Be it ever so humble...
October 28, 2006 7:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I make my house's decor appear sophisticated and interesting?

My house is nice enough, but I want to do something different.

If I had a ton of money I could buy a charming house with built-in bookcases, hardwood floors, and fill it with antiques and oriental rugs. Hannah's apartment in the movie Hannah and her Sisters is my dream space. Since I am not a millionaire, how can I make my decorating in my 2000 square-foot stucco home with vaulted ceilings more interesting? I have a typical Florida suburban house--not really any architectural interest to speak of.

I *know* that I should create interiors that are interesting to me. I feel that I do, but I need more ideas.

I don't want to necessarily buy mass-marketed home accessories (been there, done that), I don't want my house to look like a page in a catalog. I want something else.

What could I fill my bookshelves with? What kind of art or prints, pottery, textiles, furniture, planters, etc. should I choose without looking like a complete poseur?

I want to convey a sense of elegance and sophistication on a middle class budget. (I am not completely broke, I recently returned to work part-time with a nice hourly wage for mad money. I could piecemeal.)

I want my house to say "interesting" even though I have Formica cabinets. Any and all ideas appreciated.
posted by LoriFLA to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Paint. Paint. Paint. Are your walls white or beige, that's the first thing you should change. Don't be afraid to use a bold, saturated color. It seems scary at first, but brings a lot of warmth and charm to a room.

I don't think you ever go wrong by looking for artwork at local galleries. That's a wonderful place to find pottery or baskets as well. Maybe you already have some serving pieces in your kitchen cabinets that would look nice in the bookcase.

I have an architectual print that I bought on Ebay for $35, then framed for about $200. It's the centerpiece of my living room.
posted by saffry at 7:35 AM on October 28, 2006

What could I fill my bookshelves with? What kind of art or prints, pottery, textiles, furniture, planters, etc. should I choose without looking like a complete poseur?

Ones that you like. Seriously.. we can't tell you what your style is. Buy pretty things that you like. Or, alternatively, take digital photos of them, and keep a sort of catalogue on your computer. You'll start developing a sense of what you do and do not like, see how those things relate to each other, and then you can start culling.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2006

It seems like you're undecided about what aesthetic you like, so you probably have a lot of nice stuff fighting with nice stuff that doesn't match it. I would get rid of all the stuff you don't love. Minimalism/Simplicity always looks sophistocated.

How about do it yourself built in bookshelves? Usually the nicest homes have a lot of hands-on work put into them. You probably have a pretty nice home and I bet a few improvemnet projects, with the help of Lowe's or Home Depot, would make it feel a lot nicer for you. Stuff like doing tiles, laying fake hardwood, grouting, changing the latches on your cabinets and stuff, is all super easy and can often make a huge difference.
posted by shownomercy at 8:40 AM on October 28, 2006

Never underestimate flea markets and antique fairs. You have to do a lot of rummaging, but you can come up with some real treasures for not too much money. My husband and I love to spend a day wandering through places like that.
posted by christinetheslp at 8:46 AM on October 28, 2006

Agreeing, with those above who say to buy and keep things that you love. That will show off your own taste and personality, and avoid the sense of being a "poseur" (even if you're the only one who knows).

I usually associate elegance and sophistication with classic or timeless design, rather than with trendy things that may become passe in a few years -- but that's just me.

About doing this on a budget... Have you seen the HGTV show "Sensible Chic" about reproducing high-end designer rooms on a budget? You can pull this up on their web site; some magazines have similar articles, too.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:55 AM on October 28, 2006

Don't buy suites, or matching sets of furniture. Nothing says "I have no imagination or style" more than that. You want each room to have furniture in it that looks like it was aquired over time, by someone with a good eye, who travelled and searched for it. Pieces should go with each other, but not be matchy matchy. You can mix antique with modern, too. You don't have to go for a period in time. I don't know what the rooms from Hannah and Her Sisters look like, but I'm guessing eclectic.

Buy or borrow some interior design magazines and find rooms you love, and try to emulate the overall feel of the room, but of course on a much more sensible budget.

Watch the Design Channel if you have cable. Shows like Design on a Dime are treasure troves of ideas that you can steal.

Mix your textures in each room. Have different kinds of wood of course, but also glass, fabric, steel, concrete, etc. It adds so much interest and character.

Fill up your shelves with books, of course, but also, start collecting something! Old cameras are great, and cheap, and people love to grab them and look at them and play with them. Same with a stack of pop-up books on your coffee table, or decks of cards, or old wooden toys or games.
posted by iconomy at 8:55 AM on October 28, 2006

If you're trying to recreate the Hannah and Her Sisters look, recognize from the git go that many people are never going to see that as "sophisticated." To them, it looks cluttered and kitsch, but if you like knick knacks, so be it. You've got to live there. You've got to dust (or pay for dusting).

Why not work with an interior designer in your area to help you find and cultivate your sense of interior design? There are good people who work as free lancers, and can observe a budget, and lay out a plan that works over time. Look around, thinking of them as "professional friends with taste," until you find someone who you'd like to involve in your life over a couple of years, and who seems up for the task. Work with them to develop your space against a coherent plan, and then implement the plan as time and money allow. You'll make fewer mistakes, have an idea of where you are headed, and can document changes in your own sensibilities as you learn, much more easily.

There are also various design schools linked from the page I linked above. Perhaps you could investigate taking some classes in interior design, or working with students in those curriculums, looking for projects, to get a sense of how people in the interior design field are taught to think.
posted by paulsc at 8:57 AM on October 28, 2006

What could I fill my bookshelves with?

Books? They do furnish a room.
posted by handee at 9:11 AM on October 28, 2006

Less is more. Don't fill every available space, nook, cranny. A good piece here, an interesting piece there, not shelves full of stuff.

Of course, books go on bookshelves too, but not a million romance or mystery paperbacks with broken spines. If that kind of book is your favorite vice, hide 'em under the bed.
posted by CoffeeCake at 9:18 AM on October 28, 2006

Travel. Find hand-made things that appeal to you in the places that they're made. Many of them will be inexpensive, and every one will have a story behind it, even if it's just "oh, that's from a market near the Lago de Atitlán, a gorgeous lake in the Guatemalan highlands..." Mail them back to yourself, so you don't have to carry them around on your trip.
posted by aneel at 9:42 AM on October 28, 2006

I keep a vertical file or three with clippings from all of the catalogs and interior design magazines that I've browsed through over the years. Then, when I'm seeking inspiration, or usually just want to daydream, I head over to my files and see what interests me. No need to buy anything from a catalog; it's just a good way to figure out your tastes and see what kinds of things you'd like. All sorts of "do it yourself" ideas might come to mind. Who knows, it might even point you in the direction of some sort of "bigger picture".

Mostly, my advice is to create some place in which you're going to feel comfortable living, because well, you're the one who's going to be living there. You write that you don't want to buy mass-marketed goods; is it because of manufacturing quality issues, or because you want to be more "individual" than buying what everyone else is buying? You could always buy artisan-produced items, but if that's not in your budget, the surest way to create a house with personality is to buy things with a story attached: "Oh that trinket? Well, when I was in Borneo one summer..."

Or, put another way:
"It is far more fascinating to come into a room which is the living expression of a person, or a group of people, so that you can see their lives, their histories, their inclinations, displayed in manifest form around the walls, in the furniture, on the shelves. Beside such experience--and it is as ordinary as the grass--the artificial scene-making of "modern decor" is totally bankrupt."
- Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
On preview: what aneel said.
posted by metabrilliant at 10:05 AM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Minimize the appearance of electronics. If you have a big TV, position it in such a way that it cannot be seen from outside of a room (i.e, put it in a corner next to the opening to a room)

If you have a computer area, eliminate the clutter that comes with a computer. I switched to a flat panel and wireless keyboard/mouse combo, got rid of the printer (since it's not used very often. Try to hide the tower as well (mine is actually in an adjecent utility room with all cables running through the wall)

Same goes for things like telephones - try to route cables and wires and such as unobtrusively as possible.
posted by davey_darling at 10:31 AM on October 28, 2006

Just as the Apartment in Hannah and Her Sisters is one source of inspiration, i would recommend looking to websites (e.g. apartment therapy or design sponge) and magazines (e.g. Elle Decor, Met Home) for inspiration. You will see things over your budget, but so much that you see will also be things you could emulate or reproduce on a lesser budget.
posted by extrabox at 10:46 AM on October 28, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the replies. Keep them coming, they are great.

I do know what I like, but I like a lot of different styles. One day country cottage appeals to me, the next day something else. I have made lots of mistakes over the years, and I do admit that I have leaned toward the trendy at times. Remember when palm trees and the tropical look was 'in'? I made drapes and pillows in a tropical print, etc. It gets old easily. I want to do something that leans toward the traditional or eclectic, that won't date for a while.

My husband and I have done a few things. We have tile, we have a tiled porch, we have the Columbia Clic laminate floors that look like wood. It has potential. I feel like I know what looks good, but sometimes have problems with making decisions and creating a look that isn't too trendy.

If you're trying to recreate the Hannah and Her Sisters look, recognize from the git go that many people are never going to see that as "sophisticated." To them, it looks cluttered and kitsch, but if you like knick knacks, so be it. You've got to live there. You've got to dust (or pay for dusting).

I don't think the bric-a-brac appeals to me. I guess that particular space in the movie feels sophisticated to me because it's a huge apartment in NYC. I like the look of her traditional furniture, hardwood floors, piano, etc. Not necessarily all the knick knacks. I am a person who dislikes clutter.

Thanks again for all of the inspiring ideas.
posted by LoriFLA at 10:48 AM on October 28, 2006

You could do all your main pieces in neutrals, and get trendy with cheap accessories, like pillows and knick-knacks. That way you won't feel too badly replacing them after a few years. Also, slipcovers are just fantastic for someone who likes change or can't make up their mind. Slipcovers keep things fresh and hide a lot of bad decorating choices... ;)
posted by iconomy at 10:54 AM on October 28, 2006

My current job is in a South Florida furniture shop, and the company line on interior designers is "your friend on a shopping spree with your cash". Be careful there.
posted by casarkos at 11:12 AM on October 28, 2006

Lots of good comments here. Nonmatching furniture. Hide electronics. On your bookcases, occasionally leave a 8" section bookless and put an interesting object (teapot, vase, camera, small watering can etc) there. Get a few plants. Get a few interesting rugs. Color a wall, or all your walls. Get framed art that not everybody has. Get a mirror, or several small mirrors, with an interesting frame/s.

One good place to start online is Novica, National Geographic's "handmade stuff from exotic lands" company. Browse around and find one rug, or one wall hanging, or one vase or lamp-base that you really like. Then you can gradually get other stuff, at flea markets or whatever, that goes with that object. Not matches, but goes with.

For example, you may find an object that has several shades of light green, some pink, some purple. Subsequent decorating items don't have to be those same colors - they can include just one of those colors, or just be something that goes with those colors even though not including any of them. Another possibility is to collect something - cameras was suggested above, teapots, water pitchers, fans, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd really suggest painting your walls colours rather than leaving them white. Benjiman Moore has great ones, including a historical line. For some reason, white walls scream "rental"
posted by juliarothbort at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2006

If you're sure about your tastes, and willing to decorate around art you like, you can do some interesting things that hold up well over time. Back in 1989, I picked up this Howard Behrens serigraph, simply because I'd recently come back from a trip that included a few days in Santorini, and I liked it when I saw it through the window of a gallery I was walking by in Boston. I didn't know much about Behrens at the time, but I'm glad to say, it looked a lot less like the "dentist's office decor" that so much of Behrens' work has come to represent, because of the figures prominently lounging in the foreground, and I just liked the perspective of the piece, and have been pleased with it, since I got it. Few people first seeing it recognize it as Behrens, so I think my first impression of it holds up pretty well, across the years.

A couple of years later, I needed a new couch, and found a polished cotton fabric with embroidered fleur-de-lis pinpoints on 6 inch repeats, that picked up the blue and pink highlights of the Behrens piece, and had it made up on a simple overstuffed camel back frame by Ethan Allen. Together, the two pieces have become the center of a suprisingly masculine living room, built on a color scheme that you'd think only a Barbie doll could love.

Since getting the couch, I've added American Martindale dark cherry tables, a velour covered wing chair, some bronze lamps, and 3 very large (8 foot) fruitwood floor cases with interesting half doors, as well as a small Bombay chest, and some campaign seating. Some how it all works, and doesn't look like it came out of furniture show room, or a designer's head. I don't have TV in the living room, and only a small, basic sound system, for playing music and listening to radio programs, and this works out very well for reading and having guests. Nobody hesitates to sit in the living room, and nobody wonders where it is "OK to sit." Overall, my living room and dining room work very well for the daily tasks of living in my home, and are comfortable for the small groups of people I entertain. I like eggshell walls, and have several subtle sub-shades of eggshell on different walls, that pickup different directions of light as the sun progresses through the day, which is pretty important in most Florida homes, and I use dimmer controlled halogen and broad spectrum incandescent lighting to keep enough blue light in the rooms in the evening to keep a balanced color spectrum, centered aroung 6500 K, because many of my textiles are light blue, and would look washed out in warmer evening light. I like lighter carpet colors, but have extended the color scheme of the living room to the floor with some Persian Nain rugs I found that picked up my decorating pallette nicely, and draw the eye themselves. But the rugs are "busy," and wouldn't work, up against the couch, where they'd pull the eye downward, far too much. However, across the room, they define another seating area well, and provide visual interest for people sitting on the couch, as the Behrens does behind the couch, for people sitting across the room, in the wing chair, or the campaign chairs.

So that's one way to do something like you might wish to do, but the trick is, you have to like the art you key the room around, and you have to work with its palette. Its not an approach that works for everyone.
posted by paulsc at 12:04 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Lori, you've had some great answers, and I only have a couple of minor thoughts to add.

How do people who visit react to your home? Are they entranced by anything in particular, comment on how comfortable it is overall, or say "You must not have lived here very long."? Those are three very different things.

Have you tried taking photos of your own spaces? It can help you get an "outsider's" view, even if the photos aren't worthy of Architectural Digest. You may see that you've already acheived much of what you seek, or the pictures may show the opportunities that we lose sight of when we live in a space.

I'll admit, I'm working with somewhat the same questions here, since I've typically lived in houses much older and characterful than where I currently reside. What is winning against the beige is use of strong, rich colors and displaying the artifacts of my interests.
posted by vers at 1:29 PM on October 28, 2006

So many great suggestions here, but I'd just add: don't doubt yourself. If you love something it's good taste for you and you shouldn't worry about some arbitrary standard of taste.

Also, related somewhat to travel: get out there. Visit all the little boutiques and vinage stores and estate sales and flea markets that you can. Objects are sensual. Catalogues are great, but to get the sense of an object, there's really no substitute for touching it, turning it over, and seeing it with your own eyes. The more stuff you see for yourself, the more you'll get a sense of what you really love.

Unless you have a lot of money and confidence, trying to do a room with a theme or filled with objects from a single period is really difficult. The rooms I like best mix antique with modern, high end with low, decorative with functional, and bold color with neutrals to rest the eye.

I also focus on graceful and edited details, since big ticket items are out of reach. Maybe I'll have a cheap vintage hutch that I'll repaint a pretty neutral color, but I'll splurge on a set of gorgeous vintage china and linens and crystal, pick a small selection from them, and display them. And I'll also use them! That's what depresses me about a lot of "tastefully" decorated homes: too much stuff out on display and all of it gathering dust. I prefer having only my best and most often used things out, and actually using things as they were meant to be without worrying about "ruining" them.

Finally, my favorite decorating mag is Elle Decor. It covers the highest of the high end but also shabby chic. It's really good about showing how rooms are put together. Many of the items are utterly unaffordable to me, but they serve as tremendous inspiration when I'm out shopping. It's a cheap subscription and it might provide some inspiration to you too.
posted by melissa may at 1:44 PM on October 28, 2006

I forgot to add: if you've got a university or art school nearby, keep an eye out for student showcases of art. You can find some great bargains there while helping support and artist at the start of his or her career. Also, look for paintings and sculpture at vintage stores and the like. I think it's preferable buy several small pieces of good original art -- or one large fantastic piece -- than a big anonymous mass market print or object.
posted by melissa may at 1:55 PM on October 28, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great replies. There is a local art festival coming up, so I will be sure to go. I have several pieces and prints done by local artists, and I do try to buy something in each place we visit, even if it's just an inexpensive print.

How do people who visit react to your home?

I usually get lots of compliments. People have even commented that my house is "awesome". A girlfriend of mine wanted to take pictures! But, before I have company I scour the house from top to bottom, spruce up my front landscaping, wash the windows, and stage the house to look nicer than it really is. If I am having a big get-together I will buy new white fluffy towels for the bathroom, a couple orchid plants, a couple boquets of flowers, light a couple candles, etc. I have a beautiful leather ottoman that my son scribbled on in ball point pen. I slipcover that. It's all an illusion. My house is okay, but I intentionally make it nicer before I have company. Sadly, the towels get dingy, the orchids fade, the area rug gets juice on it, and I go back to the status quo. I want it to be *nice* all the time. I don't want to have to use a lot of smoke and mirrors.
posted by LoriFLA at 2:18 PM on October 28, 2006

I suggest you look around the Apartment Therapy web site. Right now they have a design contest going on -- readers send in pictures showcasing their use of color, and others comment and vote. It's remarkable what you can do with paint and fabric and very little money.
posted by wryly at 10:15 PM on October 28, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much wryly. Someone else mentioned Apartment Therapy. I love this site, I can't believe I haven't seen it until now.

Thanks for all of the comments. I am feeling very inspired. The husband person and I are hiring our painter friend, buying a couple pieces of furniture, and changing a few things. Thanks so much.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:06 AM on October 29, 2006

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