Thursday, March 29, 2007

Creating a Beautiful Home Without Decorating

I have been quite absorbed of late in various things at home, and I'm afraid that several comments on previous articles went unanswered. In this article I would like to address the problem of not being able to decorate because of financial limitations, or a husband who objects to it. I got my ideas from living on the homestead in the days before interior decorating became popular. I believe all the other women who lived in those days will be able to identify with what I am saying.

I have included some photographs from Better Homes and Gardens to illustrate that not all rooms have to be decorated in order to give you a feeling of contentment. In most of these pictures, it is the pleasing way in which the posessions are arranged, that give the effect of decorating. Using objects that everyone has, such as clocks, books, chairs, tables, lamps, dishes, cushions, photographs, and gifts from other people, you can create a home that feels just right, without going over the top with a particular decorating style.

In the 1940's and 1950's, hundreds of families built homesteads in the wilderness, where they were mainly concerned about creating shelters that were safe and warm first, and clean and neat, second. We got any ideas we had about what a bedroom should look like, from the Sears and Roebuck Catologue, which showed pictures of bedrooms with their products in them. We imitated that as best we could with what we could find.

In those days the style of a lady's dress was just perfect for making a skirted table cloth, or even a curtain, if you can imagine. However, we preferred everything to be very plain, because it was easier to look after. An empty jar or tin can filled with wildflowers might be a centerpiece for a day and then the whole thing was tossed out. Some things came in colored jars and bottles, so we kept them and lined them up on the windowsills to see how pretty they were with light coming through them. Making a bed as perfectly as we could, or setting a table as neatly and precisely as we were able, using a diagram from a cookbook, was as close as we got to decorating. The idea was to create a scene or a mood by the way we displayed the ordinary things we used daily.

You can probably see in these photos that there is very little really obvious decorating going on. The decorating simply uses things that people need, in an artistic way. You see lamps and chairs and tables arranged so that it looks balanced, clean, pretty and bright, and it is somewhat exciting to look at.

In homestead days, the people we knew could have the most charming log cabins. They didn't decorate as we do today, but their floors were swept with sawdust, which gave them a sweet smell and a sheen. They had curtains on the cupboards, made from flour sacks. (In those days, flour came in cloth bags.) There might be a clock on the wall and a kettle on the stove. Some people had braided rugs and quilts. Others had paintings on the walls, usually painted by members of the family, of nearby scenery. They weren't as concerned about decorating, as they were about function, and yet, they managed to have such cozy homes and they still loved beautiful things.
In the photo of the green chair next to the little chest of drawers, you see a very simple decorating scheme. It may be using someone's favorite colors. I like sage green a lot, so it really appeals to me. They used a lamp, which everyone needs, but have used it decoratively. Everyone has a mirror, and such things can be placed over a short dresser like this.

If you can't decorate for one reason or another, there are many ways to make you feel that you are decorating. Take for example, the towels in the bathroom. Try folding them all in one direction, with the folds facing out, and according to color or size. Place a bar of fresh soap on the sink or in a special soap container.

When you purchase something for the home, whether it be soap or paper towels, find the most decorative ones. They usually cost no more than the plain brands. Need a box of kleenex? Find the box with the best picture or artwork on it. In your closet, sort your clothes according to season or color and hang them on soft padded hangers. In the bedroom, make the bed carefully and fold the top sheet down neatly. Arrange your own personal items according to color and size, and place them on a paper doily in a tray. Just cleaning a room and making sure that it is fresh and comfortable can create beauty.

Match your colors as best you can. Maybe you have wedding gifts that you can display in groups: a bowl with a vase and a frame, or candlesticks and a stack of books. In the living room, place a tea cup next to a photograph. Surely no one would deny you the privilege of displaying a photograph. Get the prettiest frame you can find, at a dollar store. In the kitchen, clean off the cabinet tops and make enough room to roll out your dough or mix things. Display your favorite mixing bowl with a rolling pin in it. Everyone already has these things, and though they be plain, they can be used as part of your home decor.

Think of those women on the homestead who didn't have places to put things like we do today. They had to leave them out. We washed all our dishes by hand and left the blue willow plates in the dish drainer, but they looked very decorative there. Decorating is more than having all the right objects and accessories. It is using the things that you naturally will have, in an artistic way. You probably own books or magazines. If you are not using the books, they can be laid with the bindings facing outward, and used as height for a lamp or a vase.

Maybe your children have toys, or you have childhood toys that can be displayed in a corner shelf or just on the floor near a book case or a table. You aren't just decorating. You are finding useful places for the things you own, but you are also placing them in a strategic way so as to appear artistic.

Anyone can throw a towel on the rack in the bathroom, but a thoughtful lover of the home will fold it carefully to make it look important and special. After all, this is a place where the most important people in the world to you, live. Anyone can throw a quick meal on the table, but it takes a real decorative spirit to arrange the table and the food neatly so that people feel they've really had an experience of some kind, and that there is an atmosphere in your home of some kind, that they like, but they cannot quite define it!

If you have nothing to decorate with, just use what you use daily, and you will see a big difference in the way your home looks. When you go out to choose something that you really need, choose the prettiest you can find, whether it be a slipcover for your couch, or a table cloth.

When you fold a napkin at a place setting, do it in a way that shows carefulness and thoughtfulness. I did write an article about this a long time ago but I never look back at old articles and wouldn't know where to find it, so I'll repeat something in it about a girl I met who lived in her grandmother's house. It was an old place and the tile was peeling from the floor and there was really nothing decorating-correct about it. However, she had taken a metal utility shelf from the garage and cleaned it and put all her towels on it in the neatest way.

Her kitchen was so clean that she had nothing on the surfaces except a canning jar with some lilies from outside. She had sparkling clean windows, with a pretty plant on the windowsill. Now that is really "decorating." She knew exactly what it took. In spite of all the pretty show homes and show rooms that I have gone to see on open-house days, this house still stands out in my mind as being the best decorated, because I was able to get some ideas from her about using the things everyone has, such as towels and dishes, as decorative items.

For good information that takes the mystique out of decorating, go here for instruction. Sign up for her newsletter and then learn a step by step, room by room method of re-creating your home.

Also, you mght enjoy peeking into some real homes here Some of the cottages on the previous months are "decorated" and some are more plain, but they can all inspire you and give you ideas.


Tracy said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. A good reminder to use what we have, and not go into debt to "get the right look". And it is so true that things we already own can dress up the home. I love pulling things out of cupboards to display for a time.

Jana said...

I appreciate you addressing this issue, as I have been wondering. However, I still have some questions. I do not have a natural "eye" for what looks good, BUT, I'm starting to learn what my favorite decorating style is. I think it would be categorized as French Country. The trouble is, all the furniture, linens, and dishes in our home have been given to us - some were wedding gifts from many years ago, some have just been passed on to us when we were in need. I'm grateful for these gifts, but NOTHING is my style. None of it matches or is even the same style as the other. What bothers me is that I don't know where to begin? What should I change first? We need new furniture, but that's the most expensive to replace. However, I have a hard time picturing linens, curtains, decorative items that would look good with whatever furniture we WANT. I don't know if this makes sense, but I'm curious about what advice you could offer on this.

Also, have you written a book? And are there any books on homemaking (either decor or other aspects of life in the home) that you highly recommend?

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

Jana, I posted two links to some decorating sites that I enjoy, in the article above.

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

While you wait to get the kind of things you really want, you may make yourself quite miserable (especially if you don't have any hope of having the money for it right away), so I would suggest you just make everything the same color; a color you really like. I have the same problem in my house, so I have sewn covers for my couch and matched cushions and curtains. My favorite and simple way to match furniture and the type of house is to make a table cloth and curtains in coordinating fabric, with a tea cozy from the left over fabrics. Spray paint in a color you like can take care of all the odd and end things like shelves and tables and accessories (even lamps can be painted). You can also paint the frames of pictures. You can also use craft paint if you like, and paint frames to match your other things. I find drapes too expensive so I just make curtains out of extra wide muslin and attached fringe to them. Muslin can also be dyed. I find the whole drapery and curtain thing to be way over-priced, and complicated, so I opt for plain rods that sit in holders, and use rod-pocket curtains that slip easily over a rod.

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

You might also have fun looking at the shabby chic and Make Mine Pink shops on ebay and the web. Some of the sellers are homemakers and they have a knack for taking the simplest and shabbiest item, and displaying it on a colored cloth and making it look appealing. Yet you might see it is something that you threw a way a few months ago and they have been able to display it in a beautiful way.

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

When all the furniture and accessories are not to your liking, you can pull it together with something else. For example, I have a few doilies that were left to me, and have acquired more, which I dyed the same color and put all over the place: on top of picture frames, on the edges of shelves, on tables, and even draped on the top of a cabinet. Other people enjoy dolls and others like sea shells. Sometimes a favorite collection can tie everything together.

Anonymous said...

Susan Tyner said:

I love it when you post about how to decorate with very little in the way of resources! Probably most of us fall into this category. Your idea about using spray paint is excellent. Painting can be expensive what with purchasing brushes, etc. I'm going to try this method on a few things. Another idea is to purchase dollar store frames or go to the Goodwill store and buy framed pictures just to have the frame. This assortment of frames can be painted all the same color. I like to cut pretty greeting cards to fit the frame and sometimes I use a coordinating wrapping paper or fabric to cover the mat board if there is one in the frame. Ask a friend or female relative to come over for tea and a visit - she will likely help you brainstorm about what can be done with the available materials!

Lydia, I remembered reading the story you posted a while back about the young lady who was living in an old house that belonged to her grandmother and her only means of decorating was to keep what she had immaculately clean and orderly. This young lady's attitude is the most important step in successful decor!

Kindest regards from Susan Tyner

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

Susan, most people can get those little bottles of 50c craft paints that clean up with water and have no odor, or they have them left over from other projects. These can be used by setting your project on brown paper somewhere in the house and dabbing the paint on with a sponge brush. It is oderless and doesn't do the damage that spray paint does on everything around it. Nothing is worse than a square on your back porch that is outlined in green, that you can't remove, so I would really recommend the craft paints. However even without painting, things can be cleaned up and arranged in such a way as to make them look appealing and special for the home.

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

Often the way you place a needed item, such as a cushion on a couch, or a book on a table, is called "decorating," when it is done with finesse.

I would like to address Mrs. Anonymous from the previous article "Home is the Real World," who says her husband is not supportive of her efforts to create a lovely home.

Sometimes in the early years of marriage, a man does not understand nesting and homemaking. If he has been a bachelor or has been raised in institutions with only the barest essentials and utilitarian decor, he does not see the need for any kind of special touches in the home. By institutions I mean daycare through college and then work, where things are rather plain.

Such men need to understand that housekeepin on its own can be very boring and discouraging when it is done without a beautiful touch, and that a woman's heart is very much tied to her home, and her happiness to a great deal depends on her daily surroundings. If the home is not to liking, she can't use her talents and her love and some of her ambition and creativity will die inside of herself.

I once saw a movie starring Oliver Reed, called "The Trap," which was done in the early 1960's, based on a story about a trapper in the 1800's who went to Seattle to find a bride. He took her to his cabin in the woods where he acted like a boor and threw his trash and food on the floor, refused to wash his clothes or himself, and was generally primitive. Through careful consistency, his wife cleaned the cabin and picked up everything each time. He noticed it and even made fun of her but she did not stop this habit. One day she wanted to go home so she got in a little boat and went up river back to her family. When she got back, he had created a beautiful chandelier for her from the racks of deer and antelope that he had found. That was quite a big step for a man as primitive and as crude as he was.

I just thought this illustration was a good one to show that woman has it in her power to educate and train a man to appreciate the refinement of a home and to enjoy the things that mean the most to her.

PeppermintPearl said...

I loved this post! Such good ideas!

I'm not much of a "decorator" really. With 3 teenaged sons, 2 dogs, 2 cats in a small house, I go more for the plain,simple and clean look. Less is more! Sometimes I look around my home and just think "Ugh. This is soooo boring."

I've had so many people tell me that they love to come to my house. They say things to me like "Its so peaceful and cozy." "Your such a good hostess." "You sure know how to throw a good party." and "Ill come over and eat your cooking anytime!"
And my favorite one "There is always something fun going on at your house."

I must be doing something right somewhere, I guess!

I just need to work on making things "prettier", I think. Hard to do sometimes as the lone girl in a house full of men! :)

Anonymous said...

I thought that what you described in the article WAS decorating! :) That's how I'm working on decorating my house, anyway- excuse me, apartment- we're stuck with yucky carpet and bland walls, but we hang our own artwork, inspirational paintings, and use our own linens to give the place a sense of beauty. And most recently, I added houseplants, which really make it feel more alive in here. :)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Decorating is definitely about looking at things that you enjoy as well as giving pleasure to your eyes but definitely less about keeping up with the Jones's and mirroring what you see in advertising.

My mom always taught me that "less is more" when it came to decorating, make-up, appetite, and debt. These are things that I have thanked her for teaching me otherwise who knows what mess I would be in right now.

One point on decorating with less is the fact of how easy it is to clean and in less time. But I will have to say that adding a little punch of color in every room really livens things up :)

Thank you for the wonderful topic and links :)

Anonymous said...

Houseplants! That's pretty much all I've gotten the hang of. It does make our house look happy and green and alive, especially in the winter.

If you get a plant like a philadendron (spelling?), you can propogate it. My old one, which was a gift, is the proud parent of four newer ones.

Great advice today!

Mel said...

I have my main living areas decorated in the most delightful way (to me) and it all barely cost me a cent!! I received some decorative dishes and things from my grandmother's things - most of them are on display in a hutch that I bought off a friend for $10 and on top of our piano - again once belonging to my grandmother. I have two arm chairs that are a bit worn on the arms - a lady gave me four rectangluar pieces of matierial with a flower on them, so I pinned them around the arms. The backs of the arm chairs are decorated with two different things - a quilt given to me on my trip to the US and a wrap someone picked up for me from a supermarket.

I was able to keep a low set of drawers that came with one of my last houses and on top of that I have placed decoratively some items that again, I acquired for free.

We do school in our dining area and I needed some shelves to put things on, so I was able to purchase some cheap shelf units from those stores where everything is made in china, and you just put them together yourself. Anyway, I didn't want the contents of those shelves on display, so I whipped up a curtain for one of them out of some material I have around the house (and I am NO seamstress, I just hemmed it), and I had an actual curtain that I placed on the other one.

On one wall I have a picture that my Nan painted for me, another wall holds a picture I got cheaply from an op-shop (2nd hand store)and the other pictures I have acquired cheaply along the way.

I am a single mum on a low income, yet I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my home. Now not everything matches - actually few things do, to speak the truth, but I feel I have created a haven that hopefully my children will look back on in years to come and think of with some fondness.

I'd be more than happy to take some photos of what I have done, if Lydia is happy to put a few up, hopefully to encourage and inspire!!


Lady Lydia Speaks said...

mel - please do

Mrs.B. said...

This is so true! Sometimes I think watching all of the decorating shows on Television can bring about dissatisfaction because everything seems so 'perfect'. To me I think homes that are neat, clean and well cared for are the most beautiful!

Someone said this on my blog and it's very true......On a show called 'How Clean Is Your House?' they come in and clean up filthy homes. The end result is just beautiful and they've done no decorating, just cleaning! Like you said, they fold the towels pretty and light some candles but that's it and even though the decorating style isn't great the home still looks lovely. Cleaning makes a BIG difference!

Great post, thank you! (o:

Aldara said...

I was recently going through blogs and I came across yours. I have to say I really enjoyed your last post about decorating. We are renting a home and I have not felt inspired to decorate but now I have to say I feel differently. With the Easter celebration right around the corner and Spring cleaning in full gear, you have inspired me!

Anonymous said...

I have never responded on a blog before though I have been following this site for sometime. This article really touched home with me. I am a passionate "nester" and have spent years and a lot of wasted money following the latest "look". The problem is that if it isn't really something that reaches into your heart, you will soon tire of it and regret the money spent. My tastes have changed radically down through the years and the Sunset Mag look that I worked so long on suddenly wasn't that great. I still love to nest, but my funds are now very limited and I have discovered that simple, inexpensive tag sale/thrift store items are fun and with practice can look just as nice as brand new designer things. Mr. Spray can is now my new best friend. Color coordinating can make the most eclectic grouping look pulled together. If I get tired of it, I have no regrets about recycling my .49 cent item back to the thrift stores (they will even give you a discount coupon when you do). Of all the things that have made my house feel "me" is learning to make little grouping of favorite things in unexpected places so that where ever I sit (when I get a chance) my eyes rest on pleasing little collections here and there. Not cluttery but artistic and restful to the spirit.
Thanks for all the sharing,

Michelle Potter said...

Lydia, perhaps you can help. My walls are decorated in the latest style -- Toddler With Crayon. I managed to train the miscreants out of this, but not before they found every last hidden broken crayon bit and "decorated" all the walls. I have tried everything to get it off, but anything that works to get the crayon off also removes the paint. No, Magic Eraser didn't work. I really want to re-paint, but I can't afford it. Any tips for the meantime?

Anna S said...

Thank you, Lady Lydia! Right now, I can't actually fit "decorating" into our tiny budget, but I do everything I can to keep things clean, neat and organized and create the feeling of home. Your posts are always a source of inspiration and encouragement.

Anonymous said...

Dear lady Lydia, though it is Off topic I think you may be interested in how a person in the fifties bounced back after losing his job as told by his wife in t he following link

Thank you for a beautiful post.

Mel said...

This may sound odd, but Michelle, have you tried blue tack? hmmm not sure if that is what you call it over there - but it is that blue sticky stuff you use to put posters on the wall? If you roll it up and rub it on the crayon, it may just remove it. You could also try turps.

Candy said...

Dear Lady Lydia :)
Hi, Its Candy (from Canada!) :)
Just wanted to say thanks so much for this excellent post. I love your posts on these topics.


Lady Lydia Speaks said...

Take one of those bottles of craft paint that costs about a dollar and dab it over the marks with a sponge. You can also make your own paint using flour and food coloring or cornstarch. There is a recipe on the web somewhere. However you could probably afford a small can of paint.

rj said...

I don't know if this would help Michelle, but when my children used to "interior decorate," I sometimes just had to hide the mess by putting a piece of furniture in front of it. If the mess was up high enough, I'd cover it with a picture. And if that wasn't possible, I just looked at it differently; I became grateful for the mess, because it was a reminder that I had a large lot of beautiful children to love every day. When we finally renovated our home, I actually missed a few of the little pieces of "artwork," because they reminded me of when the big ones were little ones.

With decorating limitations in general, I've done things like getting a little plastic vase and putting it where the light catches it nicely, and then just pretending it's crystal. Many times I've gotten as much enjoyment out of inexpensive items as I've had from the real thing.
More than the actual things you use, imagination is one of the best decorating tools.

Lady Lydia Speaks said...

One lady I met had a terrible looking door from the inside but she said every mark on it was precious because she knew which ones were whose and how they got there.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, you might want to try rubbing alcohol, I know this works really well on ink marks and probably on crayon too.


Lady Lydia Speaks said...

For those whose husbands object to any effort to decorate: sometimes it is the problem of having "things" around that get in their way. For example, at night when they reach for their alarm clock, they don't want to have to worry about knocking over some decor item on the end table. In the bathroom, they want the freedom of getting in and out and doing what they need to do, such as shower and shaving, without too much clutter, even if it is beautiful. So, what I would propose is that you keep the shelf that belongs to you, pretty and feminine, and you keep your areas decorated as you like. One day he will see the difference between your home and the institutions he visits daily, or the work place and conclude that it is a much better place because of those thoughtful touches--the placement of furniture, the arrangement of pictures, the careful position of a lamp near a reading chair, and just the over all effect of everything. Indirect lighting, rather than overhead lighting, is part of that effect--small lamps, or a string of lights on top a window sill shelf, etc. make a difference and yet are useful. He will notice that you care for the things that you love--your clothing is neatly folded or hung in an orderly way, and your kitchen is beautiful with the things you work with. There is nothing wrong with putting away the small cooking appliances and putting out a bowl of fruit, for example, to make the kitchen look better, and there is nothing wrong with putting cherished objects on the fireplace mantel. Also, those who have small children, might be encouraged by the technique of what I call "decorating up." That is the method of putting wall arrangements that cannot be harmed or cannot hurt a child, with shelves and mirrors and sconces, etc. so that you can decorate without having the tables cluttered with things that you would constantly have to be putting back or cleaning. That way, your home has the effect of decorating, yet there is always a seating area and plenty of space for the family to do as they like.

Jammy said...

Thanks for this article, Lydia! I'm having a giveaway on my blog, if anyone is an apron lover and interested. The name will be drawn tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Marie, I hate to be contradictory, but I do want to ask whether rubbing alcohol wouldn't take the paint off the wall?

I've heard plain white toothpaste can do the job; I know it works to clean my husband's golf shoes, but I've never tried it on painted walls. (No toddlers yet; Baby's due in 20 days or less.)

No guarantees there, but it's a thought.

Mrs. Bartlett

Tessa said...

My husband is in the Navy and has brought me many beautiful things from all around the world. Needless to say, I have developed a rather eclectic style around the house! My favorite and most prized objects are large mason jars filled with sand and shells from all the places he's been. Even if you don't have such exotic materials, You can make lovely jars yourself out of natural things you find. How about some brightly colored oak leaves and acorns in the fall or dried rose petals, a disowned birds nest, feathers from different birds, interesting pebbles...the possibilities are endless. a small jelly jar full of pebbles, sand and shells or other weighty things makes an excellant paper weight. Kids love to put these together also. Fun and free..I love it!


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