Home Decor

The Trick to Arranging Your Home Is Hiding in Your Recycling Bin

Time to put that pile of shipping boxes to good use.

March  8, 2021
Photo by Rebecca McAlpin

The dining room in Nicole Cole’s early-1900s Philadelphia, PA home already had a lot going for it when the designer and founder of Vestige HOME, kicked off its top-to-toe renovation last fall. “The original bay windows provided incredible garden views, and the size of the room (230 square feet) was more than generous,” she says, adding that its only drawback was a lack of personality.

To infuse it with some character, Cole cleverly dressed the room in accents that nod to different periods: an antique butterfly vitrine is framed by an art deco mural by local artist Carla Weeks; classical wainscoting rings the perimeter; a new chandelier suspends from above. “Pairings like these created a bit of tension, unexpected delight, and intrigue,” the designer explains.

Regarding the mural by local artist Carla Weeks, Cole says, “If you look closely you can see how thoughtfully she laid out the overall design so that the individual elements align with various parts of the room in interesting ways.” Photo by Rebecca McAlpin

Her thoughtful introductions all went as planned—almost. At the center of the room stands a white oak dining table that, for a brief moment, threw the project for a loop. Why? Cole purchased it online on a whim long before kicking off the project only to find that its exaggerated, narrow shape meant it couldn’t comfortably accommodate eight people as promised. Even worse, it was also dwarfed by the scale of the room.

Instead of returning the piece (the base was just too good to give up), the designer tapped local woodworkers Edgewood Made to fashion a larger top for it. But first, Cole devised a genius plan to ensure she didn’t make another measurement misstep. First, she unpacked a heap of client deliveries and disassembled the boxes. Then, using an exacto knife, she formed the cardboard into an oval and placed it on the table’s base to see just how large the new top should be.

Cole had a local carpenter attach the custom table top to a base by Restoration Hardware. Photo by VESTIGE HOME, VESTIGE HOME

It may seem like a solution specific to Cole’s setback, but this ingenious trick can be applied to anything you want to bring into your home. Got your eye on a piece of art? Cut some cardboard to scale so you can get a sense for its size IRL. A desk at a local boutique begging you to bring it home? Ditch the passé measuring tape and put those old shipping boxes to good use before forking over the cash. Planning a gallery wall? Again, use cardboard mock-ups to design it before you start drilling those holes. Then, send Cole some love for saving you from a decorating disappointment.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Hi Smaug, Of course designers have been using it, but I haven't met many homeowners who are cutting cardboard to size to make sure furniture fits. Even if they are, hopefully this is a subtle reminder of how useful the trick is. It sounds like you use it all the time. We'd love to hear your story and any expert tips o how you've used it in your own home. —Garrett”
— Garrett F.

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Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director


Mary T. December 15, 2021
I'd like to know where she got those great chairs!
Glenn H. March 15, 2021
During a remodel you will have dumpster loads of plastic and cardboard packing materials you can use. Buy a contractor pack of blue masking tape to hold bits together. We mocked up a fireplace/mantel/TV, the kitchen countertops, flying shelves, the dining room table and chairs, dining room and exterior chandeliers, pendant and exterior sconce lighting.
Corinneg March 15, 2021
Curious what the trim paint color is?!
Jan March 13, 2021
I did this when laying out my kitchen island. It was pretty humorous trying to get the height, but finally the mock up was adjusted & readjusted. The island came out perfectly.
Smaug March 14, 2021
I might suggest in that sort of situation using something like small tables or moveable cabinets for the base, since you only really need the footprint of the top- anything you can find to bring it to height. Sometimes sawhorses work well for large pieces. . In the example given, since the maker was (for reasons unclear to me) fond of the table's supports, that was used
abuttonbox March 10, 2021
Who makes that great China cabinet?
Smaug March 8, 2021
Mockups aren't exactly a new concept.
Garrett F. March 8, 2021
Hi Smaug,

Of course designers have been using it, but I haven't met many homeowners who are cutting cardboard to size to make sure furniture fits. Even if they are, hopefully this is a subtle reminder of how useful the trick is. It sounds like you use it all the time. We'd love to hear your story and any expert tips o how you've used it in your own home.

Smaug March 8, 2021
Probably not that many homeowners keep furniture sized hunks of cardboard around. As a woodworker, I've been more inclined to use wood, as I generally have a good selection of scraps and offcuts available, but whatever happens to be around, including cardboard, even other pieces of furniture, can be made to serve. I don't really know of any tricks, its a pretty straightforward process. Often a mere outline of sticks will serve, especially outdoors for determining sight lines. These things can be helpful, mostly for customers as an experienced designer is generally able to visualize without aids; I suppose a lot nowadays use computer projections.
Sarah R. March 9, 2021
It’s something that hadn’t occurred to me! We are looking for a new console and TV and although we did some computer mock ups, I’m now very excited about cutting some cardboard to the right size to see if the size we think we want is actually what the space needs!
Sarah R. March 9, 2021
And thanks to the pandemic we are ordering more things online, so we have a steady stream of boxes that I would love to cut and tape into something useful!
Smaug March 9, 2021
Improvising is always fun, though judging by how few of my neighbors manage to break down their boxes to recycle, not too many have seen the fun side of it. Box structure can be kind of interesting to look into too; some pretty clever engineering goes into some of them.
Karen J. March 13, 2021
I did. My husband and I were remodeling the kitchen, opening it up to the dining and living areas. I used cardboard to decide how a raised counter would fit in the open space... determining the exact curve at the corner for him to construct. Only one instance🤩
Heidi H. December 16, 2021
Prior to buying a huge sectional for my loft, I got the measurements and taped it’s silhouette onto the floor to be sure the size would be ok in the room. It is really difficult to assess how a very large piece of furniture will fit and feel without doing something like this.