Dear Lifehacker, My apartment is boring and I want it to be really cool, but I don't know much about interior design and I don't have very much money. What can I do to make my home look cool and not really dull? Sincerely, Design Out of Reach
Making your home look nice is actually not as hard as you think. Although you'll want to know a few design principles to help you make the best possible choices, your primary goal simply needs to be to create an environment that exemplifies who you are. I spoke with Bradford Shellhammer, one of the founders of Fab.com (a site that offers steep discounts on all kinds of design items), for some guidance. He offered several suggestions on making just about any home a well-designed place imbued with your personal aesthetic.
First things first, you need to make a plan before you go out and start picking up the things you need. Bradford said he sees people often go out and just buy furniture or random art to fill the walls because they know these are things that homes are supposed to have. This tends to breed the kind of boring home you want to avoid because it's purely utilitarian. When you plan ahead, you can get everything you need without sacrificing design.
Select A Colour Scheme
Picking a colour scheme is an important first step because it will inform the majority of the choices you make. Bradford suggested starting with a few colours you like, so that the choice is personal, and working from there. Finding a colour scheme that suits you doesn't require a knowledge of colour theory (although you can learn the basics here) because all you need to do is explore existing schemes. One of the best places to do that is at Adobe Kuler, as it offers a variety of different colour collections that you can explore. If you want to practise putting a few colours together yourself, the site will let you do this as well. It's a very useful tool to employ when you're exploring the colours that are going to inform all of your design choices.
Steal What You See
When you're putting your plan together, don't be afraid to steal somebody else's idea and repurpose it for your own home. Chances are you're going to want to make a few changes, so you're not going to wind up with the exact same look by your own design, but you'll also have a difficult time finding every little piece of furniture and art in a photo of a room you want to copy. Even though you'll have natural differences, don't be afraid to combine ideas as well. Bradford suggests picking up a shelter magazine (like Dwell, or whatever suits your personal style) and finding ideas you can bring to your own home.
Mix and Match Your Furniture
If you've just moved, you might need furniture. If not, perhaps you're looking to get a few new things. When you need furniture for whatever reason, Bradford suggests straying from a single outlet and mixing and matching your options. Deciding to buy everything from the IKEA catalogue would just result in your home looking like an IKEA showroom. Your goal is to add some personality, so pick furniture from a variety of sources that all adhere to your colour scheme.
You don't have to spend a lot of money -- there's nothing wrong with purchasing used or inexpensive furniture so long as you like it. If there's an item you want that's out of your budget, remember that you don't have to get it right now. Wait until you can afford it, and keep an eye out for sales. You can even ask an employee at the furniture store to let you know if and when the item you want becomes a part of a floor sample sale. In the event the furniture store is willing to give you a call when that happens, you can pick up your furniture at a heavy discount. I once bought a great $900 couch for $250 with delivery this way.
Paint an Accent Wall or Two
Although most people are under the impression that white walls make a home feel bigger, Bradford argues that adding colour to your walls is responsible for that effect because it provides the illusion of depth. You don't even have to paint every wall. You can simply select a wall or two to make your accent wall to add an extra impact. Just refer to your colour scheme when you're deciding which paint to buy.
If you're a renter who's worried about pissing off your landlord, or just don't want to paint your walls back to white when you move out, you have a few alternatives. Temporary wallpaper -- while more expensive -- can be easily added to the walls and removed when you leave. Although its additional cost may be a deterrent, it does have the advantage of being reusable. Unlike paint, you can transplant it from one apartment to another as you move. Alternatively, vinyl wall decals (like these great ones from Blik) offer an easy way to add some unique designs without the risk of damage. For a few more painting alternatives, check out our guide to customising your apartment without pissing off your landlord.
It is worth noting that paint is pretty cheap and the simplest, most-effective option. Alternatives will cost you more, and if you're looking to make your home look great on the cheap you'll want to stop worrying and use paint. Bradford says "screw your landlord, paint your walls, and just repaint when you leave." It's less work than you might imagine.
Add a Rug (or Other Floor Covering)
Bare floors aren't the worst thing in the world, but Bradford suggests that rugs and floor coverings are one of the best ways that you can make your home feel bigger, better defined and more visually compelling. He says most people tend to pick a small rug when they have a small space, but this is actually the wrong way to go. Bigger rugs can make a space feel larger because they help define an area of a room. If your living and dining areas are all part of the same room, adding a rug creates visual separation and that makes the space feel larger. To keep costs down, buy a vintage rug on eBay, something from IKEA, or look for flat cotton-weave rugs (which won't feel as nice as some rugs but will still look great).
Use Your Personality to Fill the Walls and Shelves
Bringing your personality to the design of your home is what will make it unique and special, and utilising your wall and shelf space is one of the easiest ways to do just that. People looking to save money often resort to generic, boring art, but you can create or find better options. Bradford offered up plenty of interesting ideas for ways you can add inexpensive art by just thinking about the things you like. For example, if you're a surfer you could frame and mount a map of the coastline. If you like architecture, go buy a book of architecture, tear out the pages, and frame them. Well-framed screen prints, band posters, drawings from your nieces and nephews, newspaper clippings, or anything that related to you can be used to fill the void created by your empty walls. Collections are also your friend. If you loved toy robots as a child, start collecting them and arranging them nicely on your shelves. Frame a bunch of ticket stubs from your favourite movies. Multiples can make a big visual impact, so various types of collections add a unique style to your home.
If you'd prefer to acquire art that already exists, the hard part won't be finding anything good but narrowing down your options. Your best bet is to think of something you like -- such as cars -- and search for car-related art on or offline. Etsy is filled with unknown but very talented artists selling their work at reasonable prices. Some will even do custom work for you based on criteria you specify. If Etsy isn't your thing, eBay is another source. You can also find discounted art at Fab.com. If you want to see what you're buying in person, attending student art shows are great ways to find interesting new work without breaking the bank.
Bradford says it all comes down to this: find things you like that tell the story of who you are. If someone else doesn't like it, who cares -- they don't have to live there. The only person who needs to love the look of your home is you.
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