With the economy crashing and then crashing some more, we could all use a little pick-me-up around the house. Small things like sticking a decal onto a mirror or painting cabinet knobs can add a stylish splash to any abode. I decided to see what I could do with my graduate student budget and discovered minor changes that infused my studio with an updated and chic feel … and still left me with enough to make rent.
1. First and foremost, know (or choose) your style.
“There’s nothing more jarring to me than walking into a space that’s got too many things going on,” says Mia Davis, a Bay Area interior designer. She recommended that I consciously settle on a mood that I want my place to convey, which should be obvious to anyone who steps past the doormat. “That said, do not go overboard on a theme in the traditional sense,” she adds. “Entire apartments decorated in beach themes are overwhelming and cheesy.” Nothing’s wrong with beach, but think bigger—what feelings about the beach mean something to you? Relaxing and serene. Bold. Exotic. This can translate to particular colors, knickknacks, wall hangings, or music you play when friends are over. Little touches are surprisingly effective and a little cohesiveness goes a long way.
2. Repurpose items.
Got a wall rack that’s weighted down with heavy coats or hats? Stuff large items in a closet or in bins under the bed and use freestanding racks to hold something prettier and lighter, like jewelry. Before tossing out old pencil boxes or mugs, give them a new profession as interesting makeup brush holders. After finishing a few jars of jelly I bought on a recent trip to France, I washed them out and used them as pencil holders on my desk. It gives an eclectic, exotic feel—and de-clutters.
3. Add depth with a mirror.
“Not only does a unique mirror add aesthetic variety, it also provides an illusion of more space,” says Davis. Flea markets are usually rife with old-looking mirrors that are much more interesting than your cookie-cutter furniture store finds. Speaking of cookie-cutter, IKEA also has some floor-to-ceiling, framed ones that look very chic propped into a corner of a bedroom or living room.
4. Add a rug.
Rugs give both small- and big-space dwellers the chance to change the feel of an entire room with the addition of one thing. There are endless options when it comes to style, size, shape, and texture. I snagged a blue, geometric patterned rug for forty bucks on eBay that always gets compliments.
5. Adorn walls with framed anything.
Photos from last year’s calendar of the Greek Isles. Digital photos printed in black and white or sepia tones. Photos you already have lying around. Craft stores like Michael’s or Joanne’s Fabrics have tons of frames on the cheap. I recently picked up a dozen wooden ones on clearance, painted half blue, and filled them with postcards I’ve gathered on various vacations. They look great hung randomly on a bedroom wall.
6. Display everyday items as art.
Home improvement stores like Home Depot have a huge array of wall hooks for cheaper-than-Anthropologie prices. “Install a bunch on one of your kitchen walls and hang your mugs from them,” says Davis. “You’ll add texture and variety to the room and free up cabinet space.” And it’s not just for mugs—free your drawers of jewelry and scarves, even small purses would work.
7. Make your own artwork.
If you don’t have a beautiful scarf collection to display, it’s no matter. Art supply stores sell inexpensive canvases of all sizes that you can use to express yourself with paint, charcoal, pencil, whatever. Have your dog walk across them with paint on his paws. Anything is art nowadays, right? That said, if you’re like me and no way will anything you paint be pretty enough to hang outside of a second grade classroom, try buying some colorful fabric and wrapping it tightly around the canvases. It’ll add texture and vibrancy the same way a painting would.
8. Make a statement with paint.
“Nothing makes a bigger statement than painting a wall,” says Davis. A bucket of paint from Home Depot runs for under fifty dollars and leaves you with endless options. Paint one wall a bold color, like dark blue. Pick up some stencils and give the room an interesting border, or place them at random all over one wall. You could even coat your ceiling. “If you paint the ceiling one to two shades lighter than the walls, it gives the illusion of a larger room,” says Davis. Inspired by a stay at the W Hotel in San Diego, whose rooms are various shades of blue, I picked up a light, a dark, and a teal blue, and painted various walls and cabinets with them. Save double by swapping a night out for a night in with friends—they help you paint; you provide a few bottles of wine.
9. Throw in some pillows.
A bright pillow or two can give a needed pop of color to an otherwise bland bedroom or living room. With their bold shapes, big, square, European-style throws are an easy way to add visual variety. If you already have decorative pillows, pick up new shams to reinvent the duvet you already have.
10. Spice up furniture with decals.
Buy a decal or two from Urban Outfitters or online to spice up walls, furniture, or even toilets. Love the elegance of chandeliers? Get a decal of one and plaster it across the wall nearest your kitchen table. Boring old desk? Get some nature-inspired decals for organic inspiration. You could even put a crown on your toilet seat cover to make it a throne.
11. Upgrade the lighting.
Those standard frosted ceiling domes scream cheap and generic. Swap them for a more creative covering, or just forgo them altogether in exchange for an eclectic combo of standing floor and table lamps, which have the added benefit of casting more flattering light than their overhead cousins do. Target has rows of lamps of all shapes and sizes—from Asian-inspired paper covered to thoroughly modern and minimalist.
I know I feel the need to make a place my own immediately, but from now on, I think I’ll take Davis’s advice and make decorating a constant and changing process. “If I like something I see an event, I’ll try to tweak it and bring it home. Snap a photo and try to apply it to your room,” she says. So even though I don’t technically own my place, I do own the environment within its walls, and now I can give it a little facelift without breaking the bank.