Making decorating virtue of tight funds

If the phrase decorating on a budget conjures horrifying images of glue guns, marabou lampshades, and fake wood grain, you've been watching too much Trading Spaces.

The techniques shown on those guerrilla decorating shows--the ones that use ordinary objects like cardboard and seashells to inflict maximum damage on victims' homes--have given budget decorating a bad name.

This is a shame, because throwing money at decorating problems is rarely the best solution. Financial limits can actually inspire better solutions, as New Westminster couple Robert Holtby and Emile Romain found when they began decorating their dream home, a 1951 bungalow with a midcentury modern design.

"Money doesn't mean anything without a vision," says Holtby, who designs IKEA display rooms for a living. "We have all been in those homes where they spent a fortune, and it's just ordinary. We compromised on price, but the one thing we never compromised on was the vision."

The two have a taste for expensive modern furniture that complements the architecture of their 1,450-square-foot home, but they didn't want to create a museum; the house had to feel comfortable and contemporary. And it had to be done on the kind of budget that would make professional decorators chuckle.

"We made over a lot of pieces," says Romain, a retail manager by trade, who admits that he picked up his DIY design skills through trial and error. He learned how to upholster furniture by taking it apart and seeing how it was done. "I always say, 'How hard can it be?'", adding that a lot of things, including framing doors and putting up drywall, turned out to be less complicated than he expected.

One of their most successful make-overs is Romain's modern dark-wood bathroom vanity with a luxe concrete counter. The posh piece looks like it's worth a few thousand, but Romain made it for less than $350, with a little help from his contractor. He stained the free-standing vanity, an IKEA piece, an espresso tone to echo the home's other built-in furniture. The contractor built a mould, custom-fit to the irregular walls in the old house, and created the countertop using a fine-grade concrete. Romain then stained it a grey-green. The elegant vessel sink--a white ceramic bowl--was extra, but not as expensive as it looks either.

"But it took a long time to make. We had to wait three weeks just for the concrete to cure," Romain says. And it took time to track down all their good-looking fixtures, which they found with the help of a cooperative retailer.

"Better Bathrooms in Coquitlam was great; we would go in with a picture of a $900 sink we wanted and ask them what they could find that was similar for the $150 we had to spend. They would go through catalogues until they found us something," Holtby adds.

He points out that the advantage of a budget reno is that it forced them to be creative and gave them a home that is unique. "We put so much of ourselves into this that it reflects us," Holtby says, although Romain doesn't want to romanticize the tight budget too much. "I keep thinking about what we could have done with this place if we had money..."

Here are Holtby and Romain's tips for making a decorating virtue out of a budget necessity:

DON'T BE A SNOB Holtby laughs when asked about Romain's collection of Indonesian-style busts, because they picked up several of them at discount stores like Winners and Homesense. He also waits for annual sales at high-end furniture stores, where discontinued pieces can be had for as little as a third of the original price. "It doesn't have to have a pedigree," Romain says. "If you like it, you like it."

LEARN TO DO IT YOURSELF Romain is particularly good at spotting a piece's potential and developing it. The fuzzy, white flokati in their living room is actually two bargain-priced five-by-eight-foot area rugs sewn together. The bedroom's upholstered headboard is a DIY project using foam glued to a masonite board.

TRAIN YOUR EYE "You have to educate yourself and really know what you're going for," says Romain, who says that part of the trick to good decorating on a budget is being able to spot a great find amidst secondhand junk or department-store kitsch.

ADOPT PROFESSIONAL TECHNIQUES Cut the clutter: accessories that are featured as if they're important look expensive. Use low-tack tape to mark out furniture on the floor, which helps avoid errors in scale. Invest in big pieces that will last--like the couch--and cut corners on trendy accent pieces.

BE PATIENT "It took us five years to renovate and decorate our house," Romain says. "If you want things done overnight, you have to pay for it."