Sunday Op Ed

By Kate Riley May 17, 2009

I recently received an email from a reader. She posed this question about decorating on a budget:

“Hi Kate,
I love reading your blog… I’m always in awe of folks such as yourself, who have the vision to see what a battered old object can become with some paint, new fabric, ingenuity, what have you…
My question is, do you start with a completed plan for whatever room you are making over? Or do you see used objects and build the room from your vision of what they could become?
I fear I will just come home with a bunch of used objects that have no place or cohesive feel in my home, no matter what I do with a can of spray paint.
Thanks, D”

Thanks for the email, D. (No, it’s not this D.) The answers to your questions are yes and yes.

I definitely have a vision for each space that I approach, but I always remain eternally flexible. And when I do find special pieces, I imagine how I can personalize them, and then accessorize around those transformed pieces. And I fight like heck to stay within my budget.

When approaching a room redo, I follow these rules:

1) Keep an inspiration file. Find pictures of rooms that you love. If it’s from a magazine, rip it out and file it away. If it’s from the Internet, copy the image and store it in an inspiration folder. There’s a reason you are drawn to certain images of rooms or spaces. Capture them and keep them. Use this inspiration file as your starting point for the feeling you want to create. You will not copy every element, but it will provide a starting point for choosing paint color, furniture, fabric and accessories. Below is an image from my inspiration file. Many of the elements from this kitchen I imitated in my own home.

christopher kitchen

2) Carry a tape measure. When decorating a room, measure your space with a tape measure so you know the dimensions when you’re looking for pieces to furnish the space. Carry them with you on a notepad, in your phone, whatever tool you have to store the numbers. Then carry a small tape measure in your car or handbag. I can’t tell you how many times I whip out my trusty measuring tape when I am out hunting for objects to decorate my home. And if the piece won’t fit, move on. You’ll find something else soon. Don’t rush too quickly to decorate all at once.


3) Second hand is not second class. Never be afraid to shop thrift stores, garage sales, flea markets, or Craigslist. That old saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” is true. Approach these venues with curiosity, and make the treasure hunt fun. Much of it is junk, but bring your imagination. Stay completely open minded. When you see something that interests you but needs some TLC, simply think about what a coat of paint or a bit of fabric could do to transform the piece.

[One caveat: I make it a policy that if I am going to lay my head on it, then I’m going to buy new. Pillows, mattresses, and sofas should be new, unless you’re having them recovered or you actually know the home it came from. Everything else is fair game.]

found treasures

When you’re not shopping second hand, learn to love places like Target, Walmart, Ikea, Kohls, JC Penney and even Kmart, who now have famous designers working for them, and we the people benefit from their inexpensive designer creations.

4) Accept that your space will never be “done”. It’s my opinion that any room that is officially decorated and “done” will look stale a year or two later. Get the basics in place, like a great sofa, some chairs, a rug, or a table – it’s best to invest in pieces that you can envision in your home for 10 years.  But accessories and wall decor are a whole separate game, so rotate them throughout the year.   You’ll find that your decorating tastes can change over time, mine tend to change with the seasons !  And I am always pulling accessories from one room into another, so shop your home, move your things around, it keeps your space fresh yet uses the things you love. 


5) Stay cohesive with color. If you’re a bit nervous about mixing a lot of colors and patterns, then pick one color you love and pair it with a neutral. Do you like shades of pink?  It looks wonderful with gray.  Are you a fan of blue? Pair it with chocolate brown.  Any shade of green looks fabulous with cream or crisp white. You can mix so many textures and styles if you keep your space cohesive with a singular color and a neutral. Then once you’ve united your space, take a step back, and choose a third color to accessorize with. And I think it’s a good idea if your room leans white, to balance it all out with a dark piece somewhere in the room. Pottery Barn is a good example of pairing neutrals with pops of color, and balancing light and dark furniture (see below).

pottery barn

6) Try new revamp techniques. Haven’t ever stained a piece of furniture? Wondering what kind of paint to use on your new found treasure? Do the research with books, online at DIY sites, or great DIY blogs, then go for it. Be adventurous. Life is more fun that way. My future goal is to master a compound miter saw and a nail gun, then add wainscoting like this to my house.


Thanks so much D for the great question.

And many thanks to Struggling to be Stylish for this very kind award.

lovely blog award

Do any of you have any tips for D to inspire her in her decorating quest?



  1. I totally agree that you need to view things with an open mind.

    A piece of furniture may have a truely UGLY finish on it, but look at the bones and the lines of the piece. Is it sturdy, well made?

    If so try to envision what it could be with a little work.

  2. Great post, very informative. It’s always important to remember some of the basics. I am using more white and neutral than every before, I find it very pretty and so easy to mix and match with other things. Great post. Hugs, Marty

  3. Ever since your blog, I’ve really opened my eyes to “another man’s junk” theory and I found a piece of furniture that looks identical to the dresser I had been wanting at West Elm ($800). It’s original purpose was as a china cabinet. I was open minded to the possibility of making it my dresser. I’m so thrilled I did as it is only $150. Now, all it needs is a little lovin from me and it’ll be good as new!!

  4. Awesome post, I am trying to stay open minded…I have never been a second hand girl and I’m starting to love it! Your blog is great, and the new design is wonderful!

  5. Wonderful point about accepting the room will never be ‘done’. I get very anxious about the time it’s taking to inject some style into our home, whereas Beloved Husband is much more Zen-like and points out the fun of the journey rather than the destination…

  6. I wholeheartedly aggree w/ all of your points!! A room truly is never done, as our tastes evolve. But seeing the potential in something is EVERYTHING!

    I feel like some high-end designer rooms lack the personal touch, so I get giddy when I see a well-done room/projects by spectacular “normal” folks like you. =]

  7. I agree fully! This is a great post that deserves some attention! Have you heard of Happy To Design? Cherie hosts a party every Sunday, named Sunday Favorites. It’s an opportunity for older posts to be revisited again.


  8. I have bookmarked this page for reference as I am absolutely hopeless at envisioning a space. I’m hoping to develop a better eye be subscribing to your blog. Thanks!

  9. I have your page bookmarked and thoroughly read it daily. I just love all of your ideas but I am still confused as to how you did your no sew valance. The directions were a little unclear. Do you have another that you did that you could explain?

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