Ultra-beginner-level interior furnishing/decorating/design advice?
May 22, 2015 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I'd like my home to look well-put-together, but my interior decorating ability never advanced beyond college-dorm level. I have no idea where to start, and I'm a little overwhelmed thinking about it. I need the most basic, beginner-level, baby-steps, for-dummies advice you've got.

A few weeks ago, we bought a couple plain area rugs, and were amazed at there difference they made. Rugs! I'd never owned one before. And I've never painted a wall, framed a picture, or bought furniture anywhere nicer than Ikea. Curtains baffle me. I can look at a finished room and point out what I like about it, but I can't figure out what to do with an empty room.

I've looked at Apartment Therapy and other interior design blogs, but I quickly get overwhelmed by all the stuff there, most of which doesn't seem to apply to me. I'm looking for something more basic, general, and beginner-oriented.

Some specifics that may or may not be helpful:
  • We're not struggling financially, and I recognize that higher-quality things tend to cost more, but furniture still gives me sticker shock.
  • I've lived in rented apartments all my adult life, and we have no immediate plans to buy. Obviously, this limits what I can do as far as painting and installing fixtures. This also makes me drag my feet on buying furniture, because it's all going to get moved anyway.
  • Our place is small, so advice tailored for small spaces would be helpful.
  • We have a baby, so childproofing is a major consideration. We also have two cats who are determined not to let us have Nice Things.
  • If you want to get all armchair psychologist about it, I guess on some level I still don't consider myself an adult capable of keeping house? Like, I always mess things up anyway, so there's no point in making my living space look nice?
  • Obviously, any changes we make will be gradual - e.g. getting one end table rather than completely redoing the living room.
I am not interested in:
  • Advice on organization, cleaning, decluttering, etc. I'll be the first to admit that these are things I need to work on, and they're part and parcel of having a pleasant home, but they're things I generally know how to do, and I'm familiar with a lot of the resources (Unfuck Your Habitat, KonMari, FlyLady, etc., etc.)
  • Complicated DIY projects. A little DIY is fine, but I'm lazy and not particularly handy, and I don't want to buy a bunch of tools and supplies I'll only use once.
  • Oodles of pretty pictures of arty interiors, unless they're demonstrating some sort of design principle. Looking at beautiful living spaces doesn't inspire me, it just makes me feel worse about my own.
I'd prefer books or written online guides to videos or TV shows. Also, if you're experienced in this area and have your own set of basic guidelines, I'd like to hear them. Thanks!
posted by Metroid Baby to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Apartment Therapy has a book that's more straightforward to use than just browsing their site. It walks through decorating an apartment step by step, helps you figure out your style, etc. Highly recommend.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:37 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

A solid dining table is always a good piece of furniture to start with.
posted by flink at 10:41 AM on May 22, 2015

Well, you're gonna hate me, because my first, second, and third tip are: clean up and de-clutter. Speaking as a fellow poor person, the reason those small-space spreads look so perfect is because they are carefully cluttered - not real people clutter where there's a pile of unshredded documents and cat toys and a bookcase with books piled in front of it where nobody put them away, but an artful fork and a book left open and that kind of silly thing.

The best thing you can do is find baskets - dollar store or Ikea - and give everything a place. Place a priority on furniture that allows you to store stuff under or inside it.

Regarding furniture, Ikea is another godsend for the folks without bucks, because their chipboard stuff - or whatever it is - is generally in the same colour range throughout their furniture lines, so you can get cheap bookshelves, TV stands, and other storage furniture to match, and having the colours of your furniture match and compliment makes a huge difference as well. The very bottom of their line is flimsy but not ugly; the difference between that and the more expensive stuff is that you will need to take better care of it (it breaks more easily), and it isn't finished as well.

You can find nice stuff thrifting, but it's so oversaturated with the hipster set that finding nice, undamaged classic pieces will be hard, and then you'll have to spend your own time and money refinishing it.

My advice? Get what fits in a small space, not what people think you should have. I couldn't fit a coffee table in my living room despite what my parent wants to buy, but I think it looks fine with a couch, wall-to-wall bookshelves, and a TV unit.

And finally, adding framed pictures to your walls is like adding a belt to an outfit - it takes the room from "we're renting" to "we're renting but maybe you can't tell?" Gallery groupings can look really nice and you can make them as idiosyncratic as you want.
posted by Nyx at 10:52 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

As I have said before here, I have never regretted the good sofas I've purchased (and the cheap sofas have reminded me of my mistake every day). I recommend ultrasuede fabric; it's stood up to heavy use and pets like a champ, vacuum it and it looks good as new (in 2008; in 2015 - also, you are right about rugs). You might have luck finding better quality furnishings for sale on Craigslist, which could help with the sticker shock.

As for more general advice: Accumulate slowly, but buy stuff that really moves you. It took me awhile to figure out that furniture doesn't wear out like clothes, so you should try and buy something you love the first time; don't buy something cheaply made as a placeholder. It's totally okay if your loves change over time, but don't settle when it comes to furniture you'll look at and use every day.
posted by deliriouscool at 10:57 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

We bought two beautiful Italian leather sofas and two red leather swivel rockers on Craigslist. It required a long time searching and being picky and they weren't incredibly cheap, but in fabulous condition and much much nicer quality than anything we could have afforded new.

One thing I wonder is if you have something-a piece of art or furniture-that you love and that you could kind of build around? For me, it's some gorgeous quilts, that inspire me color wise (and work both practically and as art in the room) that I've used as a base for the next things I buy-in another room, it's a rug. I'm not all matchup matchup, but I put this bright Turkish rug on the floor and my brown leather couches and red leather chairs-and all the sudden I'm going somewhere...then I have an idea of what I want on the walls and mantle, what color throw pillows, etc.
posted by purenitrous at 11:16 AM on May 22, 2015

deliriouscool: "As for more general advice: Accumulate slowly, but buy stuff that really moves you."

Yeah, my suggestion was, start with one thing you really love -- whether it's an accent chair, a couch, a dining room table, a paint color, whatever. And then grow slowly into a "finished" room. I started with (of all things!) a rocking chair intended for nursing babies, and found a cool prairie-style rocker I really liked, with moss-green cushions on a medium-toned wood, which I bought as a discontinued floor model from a very spendy furniture store. So that suggested a prairie-look media console (which I got at Target). When it came time to replace the grubby old couch a few years later, I got an Ikea number with clean modern lines (to complement the prairie style lines of the chair, but not be totally matchy-matchy) in a color that complemented the chair. Which suggested burgundy-and-khaki throw pillows, which I whipped up, which suggested coordinating-color window treatments (which I also made myself). It's just grown organically over six or seven years. It took me forever to find the right lamps to suit the room, but I was glad I made do with some cheapies until I found just the right thing instead of buying something I only kind-of liked but then felt obligated to keep because it cost a lot.

My stuff is a mix of more expensive pieces from "real" furniture stores that I will keep forever and ever and love them to pieces -- these tend to be smaller (so that I can afford them AND so they can move with me to new houses where they'll fit) -- and cheap stuff from Target and Ikea that suits the room and are necessary for comfort, but will wear out over time. I mean, my couch works great in this room, but I don't know if it'll work wherever I move next, so I don't worry a whole lot about my kids getting greasy handprints on the fabric that never QUITE come out, because I'm not going to own it FOREVER and I didn't spend a bazillion dollars on it.

"Curtains baffle me."

Curtains are, more than anything else, IMO, subject to trends. There's no one "right" set of curtains for a particular room. Right now people are doing floor-to-ceiling curtains to give the illusion of taller rooms, but that looks weirdly out of place if you have a farmhouse vibe in your room, where curtains that show the window size are clearly called for. Go find on pinterest one of those "styling your curtains a billion ways" pins and pick some style of curtaining you think would suit the room.

Also if you can describe some of the things you like in pictures -- "These windows look so uncluttered!" -- you can go type "uncluttered window" or "uncluttered window treatment" into pinterest and find a billion examples to look at, which can help you close in on what you like and want for your own room. Maybe you look and it turns out it's not the unclutteredness of the window treatments don't attract you ... it's more the bright color and clean lines. So then you search that, and you're closer to what you want.

And not all at once; I idly surf home decor websites every few weeks when watching TV in the evening or whatever, and let my ideas percolate slowly. If you decide, I WILL FIND THE CURTAINS I LIKE RIGHT NOW then it turns into a "the beatings will continue until morale improves!" exercise in frustration to me.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I asked a similar question related to developing taste, and someone recommended pinterest (this was ages ago). It really worked!

Before buying stuff, use something like pinterest to curate all the things you like, and you will slowly develop your own voice. With time you will recognize the colors and atmospheres that move you, and the things that might be trendy but you don't really love.

You can start buying good quality stuff now, but matching things and keeping an eye on how much sense the room makes overall will be quite overwhelming, plus you run the risk of things looking too magazine-y. Like perfect but without a soul.

So at least for me, what worked was collecting pictures of the things I like on pinterest, regularly going through my boards (I have a board for each room of my dream mansion - even silly boards like "secret compartments", "tree houses" or "cob cottages"), and see the patterns in my pins. Then slowly I move towards that pattern. Like I can buy something once every couple of months, but I am SURE it's the right piece. Don't rush it, don't buy half of Ikea in one weekend. Building the interior of your home can be quite enjoyable!

I also used this method for developing a clothes style.
posted by Tarumba at 11:27 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kids + cats + still renting + furniture sticker shock = buy the floor model. It will come pre-dinged and thus you won't feel like killing kids/cats when they scratch it the first time and it gets you a discount.

I was not crazy about buying used, but I liked buying floor models when my kids were younger and still beating everything up. It also makes it less painful when you move and it just doesn't work in the new space.

Also, go to Pinterest or the like and just look at pictures you like instead of reading articles.
posted by Michele in California at 11:47 AM on May 22, 2015

When you display items--pictures on a wall, knickknacks on a table or mantlepiece, etc, group them together instead of evenly spacing them out. Also, try to group in odd numbers, which for some reason are usually more visually interesting than even ones. (Very formal arrangements go for symmetry and even numbers but honestly, that tends to be graduate-level decorating.)

Straight from my interior-designer sister-in-law: you do not have to have all your furniture matching. Don't worry about getting them from the same set. If you fall in love with a chair, buy it and look for a sofa that complements it (bring a photo with you when shopping).
posted by telophase at 11:58 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I find this link (from Buzzfeed...I know) to be amazingly useful for basic reference.

These Diagrams Are Everything You Need To Decorate Your Home
posted by pantarei70 at 11:58 AM on May 22, 2015 [19 favorites]

Art was the single biggest difference in me feeling like a proper adult in my home. For a long time, I just bought a bunch of the nicer frames from IKEA and framed anything I liked in them. I like this article about what height to hang art on. When I was preparing for moving from one place to another, I pinned probably hundreds of rooms on Pinterest to get a feel for what I liked and what my style was. Then from there, we started looking at pieces to create that look.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 12:28 PM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I want to second recommending Apartment Therapy the book, and also say that apartmenttherapy.com can be very helpful as well. Yes, they talk about decluttering a lot, and there are pretty pictures of other people's spaces, but there is a lot of solid, practical advice as well. When they do show people's spaces, they will give summaries at the end where the people talk about their inspirations and give advice. I like to look it over once a day to see if there is any information I can use, or file away for the future.
posted by maggiemaggie at 12:45 PM on May 22, 2015

My normal solution is plants, but, y'know, cats, vomit, no good will come of this.

Table lamps seem to make a difference too, but again, I'm not sure these pass the 'middle of the night crash' test with the cats.

PS: My cat leaves succulents (jade, etc) alone.
posted by maryr at 1:31 PM on May 22, 2015

Thanks for the great link, pantarei70! Dear OP, check your lease. According to my rental lease, I am obligated to leave the apartment in the shape that it was in when I moved here. When I was signing my lease, I pointed out to the management company rep that we live in earthquake country so I would be putting holes in the walls so as not to be killed by a bookcase during a quake. He pointed out that was fine, as long as I patched up the holes late. As the on-site apartment manager knows (and has commented on approvingly) I have added wall cabinets to the dining area and painted one wall a vivid grass green because it made me happy. I'm willing to patch the holes and repaint when it's time for me to move because I've been here 4 years and expect to be here for many more and want my home to feel welcoming and comfy and attractive to me. Which means painting some things and drilling a bunch of holes in the walls for shelves, art, etc. I'll probably paint my bedroom eventually, too. Because that dull neutral beige stuff on every wall just doesn't do it for me. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2015

Oh! On the curtains front: If the ones you like are giving you sticker shock (they are usually individually priced and sometimes you need 4 not 2 per window), I had great luck at my last place with this pinterest hack: use a shower curtain with ribbons instead. Target has lots of pretty, inexpensive shower curtains that work well for this.
posted by maryr at 1:36 PM on May 22, 2015

Christopher Lowell's 7 Layers of Design - there is also a book, the writing is a little goofy for my taste but does a great job of showing the different layers in practice and with totally different looks.

"Shop" on Pinterest before shelling out real money for anything; you'll see a design aesthetic pop up as you accumulate lots of ideas.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:46 PM on May 22, 2015

I learned a lot from Use What You Have Decorating
posted by superna at 7:57 PM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also came to recommend Pinterest. Pinterest has a search function that works so great, I use it all the time. I would start with one very small search. For instance, is your new rug yellow? Search for "decorate with yellow rug" and you have dozens of pictures to look at. Pick a few you like the most, or one that you love, and copy it by gradually buying the elements you see. Need a pet-friendly stylish couch? There are TONs of ideas there. Pick one, buy it, and then keep searching as you add more. Baby steps!

I think the right way to do it is to buy one large item first, and then add the other stuff. For instance, start with one of those cool grey pet friendly couches on Pinterest, then search for "chair to go with grey couch and yellow rug" or whatever. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, just take it one step at a time. Yellow rug. Grey sofa. Blue lamp. Simple framed art ideas. Console table. How to paint furniture. Organizing kids toys.

You could also take a picture of one area to start with, put it on imagur and ask for specific advice here. I see those AskMes occasionally and the creative advice given has always impressed me.
posted by raisingsand at 8:19 PM on May 22, 2015

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