Where To Start?

for USAWeekend
April 6, 2003

We asked the author of Amazon.com’s No. 1 home book to give decorating advice to 20-somethings with big goals but little money.

By Lauri Ward

The biggest decorating problem for 20-somethings is that they tend to be impulse buyers. Avoid the temptation! Think about what you need and want in advance, and don’t do anything without a plan. Decorating purchases are expensive, so you want to make the right choices. It’s like with your wardrobe: You buy trendy pieces as accents each season so you look up to date. But if you buy only trendy pieces and never get the basics, you’re not developing a good wardrobe. In decorating, the sooner you start acquiring classic, basic pieces on which to build, the sooner you’ll have a really good-looking home.

Where to start? You’re probably a renter; hardly anybody has the money for a down payment on anything at this stage in life. So, focus on improving the look of what you have while investing in the basics you need. Whatever you buy now should last at least 10 years and needs to translate well into future spaces.

Let’s start with the things you’ve been dragging around since your dorm years:

I say don’t buy futons to begin with, but if you’ve already got one, get rid of it. They were hot 10 years ago. But they’re not well-made, soft or cozy.

If you have a ratty old couch, I’ve got one word: slipcover. I’m not a fan of ready-made slipcovers; instead, take a solid sheet and tuck it into the sofa. Matching king-size pillowcases should fit over the cushions.

A 19-inch television is fine. You don’t have to spend big bucks on a nice new set right now. As you make more money, you can get the flat plasma screen. By then, the prices will be more reasonable anyway.

A beat-up dresser that doubles as a TV stand can be resuscitated. Just give it a new coat of primer and paint, and add new hardware or handles to make it fun.

If you have a couple of mismatched lamps and they’re fairly similar, place a stack of books under the smaller one to make them of equal height. You also can paint the lamps and buy a pair of matching shades.

Once you figure out what to keep and what to trash, go shopping. If you’re really low on the basics, your first purchase should be a good bed. Invest in a quality queen-size mattress; it’ll make you feel grown up.

Next is the all-important sofa, the most prominent piece in the living room. You may not want to share this with your salesperson, but try to spend as much money as possible on the sofa. You get what you pay for, so maybe even save up for a few extra weeks. The couch should be durable and of good quality.

When selecting colors, go as neutral as possible. If you fall in love with a bright blue sofa, no matter how much you love it, you’re going to get tired of it quickly. Get the sofa in taupe or sage green or camel brown. You can always punch it up with wild throw pillows or change its look with a slipcover or sheet.

Don’t buy a love seat. Instead, pair two chairs with the sofa for a chat-conducive “U” shape. Then buy a pair of lamps, a pair of end tables and a pair of throw pillows; the more pairs you add to a room, the more comfortable and balanced it will look and feel. The lamps should have three-way switches and high-wattage bulbs. Also, get rid of those fixtures that hang from the ceiling; you need lamps that force the light down.

Finally, go to Pottery Barn, Ikea or Pier 1 Imports, buy a trunk, and use it as a coffee table. You may not use it that way later on, but you’ll always have it for storage. Make sure it’s smooth on the top so you can put a glass down and throw your feet up on it. If you’re chilling with friends, you don’t want to worry about a glass tabletop.

Your goal: to make your home reflect the “adult” you. Get those dolls and stuffed animals out of the living room and into the bedroom (if you must display them). By the time you hit 25, those posters should come down — unless they’re really special, antique or collectible. And don’t muddy up the walls with lots of miscellaneous “art.” Keep all of your family photos grouped together and framed in the same material, and leave one wall bare in each room.

Your place should make a statement. When you walk through the door at the end of the day and you’re exhausted, you want to look around and think, “This really feels like home.” Ultimately, your space reflects you and what you like.

New York-based Lauri Ward owns an interior design business and offers tips at her Web site, redecorate.com. Her 1998 book, Use What You Have Decorating, is still the top-selling home decor book on Amazon.com.

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