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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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."