How To Turn Any House Into a Home (5 Tips)

by Grace Bonney

One of the things I think about the most these days is how a house becomes a home. A house can be any basic unit of dwelling, whether it’s a mobile home, an apartment, a super modern glass box or anything else in between. The form of the house never matters as much as what goes inside – because those are the people and special things that transform any space into a home. It’s easy to get caught up in the world of interior design and forget that making a home doesn’t require expensive furniture and bookshelves arranged by color. Around the world people decorate their homes in vastly different ways. For some homes, family-made textiles are the focal point, for others, artwork, and for some, a clean, simple space that allows for a young family to grow and be active is most important. But no matter what size, shape or style your home takes, there are a few universal ideas that seem to pop up in homes time and time again. Those common elements are the things that intrigue me the most about homes that feel welcoming and lived-in, and they’re the elements I want to talk about here today.

Over the past few months I’ve been working on our second book and I recently had a moment of clarity with our editor and book publisher, Lia Ronnen, about what the mission of our next book should be. Our original goal was to create a huge DIY encyclopedia, but it was lacking the sort of personal feel that matters most to me. It’s hard to feel attached to or inspired by an overwhelming list of anything, so we started talking more about how we could arrange projects and ideas in a way that felt more helpful, relatable and well, realistic. That change in focus got me thinking about the things I do in any space to make it feel more like home to me. And then I started to think about a few ideas that are present in homes across the world and what they have in common despite their wide range of differences.

So today I’m sharing 5 of the key steps I see people taking to turn their spaces into homes: structures that not only house and protect people from the elements, but that tell a story, express a person or family’s interests and make guests feel welcome inside. From simple ideas like decorating walls with art that means something to you to more involved DIY projects like customizing the small details on your furniture, these are some of the steps I believe in most for turning any house (of any size) into a warm, welcoming home. The final results may look different for everyone, but the underlying goals and desire to feel at home are universal. xo, grace

*Photograph above by Beth Kirby, from this home by Jersey Ice Cream. Wallpaper design by CFA Voysey at Trustworth Studios.

Click through for the full post after the jump!

*Please note: none of these things are necessities for a home. It’s a privilege just to have a home (whether you rent, own or stay with friends and family), so I just want to note that while these ideas are universal across countries and different groups of people, they are not in any way required. This list is intended as a helpful way to make a space reflect more of the people living within it.

1) Floors: This may seem like an unexpected place to start, but I find that one of the things that unites homes everywhere is an attention to what happens under your feet. Rugs and carpet aren’t the only thing you can do to floors, but they’re a common first step because they help with the sound insulation in any room. If you’ve ever moved out of a home or apartment before, you remember how empty the space feels after you’ve removed your furniture and other belongings. Without anything to absorb sound, steps echo and can make a space feel emptier than you’d like. That softness and warm feeling that comes from having textiles in a room is something that instantly makes a room feel more lived-in. So one of the first things I think anyone can do to make a house feel more like a home is find a way to introduce textiles that mean something to you. Whether that means laying down your grandmother’s rag-rug from the 50s or stitching together salvaged remnants from a thrift shop or making your own DIY floor cloth, adding something to the room that both absorbs sound and has special meaning to it is a great way to make a room feel special.

2) Lighting: Having primarily lived in rented spaces for the past 15 years of my life, I feel like lighting has represented a huge part of my design focus. While it sometimes requires a professional (I rarely try electrical work on my own, though I know many people feel comfortable with DIY lamp wiring) to complete the project, changing out the pre-existing lighting in any space will immediately make a room feel homier for a few reasons: it allows you to add a personal touch (like a favorite family lamp from home or something you made from found materials and a lamp kit) and it allows you to determine where and how light works in your room. So often homes and apartments are constructed with the simplest lighting available – a single overhead bulb or extra-bright fluorescent lighting. The cost-effectiveness of these choices is understandable, but having soft lighting at a lower height in the room does a lot to make a room feel cozy. So for that reason I always take out my existing overhead lighting (and save it in the top of my closet to re-install when I move out) and replace it with chandeliers (like inexpensive IKEA chandeliers and soft white bulbs) or tabletop lamps that direct light into all corners of the room and let me create separate areas for reading, eating, relaxing, etc. Lighting is one of the easiest things to find inexpensively (thrift stores and flea markets always have something for less than $10) and they’re quick and fun to upcycle with a new coat of paint or a new shade. So if you’re looking around your home and wonder what you can do to make a quick difference, consider swapping out the lighting around you for something that’s softer and warmer.

*Click here for some DIY Lighting ideas

3) Storage: One of the biggest lessons I learned about a house feeling like a home has to do with functionality. So many design decisions are based on aesthetics, but it’s hard to get around to decisions that are based on style before you deal with all the basic necessities of storage. When I adopted our dog Hope, I quickly learned that my tendency to leave things out everywhere in stacks and piles provided Hope with an all-too-easy snack of books and papers. Thankfully, Julia introduced me to the beauty of a well organized bookshelf and now we have fauxdenzas in almost every room that keep clutter at bay and allow me to focus less on cleaning and more on displaying things that I use, love and have meaning to me. Storage also has an aesthetic and meaningful side, too. For some, storage can be simple and straight forward (L-bracket shelves and neat rows of items), but in other homes it can be a chance to showcase a love of handmade baskets, storage containers that have a family history (like boxes from a family farm or company) or items that connect to a trip or moment in your life that is meaningful. So whether your home storage is about leaving room to display things that matter most to you, or displaying the storage devices that mean something on their own, this simple step of giving everything a place of its own goes a long way in creating a room that feels beautiful.

4) Artwork: Artwork is too often written off as being elitist, expensive and frivolous. But from the earliest days, people have decorated their homes with all sorts of things that mean something to them. From found objects in nature (like collections of shells and pinecones) and family weavings to photographs, sculptures and paintings, art can be anything and everything you want it to be. And, most of all, it adds an element to your home that makes it feel unique to you, your interests and what you find beautiful. I personally find fairly empty walls to be soothing, but I find that artwork of any type (so long as it’s special to you) adds additional meaning to the architecture around you and highlights objects in a special way. If you’re looking to make your rooms come to life, make a short list of the things that you love and want to see every day. Your list could include a collection of books you’d like to display in a creative way, a family portrait, a branch you found in your yard or a doorstop you grew up with that becomes a tabletop sculpture – or anything else that makes you smile when you look at it. Give these items a special spot in your home (on a table, on a bookshelf, attached to the wall or housed in a display case or shadowbox) and they will take on a whole new meaning that gives people an instant sense of what you find beautiful when they walk in the door.

5) Customized Details (Hardware): There are many cases in life when the existing hardware on something is totally fine. But then there are those moments where the little details something comes with are as generic and non-descript as the sad, computer-generated artwork you often see in hotels and conference centers. Mass-produced and without any relationship to the piece itself, these are areas that are just asking to be changed and customized in a way that makes the object itself feel more personal and at home in your space. Unlike custom surfaces in a home (which are often expensive and time-consuming), customizing small details like hardware is a quick, easy and cheap way to make your house feel more like a home. Whether you paint your dresser handles a new color, use faux gold-leaf on your lamp bases or dip the legs of your chairs in colorful paint, adding small, personal touches in places that are unexpected makes a noticeable impression on both you and your guests. There is never anything wrong with using existing hardware or furniture materials, but if you have the inclination and interest to make something a little different and a bit more like your style, the overall impact is huge. I like to start with handles, door knobs, pulls and light switches, but just about any small aspect of your home can be personalized with a little bit of paint, fabric or other inexpensive materials. If you have a set of thrift store cane chairs you’d like to add detail to, consider weaving a bit of colored thread through the cane backs to add some interest. People will ask about it, you’ll get to tell them a great story and you’ll also get to walk past the chairs every day and know you had a hand in making them look they way they do. Small details like that cost very little in terms of time and materials and make a huge impact on the overall feel of your home.

*This DIY Leather Pull project is a great way to spruce up and customize an existing piece of furniture.

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  • Lovely list, but I’m afraid you’ve forgotten my favorite way to make a house a home: add a pet (or 3).

  • Wow, this is exactly what I needed to read. The right place and the right time to read such a post. I have been thinking about the concept of living intentionally, as well as living minimally while also tending to my maximalistic taste for grandeur. One of my main struggles these past few years has been making my home feel like a home and while I have made many excuses to not invest in the “design” of my space, I have realized that this compromise has affected the way I interact and enjoy the place that I call home. These are great tips and I’m looking forward to re-reading this post to digest what I can apply to making the form and function of my home more thoughtful.

  • LOVE your thought process for the new book. Much more interesting! I’m always keen to find ways everybody celebrates one or many aspects of a place, whether it’s twinkly lights over a tiny desk or mural sized art in a loft. I guess, come to think about it, that’s why I like seeing/reading about the artists and their studios. Really looking forward to following your efforts. Great!

  • “It’s a privilege just to have a home (whether you rent, own or stay with friends and family).” I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing!

  • Storage and Lighting are definitely my #1 and #2, mostly because my house is sadly lacking both. I loved your ideas for adding more lighting around my home.

  • Great post. There’s nothing better than getting home on a cold wet day and feeling welcomed and cosy as soon as you open the door. Lighting is sooo important, a room can be beautifully decorated but if lit badly it just won’t be the same. I love chandeliers they are beautiful and add a touch of romance and are a great way to pull a look together as they’re so visual. Mirrors also add more light and make beautiful features. I love homes that tell a story, display cabinets/dressers displaying peoples treasures make a room so interesting and personal. I love art work and to be honest its my children’s art work that I have all over my kitchen cupboards thats the best, its colourful and worth more than anything you could buy. Adding layers/textures is always a great way to add warmth – the rug in the dining room above just adds another level to the space :O)

  • Fantastically written post – I couldn’t agree more. My partner and I are renovating a 1957 Airstream and when designing the interior, we were certain to leave space for art, textiles, functional and aesthetically pleasing lighting, and ample storage that fits seamlessly into the design. Even in the smallest of spaces (160 sq feet, in our case!) I think that these things are vital to create a sense of home.

  • Yes!! Turning a house into a home : ) our space to be warm, be cared for, to be authentic, and playful. I love how you are thinking of breaking up the book around these concepts of how to get from house to home Grace.

  • Wow, this is exactly what I needed to read. The right place and the right time to read such a post. This blog looks amazing. Thank you for sharing The ideas for how to turn your house into a home is amazing. Your article has covered everything in detail and the images are also good. Thank you so much for sharing. The Article is truly inspiring. Thank you once again for this blog. Keep Writing.