Our Best Advice for First-Time Decorators

published May 29, 2015
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(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

It’s that time of year when a lot of people are graduating, and striking out on their own, and moving into their first real ‘adult’ home or apartment. It’s an exciting, and maybe also a little intimidating, time, full of possibilities and pitfalls. Here are a few of the things that I wish I had known when I was a fledgling decorator, all those years ago.

1. Don’t buy everything all at once.
Your first apartment is a wonderful blank slate, and it can be tempting to fill it up with wonderful things within the first few weeks. But decorating, like a lot of things, can be much more rewarding if you take it slow. Remember that you’re not on a schedule, and that there are only a few things that you need right away. For everything else, waiting will give you time to figure out what you want, save up for big purchases, and maybe even find a vintage piece that’s just right.

2. Remember that color isn’t everything.
From my very scientific research (i.e., talking to friends about decorating), I have discovered that a lot of people, when creating a space, think first about the colors of that space. Once they have picked colors — say, blue and silver — for their space, everything tends to fall into place around that. Blue sofa, silver coffee table, rug and artwork and lamps that match all these things.

I’m not saying that loving color is bad — in fact, color is the most important thing about a lot of really exciting spaces. But there are also a lot of beautiful rooms where color is only an accent, or where there is little to no bright color at all. And focusing only on color, and not other elements like texture and proportion, can give a space a cartoonish, elementary school classroom feel. Instead of picking a color scheme first, try gathering photos of rooms that you’re attracted to and identifying what they all have in common. Or pick one or two major pieces that you like and build the room around them. You’ll naturally be attracted to colors that you like, and you may find that the room has a pleasing ‘color scheme’ without it having been planned at all.

3. You don’t need a lot of furniture to make a space feel finished.
Furniture is only a really small part of what makes a space feel like itself, and you’ll find, if you dig deep into the archives of any design blog, that a lot of attractive spaces actually have very little furniture at all. This is an argument for slow decorating (see #1!), and also for paying attention to the things about a space that you might not notice right away — things like rugs, and art, and window treatments, and plants. If you acquire furniture slowly, and mix your acquisitions with purchases of other things that liven up the mix, you’ll get to the right balance without going overboard.

4. You don’t have to pay a lot to get quality pieces.
Maybe when you saw that number on the offer letter, you thought you were rich, and then after you paid your rent the first month cold, hard reality began to set in. This is ok because you don’t have to be rich to have nice things. Craigslist and garage sales and junk shops and antique stores and maybe even your grandma’s attic are wonderful resources, and if you have a good eye and you’re vigilant, you can find a lot of interesting things.

5. Your tastes may change.
I know you feel, when you graduate from college, that you have become the person you are going to be and that the person you are now is the person you are going to be forever. I know this because I felt exactly the same way when I was 21. But your twenties are a very exciting, and formative, time, and who you are will change. and what you like may change, too. What does this mean for your home? For one, don’t spend more on any one thing than your budget will allow. Let yourself go with your passion, and maybe make a few mistakes, and don’t take it all too seriously. With decorating, as with life, half of the joy is in the getting there.