Heather Wood, Freelance Writer: articles about interior decorating & redesign, home staging & enhancement, & more
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Little cash, big changes

Use imagination, fresh eye to enliven that tired room

By Heather Wood
published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Real Estate section
Sunday, February 18, 2007


Are you tired of your living room décor but don't know where to start to transform your space? Stuck with the same old stuff and short on cash? Ready for a new look but not the credit card bills that come with it?

With a little creativity and effort, you can bring a fresh look to any room in your home or office at little or no cost.

Resources such as the Internet offer nearly limitless information, photos and products for affordable decorating. An increase in catalogs from home retailers such as Pier One, Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware means more inspiration. The explosion of do-it-yourself home decorating shows on cable TV has encouraged average homeowners to become weekend warriors of paint and fabric.

There's never been a better time to become a hands-on home-improvement type.

Where to start

Before you start tearing your home apart, take a good look at the space you want to redo. What is it that's really bothering you? Too much clutter? A cramped room arrangement? A lack of color -- or, on the contrary, a circus of colors?

By assessing what doesn't work, you'll be better prepared to determine how to fix it.

Make a list of the space's challenges, jotting down ideas for your ideal room. Go online and search "no- and low-cost decorating." Pick up one of the many home-retailer catalogs you no doubt have stacked somewhere in your home and see what appeals to you. Get out your camera, stand in each corner of the room and snap away. It's amazing what a picture can reveal by offering us an image of the entire space.

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It's hard to envision a new look when you're staring at your usual surroundings. Start by clearing the room of all clutter. That's right -- piles of papers, books, magazines and catalogs, random objects and other things without a home.

Next, clear the room of all accessories, tabletop photos and mementos. When you move them, group like items together: metal objects, ceramics, glass and wooden items. Group by color, theme and style, keeping collections intact.

Finally, remove the artwork, plants, lamps, etc. Now you've got some breathing room in which to start creating your "new" space.

Pieces of a puzzle

Good room arrangements always consider traffic flow -- and yours should, too. Perplexed about how best to go about it? There's a reason highly trained professional interior decorators and designers work first on paper to create a room: It's called space planning.

By making scale models of a room and the furniture to go in it, you can save your back -- and a lot of the time you would have spent trying to fit your 8-foot sofa into a 7-foot, 5-inch space.

There is myriad space-planning software available via the Internet. Better Homes and Gardens offers a free "arrange-a-room" utility on its Web site (bhg.com). If you're electronically challenged, there's also good, old-fashioned graph paper.

However you choose to do it, you'll need to measure the width and depth of all your furniture and cut out little replicas drawn to scale. (Usually, a quarter-inch equals a foot.)

A change of color is the quickest way to transform the look and feel of a space. Photos by Heather Wood, courtesy of Casa Milagros Interiors
A change of color is the quickest way to transform the look and feel of a space.
BEFORE HOME STAGING by Heather Wood -- Photos courtesy of Casa Milagros Interiors
Natural elements, such as rocks, can add interest to a room.

Sound like too much work? Start sliding pieces around the floor.

Regardless of how you approach it, take into account the following:

  • The room's intended purpose -- TV watching, for example, or book reading, or both.
  • The number of people who normally use the space.
  • Whether you entertain in the room. If you do, is there a place for everyone to set a drink or book?
  • Whether there are too many or too few furnishings in the room.
  • The room's focal point. Is it a fireplace, a picture window, an entertainment unit?
  • The purpose of each furnishing, piece of art or accessory. What does it bring to the room? What story does it tell us about the person or people who live here? What does it offer in terms of form and/or function?

Don't be afraid to try something new as you move your pieces around on paper, on your computer or on your floor.

Cost-free creations

Once you're comfortable with your floor plan, it's time to make the room look fresh.


A change of color is the quickest way to change the look and feel of a space. Painting walls, baskets and other wooden items gives a quick update. (This approach is not recommended for antique or heirloom pieces, however.)

Most people have a variety of leftover wall paint in the garage or shed. Why not make a bold move and paint a large "frame" around the area where a bed's headboard would go in a color that works with the wall color? With a level and some careful taping, you can add a classic yet hot-and-trendy stripe to a wall in a day.


If you're handy with a sewing machine, you can take scrap fabric from almost anything -- sheets, clothes and vintage fabrics -- and update your throw pillows in an afternoon. Stretch a decorative fabric over an inexpensive canvas and staple to affix -- instant wall hangings. Or create instant valances for window coverings with tapestries from your travels.

Excess lumber

The extra door molding or window framing hiding in your garage could make a lovely border for an unfinished bathroom mirror. Just paint or stain and install. It's a quick change that can be easily modified each time you change the color scheme in your bathroom.

Karen McAloon, host of HGTV's popular series Design Remix, is a master at turning excess lumber into picture frames, side tables, shelves and ceiling beams. Granted, she's armed with a team of tool-savvy technicians, but shows like this give us an idea of what's possible when we look at something in a different way.


One of the most daunting aspects of a room makeover is hanging the art. A good rule of thumb is to hang items lower than you think you should. And don't be afraid to try wall groupings. There are endless possibilities for creating groupings -- even entire how-to books dedicated to the subject.

Pull out some paper grocery bags or other scrap paper and cut them to the exact sizes of the pieces you wish to hang. Lay the "paper arrangement" out on the floor near the wall it's to be hung on.

Once you have a good feel for the arrangement -- keeping in mind balance, scale and symmetry/asymmetry -- hang your paper mock-ups on the wall using easily removable sticky tack. This allows you to move the mock-ups around until you have the configuration that works best. You can even mount your picture hangers and hardware over the paper dummies, ripping them off just before you hang the actual piece.


A common decorating oversight is the lack of proper lighting. The average homeowner rarely invests in enough lighting. Now's the time to "shop" your home, borrowing table and floor lamps from other rooms to create a warm, well-lit space.

Make sure you have ample task lighting -- overhead lighting is rarely adequate for reading. Arrange your lamps according to necessity. A floor lamp in a dark corner can create the feel of a larger room. An uplight behind a plant creates drama and interest. A table lamp provides reading light and a warm glow. When you do come into some decorating cash, lamps should be at the top of your list.


One of the hottest decorating trends in the last decade is "repurposing." Years ago some creative designer took a bold step and used an ottoman as a coffee table. While this was probably considered avant-garde at the time, it's now a mainstay decorating approach.

Look around your house for items that could serve another purpose. A large basket, turned upside down, becomes a bedside table. A bookshelf becomes a headboard. A petite antique china hutch becomes a unique dresser with a place to display pretty perfume bottles, family photos and the like. A retro thermos becomes the base of a hip lamp. You get the idea.

Natural interest

Often overlooked, Mother Nature offers us a large array of items to use in our decorating scheme. Just as the addition of plants makes a room immediately feel both calm and alive, bringing in the outdoors keeps us connected to our larger natural environment.

Pine cones, rocks and branches ground and add interest to a room. A collection of rocks in a bowl makes a unique centerpiece, as do willow (or other) branches displayed in a large vase. But before you go ravaging your backyard, see what's already available. Many people are surprised to find they've got collections of rocks or other natural elements spread throughout their home.


You've arranged your room, played with color, hung your art, added lighting and relished the results. Now it's time to accessorize.

Accessories are what make a room unique. They reflect the homeowner's specific tastes and interests. And they tend to be highly personal. Keep like items together: Group metals, ceramics or glass pieces together. Arrange in odd numbers, stagger heights -- nature's landscape is filled with irregularity. If you adore symmetry, be sure to throw a curveball in the mix by trying something at a unique angle or by staggering heights of objects in the grouping.

Even if you love a busy backdrop, be sure to leave plenty of "white space" for the eye to rest. Too many objects d'art can result in none of them standing out.

If you find yourself with some holes to fill, discount home retailers have created a nationwide passion for "all things home improvement." The abundance, and relative affordability, of home décor items is unprecedented.

Consider chains like Target, which offers Design For All; West Elm, which has Polished Style; and Pier One, with the It's Your Thing line. All offer a continually rotating stock of styles, colors and price points. These may not be original, one-of-a-kind heirloom pieces, but, for the average consumer, they can offer a good fit both for both budget and style.

You don't have to break the bank to have a beautiful space. Ask yourself if there's a different way to showcase a vase of flowers or a seating arrangement. See if you can push your comfort zone when it comes to color. And last, but not least, trust your instincts.

It's your room, after all.

Heather Wood is a freelance writer who writes regularly for the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached through her website at www.HeatherWoodFreelance.com.

copyright © 2007 - 2010 Heather Wood
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