Less Is More: Playing the Long Game

by Grace Bonney

Design*Sponge Less is More
Last week we kicked off our summer essay series with a question that can be sometimes be uncomfortable to discuss: What do you splurge on? In a time when budgets are tight, talking about spending isn’t always the easiest or must upbeat subject to discuss. But it’s a topic that’s been on my mind because of comments and discussions I’ve seen online lately.

One of the hardest things to balance in our community is our love of handmade high-quality work with our desire for lower price points. And while I understand and share the hope that everything can be in my personal budget range, I also have spent enough time listening to the needs of independent designers to understand why their work doesn’t always fall in that budget. The cost of raw materials, ethical labor and quality control are high and that means that if I want to continue to fill my home with things that matter to me and are produced in a way that support all hands involved fairly, I may not be able to buy everything I want when I want. (The Of a Kind and Lizzie Fortunato girls explained this indie/budget issue brilliantly on air this year).

So for me, filling my home with things I love is a slow, steady and deliberate process. I find that slowness is something that both defines and refines my aesthetic over time and allows me to make decisions that are based more on long-term happiness than short-term gratification.

Read through for the full post after the jump…

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I find, however, that the slowness I am used to is something people seem to question me about the most. Someone once asked me, “What am I supposed to do, just live with an empty wall?” I thought the answer to that question was simple and straight-forward, but it wasn’t. The question itself got at a bigger issue which is the need/want/desire to have every corner of our homes filled, decorated and “finished” immediately.

For a million reasons, I’ve never been someone who was able to move into a space and have it finished within a month. I’ve lived with empty corners, empty walls or unfinished ‘projects’ more than I care to admit, but that “wait until it’s right” quality has ultimately saved me a lot of money over the years and allowed me to save up for pieces that are handmade or of higher quality.

I know it’s not easy or comfortable for everyone to have a wall above their dining table that’s undecorated, but for me, that’s not the end of the world. As long as a home is functional, the “decorating” part of it can be done more slowly.

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When Julia and I started to build our home together, I became aware of how slowly I can move when it comes to “finishing” a home. Julia is wonderfully adept at making quick, but carefully considered, decisions that are all about finding simple but functional ways to get a home up and running quickly. Thanks to her motivation and energy, we were able to find affordable basics from Ikea and The Container Store that made our kitchen more usable, organized all of our books and got all of our entertainment equipment (tv, computers, etc.) up and off of the floor (and away from Hope’s puppy teeth).

While I felt the urge to slow those decisions initially and wait until we bought found the perfect storage solutions, I realized why it was important to embrace speedier spending when it came to building a functional home. By sticking to affordable stores (she introduced me to Gothic Furniture which is now my go-to affordable bed source) we were able to get our home up and running with the basics (beds, storage, etc.) that would allow us to have a clean, functioning space without putting a huge dent in our bank account.

But now we’re in the fun (for me anyway) part of actually decorating our home- deciding what we do with all the extra spaces and aspects of our home that aren’t 100% necessary. For me, that’s where “splurge” or higher budgets come in.

For me, major spending (which I categorize as anything over $250 and not required for living)
is about a few things: staying true to our shared desire to have a home filled with things that are made by people we know and love or at least are tied to something or someone we care about.

A lot of times that means we decorate with hand-me-down pieces from our families that have history and meaning to them (our dishes are the ones I grew up eating on and our table is Julia’s family’s Passover table) and sometimes it means we save up and spend on things that we know are going to add years of happiness to our lives.

Those pieces, the ones we save up and spend on, aren’t defined into certain categories. I know most people want to see/read lists that define where it is “ok” to spend, but I think that list is different for everyone. For us, spending on a great sofa, rug and kitchen were worth it because those are the parts of our home we use the most. But that’s not true for everyone. For some people, a beautiful dining table, chairs and chandelier are the wisest “splurge” because that’s where they spend the most time. Ultimately, the wisest splurges are those that both reflect the way your family truly uses its home and what they believe in.

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To circle back to the initial question of “…am I supposed to just live with an empty wall?”- I’ve come to the conclusion that living with an empty wall can be the best thing you can do for yourself and your budget. If you take a deep breath and live with it for a while, you can make a more carefully considered decision about what you want to go there and why. Do you want to fill that space because you want to be “done” decorating? Or because you have something special that you’d like to see every day? For me, an empty wall has become a sort of calming space in our home, a space to let my eyes relax a bit and not necessarily need to take in an extra gallery wall or display of some sort. But I understand that not everyone feels that way- to some people it will always be unsatisfying to have an empty space in their home. When that happens, try filling that space with something you already have, reimagined. Use inexpensive frames to frame your children’s artwork, hang treasured copper baking molds or add a cork board so you can have an ever-changing arrangement of inspirational clippings. The bottom line- an empty wall isn’t a need for panic, it’s an invitation to stop and think about what you truly want to see every day and why. That may lead to a save-up purchase or it may give you a chance to display something you forgot you have in a whole new way. xo, grace

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We splurged on handmade cutting boards not only because food is Julia’s passion & work, but because we both love to entertain and they’re handy (and beautiful) ways to display snacks and food for guests.

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We also splurged (sort of, it was under $250) on having our long wooden bench upholstered. I’m in love with the fabric.

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Our dining room got a special visit from Sara and Thor Jensen and their wonderful children.

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The view from our dining room into the living room. Clean, simple and a few empty (!) white walls that will one day (or maybe not) have things on them that are special to us. Until then, they’re uncluttered and calming. Photo by Sasha Israel for Bon Beri

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  • I’m not supposed to write comments right now but… you really made me feel so familiar with the subject. We moved 2 years ago to a new apartment pretty bigger than our precedent homes, and because we’ve been moving for several years from different cities, we did not have furniture of our own. We did not have high budget either and Ikea and thrift stores became our best friends. Walls has waited a bit for the right image to put on and when that happened, it was so cool! I grew up in a small apartment and we couldn’t move to a bigger space, so my dad used to change the furniture out of place or re update them all. He taught me to live with the essential but also to take the best of every object that we can afford. And it still works. It’s funny because now, I inherited a few bocks from him (he passed away 5 years ago) and I wanted to invest it in a nice design piece on his honor, to inherit in the future to my child, but I’m not finding anything to fits with this premise! Thanks for your essays, I love them.

  • So true, gotta slow down and make wise decisions. We live in such a fast-paced world, we make decisions with our wallets too quickly. Recently I’ve really tried to be think of small things or changes that can make a big impact. For instance, buying large baskets to place under the kitchen island. They cost $150 total and they made that space usable and freed up other areas of the kitchen. It was money well spent.

    Reading your post makes me want to slow down even more and make very thoughtful decisions.

  • Oh, how I love this xx I was feeling only today, a little overwhelmed by all the projects and ‘waiting for the right wallpaper’ that’s going on in our house!! Not only do I agree with you, I’m so happy I read this today! Thank You!!!

  • I enjoyed this essay – I think that it’s thought-provoking, and that there’s a lot to be said for waiting with deliberately empty spaces sometimes. It lets you investigate what you need/want from a specific space, and I’ve found for myself that when I wait with something unfinished for a while, I rarely get it ‘not quite right’ when I do have the chance to fill it out. It’s things that I think we need to pick now that often end up not totally jiving together in the end.

    To the editor: I think that the link text “explained this indie/budget issue brilliantly on air” inadvertently links to http://honestlywtf.com/diy/diy-upcycled-vintage-plates/ — did you mean http://www.designsponge.com/2014/05/ds-radio-the-cost-of-independent-design.html ? I definitely missed that D*S radio, but now I’m intrigued.

  • Grace, can you give a ‘sneak peek’ of your home? It looks amazing! Or is there one already in the archives? I would love to see the homes of the staff too. I find it so inspirational.

  • I completely agree with you!! It also made me laugh because it made me think of my parents and in-laws. They are immigrants now American citizens who came for the American dream and quickly gave in to filling their homes with the “matching living room set” on sale at the local furniture store. So they do not understand my esthetic at all! They wonder why three years later our home is still not full or furniture or complete. Well besides having decor/furniture commitment issues, it’s really that I want to find the pieces that make the most sense and also make me happy! I don’t just want space holders. I want my home to feel like I personally put it together not a magazine or furniture sale! We have purchased low end but still beautiful Ikea furniture as well as overly expensive couch. I love that our home is not cluttered with furniture we do not like! Even if 3 years later we still need several furniture pieces and have empty walls. It’s coming together slowly, but beautifully! Oh and I also have no qualms chucking stuff that I do not like or dropping it off at Goodwill (especially when you have children). PS Grace I took your twitter suggestion and we painted our front door black and the enrtyway white–it looks great! We still need finishing touches! Of course :)

  • Grace, would you mind sharing the source of that gorgeous ocean photography in the dining room? If the photographer is selling prints, might get a few sales out of this post (myself included)! :)

  • Would you mind sharing the name of the photographer who shot that gorgeous water shot in the white frame? I’ve been looking for something similar for quite a while and never find the *perfect* photograph.

    This is a lovely post, and just what I’ve needed, as I have struggled with the urge to get art on the painfully white walls of our apartment vs. waiting to find pieces I truly love.

  • Wonderful, wonderful! This essay couldn’t have come along at a better time for me. I’m not so much “building” a home as “rebuilding” right now; my ex-husband finally bought a home of his own last month and is in the process of relocating the furniture he got in the divorce settlement, as well as the many things (camping gear, memorabilia, assorted junk) he accumulated during our marriage but didn’t have room for when he moved out a year ago.

    Post-divorce, I’m both figuratively and literally getting my house in order, but have been careful about not rushing to fill all of the empty spaces. Like you, I am decorating with pieces that have sentimental value; I’m fortunate to have been given paintings done by my grandparents, who both discovered their painting talents late in life. I’ve also inherited my great-grandmother’s china closet from the early 1930s that is perfect for my 1922 Bungalow-style home.

    I know it will take time for my home to get where I want it to be, but in the meantime I’m content to enjoy the open spaces!

  • My boyfriend and I bought and moved into our first home exactly a year ago, and many of the rooms remain unfinished to this day (we don’t even have a couch for our living room). I felt a huge rush of a relief recently when I read a post over on Apartment Therapy where many commenters confided that they felt embarrassed when their place wasn’t styled and decorated with in a month of moving in because everyone else on the internet seemed to be pulling that off so easily. For us, the slow setting up of our home is equal parts a. the challenge of blending two peoples’ style and b. making sure we can afford what we bring into the house. My boyfriend is a big advocate of saving up for pieces and investing intentionally (as opposed to going into debt to do so), and he has been a hugely positive influence on me–I’m the one in the relationship who would tend to splurge immediately, to my own financial detriment. Although sometimes I am impatient about the slow progress of our home, I realize that this pace is actually functional. And I try to remind myself of a wonderful quote from Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day: “The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want in the moment.” What we want most is a house that reflects our values, personality, and so much more.

  • I completely understand. My husband and I have lived together for over 5 years now and only NOW are we to the point where people come over and not say “oh, did you just move in?” because there were just blank empty spaces everywhere. I furnished our entire house from craigslist, vintage/thrift/junk stores, ebay and a select few pieces from Ikea and CB2. That thing takes time. My biggest embarrassment is the Ikea computer chair DH uses because “I don’t want to wait 2 years for you to find the perfect Knoll chair or whatever…”

  • What a great topic! This is the decorating equivalent to sitting quietly at a party and being misunderstood.

    I usually trade with other artist to decorate my home, but several years ago I decided to stop trading for prints and go for the gusto-I want originals. I may have to pay more on top of my barter, but if it something I love and will look at daily, it is worth the investment.

    That’s great way to display cutting boards, I’m going to steal that. :)

  • I love this, Grace! When we moved we made the decision that we wouldn’t buy anything that didn’t make sense for us for the longterm… and that we didn’t love. I love the things that we have purchased so much that I don’t notice the unfinished parts of our home as much…

  • Wow! My husband and I are in the process of buying our first house and I have to say this is exactly what I needed to read. I have become almost obsessed with “figuring out all of the details” and we’re not even in the house yet. You are absolutely right our house becoming our home slowly, just like the other places that we’ve lived together.
    Thank you.

  • Over time, I have learned that I live better with empty than with temporary. If it is necessary, than sure. But I don’t need something on the wall. And the “not quite it” temporary makes me so much more restless than the empty. Wish I had embraced that earlier.

  • Grace, I love the fabric on your upholstered bench. Do you mind sharing where it is from?

  • The thing I can never commit to is hanging artwork, because I love blank walls. And we even had a house tour on designsponge shot by my friend Trevor Tondro!

    The thing I’ve been dying to invest in is a long table, so I am dying to know where you got your table Grace!

    We also have a cabin, where I realized we have so few objets/pieces of art that I can focus on each and every one, and each keeps inspiring me afresh. I counted them, 9 non-functional objects, 11 things on the wall including simple taped up postcards. I am inspired to do the same at home (except our toddler’s room)

  • Grace, you are so thoughtful in your writing and your choices. Thank you for sharing your process with us; your home is beautiful, calm and radiates love. xx

  • Thank you for this! I just moved into a new 1,000 sq ft condo (my first home) from a 300 sq ft. studio apartment. I still haven’t unpacked all of my boxes yet I’ve been stressed worrying about decorating and having things decorated enough to throw a party and invite people over. Last night I was researching couches to buy with no luck when I realized the couch I was sitting on will be perfectly fine until I find the perfect one.

    So for now, I’m going to focus on painting and decorating with what I have, then slowly adding and editing with time.

  • What I love about this post, and many of your posts on D*S, is having followed for awhile, is watching your personal growth and your point of view evolve. This is lovely, but my guess is (having seen your old apartment) it took clarity and maturity to get here. I love that at 25, I have people with such clear value systems, like the D*S team to look up tol. I just bought my first home, and I may not be as minimalist as you are, it is lovely to keep in mind that slow and steady wins the race. I also feel more confident in my decisions to purchase more expensive handmade items that I love. Even if it means waiting. Thank you for sharing your life (this includes Amy and Max, I love their essays and POV too!)

    (And a shout out to Amy’s last post, because it was a good kick in the pants to start planning a trip to London with a friend of mine.)

    • thanks, julie.

      and you’re absolutely right. it took me a long time to get here and i think everyone’s process will be a little different. but for me, slow is definitely the way to go :)


  • “I’ve come to the conclusion that living with an empty wall can be the best thing you can do for yourself and your budget.” Yes and yes. So glad to see your take on the subject here. Whenever people ask how we’ve managed to decorate our home on a budget my answer is “slowly.” Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid!

  • There is nothing wrong with taking it slow when it comes to developing a budget and design concept for a comforting and affordable home. Ideally this process includes spending time getting to know and understand the spaces within: places with light, shadows and shade, sources for air and breezes, the cool corners, the warm alcoves, before coming up with a home style that works within a budget and aesthetic. Going slowly provides opportunity for careful consideration and creative thought.

  • You are definitely on to something here. I can’t believe how much money I have wasted purchasing furniture that i later placed on craig’s list because it just wasn’t something i really loved and wanted to live with. i do, however, love to upholster, and would be interested to know where you found that fantastic fabric for your bench. it is beautiful.

  • I missed (somehow?) the point at which you covered your wedding in D*S – I didn’t even know you were married! Congrats (belated, obviously). Please continue to keep us informed on your journey to a more authentic life :).

  • Thank you! This gives me a peaceful easy feeling that is hard to grasp in a world of perfectly styled home images (which I love).

    Mine is perfectly styled with kid messes and patiently searched-out craigslist finds. I have been waiting 4 years in this apartment to paint yellow walls white! Your article refuels my patience.

    I think its hard for me to wait to “finish” because I tend to tie my home in with my identity, and don’t want people to think, for instance, I’m a yellow wall person, because I am most definitely not.

  • These images are great and I completely agree with you. I recently bought my first “real” piece of framed art and it felt like such a huge step!

    I love that wooden hand with your cutting boards – where is it from?

  • Hi Grace, wonderful post! Plenty of food for thought. :) Would you mind sharing where you found that amazing hand-shaped spoon shown with your cutting boards?

  • What a lovely article thank you :) I absolutely love and agree with what you are saying about bare walls providing a resting space……after an incredibly tough 5 years since the GFC and single, I’ve spent the last year without a TV and this year endlessly decluttering….I now have bare walls and whilst the minimalist look was a bit confronting at first, I now revel in my healthier perspective. I now spend many more hours at home, cooking, baking, engaging in upcycling, creating or reading even, instead of draining and wasted hours in shopping centres. I think we’ve forgotten how to ‘be’ and ‘just be at home doing stuff’. I really love your site and find it very inpiring. Peace & Love