If this approach doesn’t freshen up a room, you might add new throw pillows and have artwork rematted in a different color. You’d be surprised, say designers, how much this can change a room.
Wessel has a client who planned to buy an $8,000 sofa but put the purchase on hold after losing money in the stock market. As a temporary fix, the client ordered new throw pillows for $500. They were such an improvement that she no longer feels she needs the new sofa.
Custom pillows can be pricey. To save money, says designer Sally Steponkus, use a basic solid fabric on the back and splurge on a beautiful print for the front.
You can also find stylish pillows for less at retail. Steponkus has four custom pillows on her sofa that cost $250 each and two $25 pillows from Target on her living-room chairs. She gets more compliments on the Target pillows.
Steponkus is also a fan of decorative trays from Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and World Market. She places them on ottomans, coffee tables, and side tables, and fills them with books, a plant, or other objects.
A fresh coat of paint can do wonders, not just for walls. Instead of repairing the creaky floors in his Dupont Circle condo, designer Joe Ireland painted them white—it’s a fresh, clean look that he also uses in clients’ homes. He uses Benjamin Moore’s porch-and-floor paint and suggests sticking to white, espresso, or another neutral.
Ireland’s business partner, Julie Weber-Levine, suggests another inexpensive improvement: Put your lights on dimmers and switch from yellowish light bulbs to white. She likes GE’s Reveal bulbs. “It makes a huge difference,” she says.
Pick Your Stars First
If you’re redecorating a room, you’ve probably looked through design books and magazines to get a sense of the look you want. Don’t worry if you can’t picture every last thing. You want to choose a room’s dominant pieces first—whether a painting, a rug, or a sofa—and then fill in around them.
Think of your room as a play, says DC designer Emily Bishop: “You have your lead actors and your supporting actors.”
You’ll want a color scheme that includes background and accent colors. If you have a favorite rug or piece of art, use that as a starting point. Curtis suggests carrying paint chips that match all your colors so that you don’t end up buying things that don’t go.
Buy to Last
You can save in the long run by shopping with an eye toward the future, even if it means a bigger cost up front.
“There is an enormous difference between inexpensive and cheap,” says Bethesda designer Tracy Morris. “If you want to use a piece for years, get something that is basic and you know will last.”
For high-quality case goods, look for solid wood, dovetailed joinery, and dowels or screws instead of staples. For a long-lasting sofa, look for kiln-dried wood, eight-way hand-tied springs, and well-padded arms. Of the national stores, designers like Crate & Barrel’s upholstery best.
Outdoor fabrics, most leather, Ultrasuede, synthetic blends, and Teflon-coated fabrics hold up under heavy wear and tear. Before choosing, you may want to check the fabric’s “double-rub” test, which gives a rating for durability, suggests McLean designer Barbara Hawthorn. She says fabrics with a score of 15,000 to 30,000 can withstand kids and pets.
Consider buying big-ticket items in neutral shades and simple styles. You can add color and trends with accents and later easily change things up.
As a general rule, designers suggest spending more on things that will get heavy use—such as the family-room sofa—and statement pieces that will add a lot of style. To make bargains inconspicuous, Morris suggests, pick three to five more-expensive things that people will focus on when they enter the room.
Most designers say they never scrimp on window treatments because high-end custom drapes or shades can make a room. But when pressed on what they would do if they had to cut costs—custom drapes can cost $1,000 or more per window—many said they would order natural-grass shades or matchstick or wood blinds from a company such as Next Day Blinds or Blinds to Go or buy panel curtains or Roman shades from Pottery Barn, West Elm, Ikea, or Restoration Hardware.
For floor coverings, a designer bargain tip is to buy carpet remnants—pieces left over from big jobs—and have the edges bound. Designers also like sisal and seagrass, which are affordable yet often used in high-end homes, and Flor carpet tiles, which allow you to replace a small segment if the carpet gets stained or damaged.
Choose a rug that’s big enough for your room. “That’s one thing I can’t bite my tongue about,” says Samantha Friedman, a Gaithersburg designer who says she often sees living-room rugs that leave the sofa and chairs on the bare floor. Rugs should extend at least one foot under the sofa, she says.
Another place not to skimp: paint. You won’t save much by buying cheap paint, and there is a difference. High-quality paint goes on more evenly, has a richer color, and holds up longer. You may even need fewer coats. Farrow & Ball is generally considered the best, but Benjamin Moore’s Aura line is easier to find and almost as good. Some designers also like C2 paint.
New Life for Old Things
You can often get better-quality furniture for the money by buying used, and mixing in older things can make a space look sophisticated.
But whether an item is worth refurbishing depends on what it is; designers have lots of stories of “bargain” finds they spent thousands to repair. Check with an upholstery shop or refinisher for a rough estimate before purchasing.
You can save a lot by refinishing pieces yourself. For her own dining room, Jennie Curtis restored a 1940s table she bought at the Old Lucketts Store in Leesburg for $395.
The table was painted battleship gray. She stripped it, stained the top, and glazed the base. She says it would now fetch at least $3,000. But it was hard work. “You have to have the desire and the patience,” Curtis says. She recommends practicing with a small piece first.
If refinishing is out of the question, consider painting. You can make disparate styles work together by painting them all the same color; black, white, and gray are safe bets.