8 Budget-Friendly Decorating Lessons I Learned from My Mother

published Jan 24, 2022
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Credit: Erin Derby

If there’s a decorating gene, I, as they say, got it from my mama — and it first expressed itself when my family moved from New Jersey to Virginia the summer before fourth grade, when my father’s job got transferred down south. I was devastated to leave behind extended family and friends, as any 9-year-old would be, but my parents offered me a carrot: carte blanche to decorate the home’s bonus room over the garage — the largest space in the home — as my bedroom in any way I wanted. 

Once the dust settled from the move, my mother made good on her word. I picked out a sunny garage sales and antique malls for treasures, and hit up our fair share of Marshalls and T.J. Maxx deal-hunting, too. We spent hours watching designer Christopher Lowell on his Discovery show “Interior Motives” and both still use his “lifts and levels” tip when arranging tablescapes today (but more on that later). She didn’t always take my opinion, but she always let me give it. These experiences have probably impacted my career trajectory in ways I can’t fully understand. From a personal standpoint though, so many of the tricks I’ve picked up from my mother over the years are the my apartment today. Our design styles couldn’t be further from each other, and obviously, not all trends stay relevant, but some classic furnishings — and design advice — transcend time. 

Credit: Photo: Erin Derby, courtesy of Danielle Blundell

Go bold with your molding and trim

White woodwork was all the rage when my mother wanted to paint her trim black. The painters might have laughed at her in the early ‘90s, but mom had vision. She knew this tiny tweak would set off the equally bold coral color paint she chose for her walls, effectively turning up the drama in the first room you entered when climbing up the stairs from the foyer. 

When I moved into my current apartment, there wasn’t much architectural charm to speak of beyond the wooden floors and exposed brick in the blank box space. To highlight the height of my tall ceilings, I thought back to mom’s crown molding and painted the inside of the opening to my dining room black. The result feels a little like an exclamation point on the dining area of the apartment — and just a little bit more emphasis on the cool cutout that leads to it. 

Tablecloths are a decorating secret weapon

Though I couldn’t find any specific photos of this, one of my mother’s favorite tricks was putting a tablecloth on a cheapie side table — you know, the kind made of a plywood circle on a tripod-like stand. If the covering “kissed” the floor — the way longer drapery often does — you could then use said tablecloth to camouflage anything that would fit under it, from stacks of books or magazines to records. Mom still has one of these in her bedroom today, and I borrowed her tablecloth trick to make my IKEA DOCSKTA pedestal dining table look just a little fancier. I opted to go shorter with my tablecloth pick, since I didn’t have anything to really hide in this room.

Semi-handmade can often be best

If my mother couldn’t find or afford exactly what she wanted, she’d figure out a way to fake or approximate it. She was a decent sewer and gifted with a glue gun, but I’d actually liken her brand of resourceful decorating more to IKEA hacking. She added tassels to curtains and store-bought pillows to zhuzh them up. When I wanted a celestial-themed bathroom, we created on-theme display towels by ironing sun, moon, and star ribbon trim onto plain gold linens and cut out shapes from the room’s planetary wallpaper border, which we then decoupaged on wooden boxes to use as storage. The point is, you don’t have to spend a fortune to have unique decorative accessories. You can take what’s available and embellish it — or change the color or finish— with little more than a can of spray paint, ribbon trim, or iron-on patches.

Credit: Photo: Erin Derby, courtesy of Danielle Blundell

Double down on warm woods

I loved the Parsons style, burl wood coffee and side tables my mother had in our family room in the early ‘90s so much that when it came time to find pieces to flank my own sofa, I had to go burl myself (somehow my older brother got the original set). When I found a set of burl and matte brass nesting tables on clearance at T.J. Maxx shortly after moving into my current place, I felt like it was fate. Burl tends to be a design chameleon; it can look super-traditional or more glamorous and modern, depending on what you pair it with, and that makes it a great choice when decorating, especially if you find yourself gravitating towards a handful of styles or like to change up your home’s look to some extent fairly regularly.

Not only is burl visually interesting in terms of its pattern, but it also adds a ton of warmth to a space without making it feel dark or heavy, thanks to its mid-tone finish. It’s also easy to mix with deeper wood accents due to its darker, almost marbleized-looking finish that comes from overgrown knots and outgrowths in the wood. I haven’t brought a ton of other wooden pieces into my space, but I’m confident that I could, seeing as though my mother mixed her burl with oak-paneled walls and built-ins.

Every room can handle one statement pattern

Mom has always loved a floral fabric, and after a sofa she ordered from a swatch came in looking less like chocolate brown and more like, well, you know what, she took it upon herself to reupholster said piece in a navy, pink, and cranberry chintz cabbage rose. It took weeks working nights, and the roll arm of the Chesterfield style sofa gave her trouble, but she did it. While I’ve never tried my hand at upholstery myself, I kept this idea in mind when selecting my living room rug. The rest of my bedroom furnishings are pretty neutral, so I went for a bold, broken stripe vintage rug from Revival, and I couldn’t be happier with this pop of pattern.

Theme out a gallery wall for visual cohesion

To document her travels with my father (and later our whole family), my mother would purchase a sketch or watercolor from a local artist in each of the big cities she visited — Paris, London, Rome, and so on. She created a flexible, salon-style arrangement in our family room above the sofa so she could add to her collection with each big trip. Framing and matting took place back home, and she took chances with colored mats and frames with different finishes so the composition would have a lot of life. It also means pieces are striking enough should you want to display them solo. Today, this gallery wall lives on in a hallway in my parent’s current condo and the ethos behind it in my own living room gallery wall, which has more of a color theme — pieces that feature slate blues, teals, and pops of pink or red.

Credit: Photo: Erin Derby, courtesy of Danielle Blundell

Put your plants on a pedestals

This one might be a derivative from Christopher Lowell’s aforementioned lifts and levels, whereupon Lowell would use different sized boxes (all covered by a grand tablecloth, of course) to create varying heights for the things he’d deck out a dining table with (from food to flowers). Mom has always given her green babies pride of place though by literally elevating them on pedestals and stands (and has been all about mixing them in with faux greenery, too, as evidenced by that holiday magnolia garland on the stairs of our Virginia home’s entry). I can’t believe it took me so long to borrow this pedestal tip for my larger ferns and dried floral arrangements. Getting your plants off the floors makes a space seem airier, and staggering their heights of placement, whether on a single shelving unit or on different free-standing perches, creates movement and an eye path of discovery in a room, which can also help to solidify a focal point.

Invest in classic, bigger pieces once, and you’ll have them for years

I’ve been looking at the furniture from my parents’ living room (pictured with the first tip) — a pair of armless slipper chairs upholstered in very thin wale sea-foam green corduroy, a mirrored cube side table trimmed in black and gold, a wall unit of campaign style dressers — my whole life because my mother chose fairly classic silhouettes and splurged on Henredon pieces with solid wood frames. As I’ve made major purchases on things like my sofa or nightstands, I’ve tried to keep longevity like this in mind. 

My parents are also big believers in furniture as gifts for major milestones, and I’m grateful for that. The Crate & Barrel wooden shelving unit/desk that anchors one of the walls in my living room (pictured just above) was my 18th birthday gift that I’ve brought to all of my apartments over the years, from college to present. Neither the black finish nor the open, airy, ladder-like shape has gone out of style, and it’s worked with every decorating phase I’ve ever been in (and trust me, they’ve run the gamut from all hot pink-and-black everything, mod dorm room to the more eclectic mix I have now). 

As I continue to make whatever “house” I’m living in a home, I’m confident I’ll continue to borrow heavily from my mother’s decorating bag of tricks. She always wanted us to love where we lived no matter how long we’d be there, especially if our hearts were somewhere else.

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: 8 Timeless, Budget-Friendly Decorating Lessons I Learned from My Mother