Lauri Ward, Use What You Have Decorating

Below is Lauri Ward’s list of the 10 Most Common Decorating Mistakes

  1. Not defining your priorities.
  2. An uncomfortable conversation area.
  3. Poor furniture placement
  4. A room that is off-balance.
  5. Furniture of different heights.
  6. A room that lacks a cohesive look.
  7. Ignoring the room’s focal point.
  8. Improper use of artwork.
  9. Ineffective use of accessories.
  10. Using lighting incorrectly.

There are some really great and simple tips in this book that are easy for all of us to understand and apply. Some examples,

  • “Place your sofa against the longest wall.”
  • “Create a U-shaped conversation area.”
  • “The difference in height between sofas and chairs should be no more than 5”.
  • The end tables should not be more than 2 1/2” higher or lower than the arms of the sofa or loveseat.”
  • “No matter how much stuff you have, you need to have some surfaces free of objects. I strongly recommend that windowsills be kept clutter free.”

Lauri shares more of her decorating tips at her blog,

I hope these resources inspire you to achieve a design style in your own home that reflects your personal taste.  Even if you have champagne taste and abhor budget looks, these resources might provide the inspiration you are looking for about how to creatively stretch your budget to achieve a designer look.

Are you a fan of Designed to Sell, Lisa Quinn or Lauri Ward?  Who is your favorite budget designer?  Please share in the comments.