Home Decor

How to Redecorate Your Space Without Spending a Penny

Hint: You already have everything you need—let’s do this.

April 21, 2020
Photo by Maggie Slover

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

Unlike the Dursley residence, my childhood home boasts a cupboard above the stairs. Hidden behind a curtain of my father’s dress pants, hung ankle-up like sleeping bats, there’s a nearly-invisible door in the wall. If you manage to pry it open, you’ll find yourself in the world’s smallest antique shop.

A pull cord turns on a single flickering bulb that illuminates a steeply-inclined wedge of space, shelved on one side and covered with art, old frames, and straw hats on the other. Every inch is accounted for, so you’ve gotta squeeze in backwards and then sit on the lower part of the incline to take it all in.

The inventory: A dozen or so throw pillows, vases, lamps, a fish bowl full of early 20th century flower frogs, shadow boxes with carvings from Japan, pinned insects in cases, a paper weight with a giant dandelion wish in it, woven baskets, rusty cake tins in the shapes of fruit and fish.

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Top Comment:
“Having put my feet under that gate leg table while situated in one of those fabulous folding dining room chairs, I can attest to the absolute delights of this well- appointed apartment! As always, Maggie, your clever writing engages me in such a way that I find myself compelled to put your ideas into action. Here’s to all the found objects we’re sure to discover after this period of quarantine!”
— Michelle Y.

It’s also how my mom manages to keep her space looking like a brand-new spread from Architectural Digest every time I visit. I’ve dubbed this technique: the shuffle, aka, the art of completely transforming a room without spending a penny.

My mom is a restless artist who dabbles elbow-deep in charcoal, then leaves her work untouched for months, a half face or stump of a tree she’ll finish another day. She’s a disciple of instant gratification, and that’s where the endless rearranging comes in. Just as the dogwoods start shooting out their neon buds and the robins get all raucous, she trades a few objects for wicker baskets on hooks in the entryway, an Italian lacquered tray with art books on top of the coffee table, a statue of St. Francis of Assisi on the mantel, and a real nest we found outside the video rental store, a shattered blue egg inside.

Then, in a matter of months, all of that will shift, some things retired to the cupboard, others things brought out, shined up, made new with a few branches of forsythia on the window sill or credenza. It’s a ritual I assumed everyone participated in when I was little—the evolution of our surroundings that made use of the same materials in different ways.

She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn't a chair

When I moved into my first studio apartment in New York’s Upper West Side, this song from The Beatles about summed up my first six months.

I was furnishing my space on very little money—all I knew was that I didn’t want a one-stop aesthetic in a box. So, I took cues from photos of Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House in England, with its eclectic tumble of kilim rugs and lamps and hand-painted murals. My apartment took a very, very long time to decorate—and when it finally started to materialize, it adopted the theme of French expat Grandmama’s quarters.

There’s a mid-century gold crushed velvet couch, a gateleg table I found directly across the street from my building, a wing-backed chair I found on Craigslist that, if I’m being honest, doesn’t really match anything else I own, and a lot, a lot, a lot of books. For the nearly two years I’ve lived here, my aspirational aesthetic has never quite matched up to my real-life one.

So I too adopted the shuffle method. Here’s how it works: You take an object and move it across the room. And that’s it. Pretty much.

So, without further ado, come in, have some tea and sit anywhere—chair or not, while I show you my method for redecorating a space—without ordering anything online.

1. Furniture

Granted, should you be working with 300 square feet, there’s not a whole lot of leeway for rearranging those larger pieces—sofa, wardrobe, etc. But the smaller ones—side tables, large potted plants, magazine racks, chairs—those are your pawns. Of course, starting out with pieces that have transformative possibilities is also nice. For instance, my gateleg dining table also folds up to become a console should I ever host a gala and need a station for the hors d'oeuvres. The dining chairs are also very small-space friendly: My parents found them at an estate sale and shipped them to me because, yes, they fold! Accent chairs are also lovely for this reason and can be shifted into various corners when you want to try out a new view.

2. Art

Photo by Maggie Slover

The most obvious way to change your scenery is to move your art around. Depending on your rental situation, you might prefer using other ways of mounting your frames to avoid nail holes—and broken drill bits. If you want to test out the feel of a mural, try using a large piece of white craft paper or recycle a window blind (like I did here à la Matisse) and paint or stencil something in black for a statement touch. When you get sick of it? You can roll it up or recycle it. One happy accident of failing to commit to hanging up any art was that it sort of organically piled up against my built-ins—and there it remains. The case for this look is strong: Nothing to spackle, you can rotate the layers to give some pieces front and center in seconds.

3. Rugs

Photo by Maggie Slover

I don’t have a rug in my living room (I’m so, so sorry, neighbor in 3A). But I do have one in my kitchen—it’s an antique Moroccan number that I accidentally stole from a previous roommate when there was a miscommunication about it being a gift. That said, I sometimes move it alongside my bed when I need to give my floors a friendly smack on the cheek. If you have multiple rooms and multiple rugs, try confusing your partner or your dog by switching them around. Voila!

4. Books

If, like me, you have more books than you’ll ever read in one lifetime, a good thing to do is stack them. Take your biggest art books and prop them underneath a lamp on a corner table, make a nightstand out of them, or try piling some in small pyramids on your shelves.

5. Pillows

Photo by Maggie Slover

While we’re on the subject of textiles, let’s think about your cushion situation. Even if you only buy neutral pillows, moving them around or layering them can seriously give your living space that “watch out world, I just got a free lipstick sample” feel. I keep several kilim pillow covers in my linen closet (aka the drawer under my bed) that I’ll swap out every month or so.

6. Plants

The most forgiving plant I ever bought was a sansevieria—now I have four (not including their offspring). Spiky and verdant, they add all sorts of edgy aliveness to my space. There are lots of low-maintenance shrubs out there, and if you’re careful, you can move them from place to place for an instant leafy reset. Layer them on your window ledges, put them in pots on the floor or give them pride of place on your dining table.

7. Light

The most terrifying thing about modern apartment buildings is the single source of light smack dab in the middle of ceilings. Who decided this was OK? If you do have a single light source, try to break it up with a warm peripheral glow. Corded sconces and lamps of all shapes can be moved around a room to change the mood entirely. (Bonus: put a small lamp in your kitchen or bathroom with an incandescent bulb and never look back).

Of course, there are endless low-cost solutions for the times you’re antsy to mix up your space without really splashing out:

  • Make a bouquet of filler greenery—it might even dry and you’ll get twice your money’s worth.
  • Get yourself a new bar of soap: nothing makes a bathroom or kitchen feel more fresh than a thoughtful hand-washing station. For extra points, use a patterned tea saucer or funky thrifted dish as a catch-all.
  • Put a new candle or candle holder on the table—I like to swap out tea lights for tapers to get a different feel in the evening. It’s a small change, but it’ll make your dinners feel like a lavish feast.

    And most importantly, remember this quote by William Morris, a world-renown and very-winsome textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

How often do you rearrange your space or room? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Miz_Hamsa
  • mdelgatty
  • Michael Clason
    Michael Clason
  • annstewartzachwieja
  • Jenny Skarda
    Jenny Skarda
Maggie Slover

Written by: Maggie Slover


Miz_Hamsa July 24, 2020
I so yearn for that lovely loveseat at the top of the article, or really for its big sister. I've been searching the SF – Berkeley – Oakland area unsuccessfully for a sofa almost just like that for the last, oh, three decades or so. One sofa! Is that too much to ask? I don't think so. My dream relative of your loveseat would be more overstuffed looking, the nailheads aren't a necessity, and while I'm sure I'd grab it in any color if I found it, somewhere in the pink – red – purple – blue – teal – green end of the spectrum would be very wonderful. Can you tell I'm not much for neutrals?

All well, while there's life there's hope… Loved the article!
Michael C. July 25, 2020
Find a solid used love seat you like and have it recovered to your specs. A custom made piece of furniture for a fraction of the price of new
Miz_Hamsa July 27, 2020
Good idea. I'd forgotten about that possibility for when I find the right sofa. Thanks.
mdelgatty May 22, 2020
mdelgatty May 22, 2020
Is that your BED? I shudder to think of a grownup person sleeping in such a narrow space...
mdelgatty May 22, 2020
Is that your BED? I shudder to think of a grownup person sleeping in such a narrow space...
Michael C. May 8, 2020
Living in less than 500 sq. ft. and being a vet of a MAJOR remodel myself the best advice I can give is do not fill it with too much furniture and too many dust collectors. I read designers write about the ''illusion'' of space with mirrors and light colors. Give yourself the real thing by very few thoughtfully pieces of furniture and nothing that collects dust and serves no purpose other than gets in the way when dusting.
Maggie S. May 8, 2020
Love that idea of fewer, better! Thank you for the wisdom.
I’m a collector of things I love that were not intended to ‘go’ with anything else, I was just drawn to them. This article gives me inspiration to keep moving things around and give pride of place for a while. Between the article and the comments, I’m also inspired to keep items organized in ‘storage’, knowing I can bring them out from time to time.
Maggie S. May 4, 2020
I'm so happy to hear! Kindred collector for life—I literally feel like I'm beach combing everywhere I go. Forget who said it, but a designer once recommended that instead of following any sort of rules, one should just put all of their favorite things in their space and it will feel cohesive and completely unique to them.
cholula June 6, 2021
I have a very eclectic furnished house. Most of my belongings have come from estate sales. I buy items that I am drawn to for some reason. I love my house. I have Chinese, Japanese chests and secretary, English pottery, copper tea kettles, beaded funeral wreaths, Persian carpets, Americana chairs, and Eastlake picture frames. It tends to all come together when you buy what you love.
Jenny S. April 29, 2020
This was such a lovely read. Your place is very inspiring and approachable all at once. I've read many articles during this quarantine time but I drank up every ounce of this one. Cheers!
Maggie S. April 29, 2020
What a lovely thing to say! Thank you Jenny <3
Liz April 28, 2020
I have been doing this since I was a single mom. I have bins with bedspreads, pillows, chair cushions and shelves of accessories in addition to taking art work from my office to home to downstairs to upstairs. I just didn't know anyone else did this! Much less expensive than buying new furniture. Thank you so much for sharing!!
Maggie S. April 28, 2020
Happy to know there's another kindred spirit out there—your ideas are so resourceful! I love the idea of doing an office/home art share! Genius
Alexandra G. April 25, 2020
While this tip actually involves spending money... paint is such a game changer! Anyway, your home is a true testament to patience. I love the curated feel of your space, and honestly what's cooler; having a story of accidentally stealing a rug or just buying one from home goods? haha
Maggie S. April 28, 2020
That's a really good point! I was hesitant to mention for that reason, but you'll notice in the photos that my wardrobe went from neon green to blue-gray and it felt like the whole room changed! haha thanks for supporting my klepto tendencies ;)
mdelgatty May 22, 2020
How do you make the photo wide enough or whatever to see the wardrobe in its blue-gray persona?
Maggie S. May 22, 2020
Ugh, we couldn't size the photo to include that angle but it's on my IG if you want to see it! It's @maggbird :)
Aja A. April 21, 2020
The before & after photo trick is just SO.MUCH.FUN.
Maggie S. April 22, 2020
Arati is a photo sorceress! <3
Rowena C. April 21, 2020
Bitch where did you get that throw people with the shadowy leaves?
Maggie S. April 21, 2020
haha shhh West Elm on sale, it was just the cover, might still be there!
Michelle Y. April 21, 2020
Having put my feet under that gate leg table while situated in one of those fabulous folding dining room chairs, I can attest to the absolute delights of this well- appointed apartment!
As always, Maggie, your clever writing engages me in such a way that I find myself compelled to put your ideas into action.
Here’s to all the found objects we’re sure to discover after this period of quarantine!
Maggie S. April 21, 2020
Sperrmüll!!!! xx
Tina April 21, 2020
I love your home. Especially your painting nook and the bamboo side table! Thank you for sharing with us.
Maggie S. April 21, 2020
Means so much coming from someone with your design know-how <3
Jenny C. June 10, 2020
LOVE that bamboo side table.

Where’d you find it?
Maggie S. June 11, 2020
Thank you! Craigslist—took it on the train from Queens and it's moved 4 times with me since.
Jenny C. June 11, 2020
Craigslist is like a magical treasure chest sometimes! Great score!