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Essay

What Would You Tell Your Younger Self About Decorating Your Home?

by Grace Bonney

Over the past 14 years I’ve lived in seven different homes. From all sorts of oddly-shaped apartments across Brooklyn (where I had to break my couch to fit it in the door) to the old farm house where Julia and I now live a few hours upstate, I’ve had the pleasure of decorating a lot of different spaces. Each one stands out in my mind for a number of reasons, but mostly because when I think back to what each space looked like, I get a clear picture of where I was as a person during that time. Some apartments reflected being at a fun, light-hearted place in my life (lots of color, pattern and DIY) and others remind me of difficult times when the thought of decorating felt too trivial to consider, given the emotional work that needed to be done instead.

But if the saying “older and wiser” has any truth to it, I’ve learned a few things about what decorating does and doesn’t mean to me anymore. I wish I could go back and tell myself so many things (mainly to save money), but I know myself well enough to know I probably would have just rolled my eyes and ignored that advice. But hopefully someone out there reading can learn from some of the things I’ve figured out over time (including the biggest mistake I ever made decorating at home). And I’d love to hear from all of you about what YOU wish you could tell your younger self. Are there things you would have left on the shelf or at the store? Things you wish you HAD tried? Share your stories below (our team is also sharing their advice below, too!) and together we can all reminisce a bit about lessons learned. xo, Grace

 

What I’ve Learned from Decorating 7 Homes (And What I’d Tell My Younger Self)

 

  1. I’m lucky to have a home. Period. For too many years I worried about what my home looked like (especially compared to other people’s spaces) and forgot to stop and be thankful for just having a roof over my head. If you have a safe space to call your own (whether you own, rent, sub-let, or crash on someone else’s couch) you’ve got it pretty good. So often in design we forget that simple fact and these days I try to start from a place of gratitude whenever I worry about what something looks like.

One of the things I’m most thankful for at home: our family coffee mugs (made by Nic Newcomb)

 

  1. Never EVER let someone else tell you what you should have in your home. The single biggest mistake I made in decorating was when Domino Magazine asked me to be a part of a story on bloggers’ houses. I was the only non-designer in the bunch and I knew that my space would be a lot more basic than other people’s in the story. I did my best to spruce up (I even made this headboard), but they ended up re-arranging and adding so many objects that weren’t my own that I barely recognized my own space. I felt embarrassed and deflated. In hindsight, I wish I had stood up for myself and insisted things stay the same. I would have felt better and ended up being attached to a story and space that felt authentic. From that day on I’ve remembered to always stick to what feels right for me, even if it means people give you side-eye or sighs. Everyone has different style and that’s 100% okay.

The DIY headboard I made to prepare for the Domino shoot.

 

  1. Make more things (and buy less). I did so much DIY in my early days in Brooklyn and I always (always!) loved those spaces the most. Those were the homes where I took the biggest chances with the smallest budget. As I got older and had a slightly larger budget, I started buying more things and feeling less happy with them. Looking back, all my favorite home pieces were ones I bought, thrifted, up-cycled or customized in some way. Those memories attached to items are worth their weight in gold.

My DIY pegboard in Brooklyn, inspired by Julia Child’s kitchen.

 

  1. Learn to live with some blank spaces — it will give you room to think (and money to save). I grew up in a home that was filled with beautiful vignettes. I was lucky to grow up in a space that both of my parents cared about so much and put so much time into decorating. But I think I interpreted all of that decorating as a message that every space needed to be filled with something. It felt like empty spaces conveyed something bad, so I grew up wanting to do the same. That led to me buying a lot of things over the years to make my spaces feel “done.” But I would always end up selling, donating or leaving those things on a NYC curb where someone else could scoop them up in a second. When I look back and think about all the things I bought just to fill a space, I shudder with a mix of guilt and sadness. I wish I’d learned earlier than an empty wall or room that isn’t quite filled to capacity doesn’t mean anything bad. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all. I’ve learned to enjoy having things be a bit unfinished or just emptier. That space has given me time to consider what I actually want in my house (ala Marie Kondo) and these days I realize what I actually want is more space to spend time with my family—nothing more, nothing less.

Our last apartment in Brooklyn, where I learned to live with less and really love it.

 

  1. Happiness > Rules/Trends. One of the interesting parts about working in the world of design online is that we get to see so many stories on design “rules” and trends. I used to love them. They made me feel calm and helped me shape my house to the way I thought it should be. But then I realized that my house looked more like a version of someone else’s house I saw online than me. So I started undoing some of the decisions I made based on trends and rules and started bringing in things that made me happy. Sure it means that some of the rooms around here have a funky mix of furniture that wouldn’t normally “go together,” but those pieces now tell me stories or remind me of trips or memories that are worth more than the result of any design trend or rule to follow. Looking back, I wish I’d held onto some of the funkier pieces I originally bought and then got rid of because they didn’t “fit.” Because now my favorite homes are the ones that have SO many moments of things “not fitting.” Those homes have character and stories to tell and that’s the type of space I want to live in these days.

Our old Brooklyn kitchen. Small but loved.

 

Here are some more stories from our team about what they would tell their younger selves:

Kristina Gill: Wait. Wait more. Wait even more. And wait some more. It’s ok to not have a fully furnished/decorated place until you put together a coherent aesthetic, rather than a collection of many things that “spark joy” immediately but aren’t evergreen for you. Also, it’s ok to decorate in stages as you save up enough to tackle each phase. The longer you live without, the greater the feeling of reward and satisfaction will be when you finally get it done!

Kelli Kehler: Less is more. I used to pack rooms to the gills with things, layering decor pieces upon surfaces and filling every blank wall with at least one artwork. While I love and appreciate maximalist style (or heavily decorated spaces) in the homes of others, I learned over time how much my brain is uneasy when my own home is full of stuff. I have a hyperactive brain and it never, ever seems to slow down, which can leave me feeling overwhelmed when my home is either messy or overly decorated. Once I started paring back my style and implementing a more restrained (but still me) design at home, my brain – and myself in general – could find peace.

Garrett Fleming: I would tell baby Garrett to take the plunge. You go buy those decorations you really love even if you aren’t sure how they’ll work in your home. Now I know that living in a space that makes you smile is way more important than living in a space others think is attractive.
Lauren Day: I would tell my younger self that it’s okay to spend time and energy making my tiny dorms and first apartments feel more like home. I would rework Craigslist finds, paint apartment walls with the landlord’s permission (under the stipulation I’d have to paint them back at the end of the lease), and would thrift as much as I could to make my living space feel like home. My friends weren’t affected by their environments in the same way and would make comments about how decorating at our stage in life didn’t matter. I felt bad about it — like I was too materialistic or wasting time. Looking back, I’d tell myself not to be so apologetic for creating a home I enjoyed and to not be too concerned with what others think or say. It isn’t wrong to have different priorities or interests, and that practice early on helped me develop skills and personal style for my home and work now.
Sofia Tuovinen: Slow down the process and take your time. If you invest in neutral and earthy pieces you’ll save a whole lot of time and effort going through endless color schemes, styles and furniture flips before you end up where you finally feel at peace and at home. That being said, your borderline obsessive attitude toward decorating will end up triggering a career change that will be one of the most rewarding and scary things you’ll accomplish. So actually, just carry on!
P.S. It’ll take you two months to grow tired of that bright green sofa you were so sure you’d love forever. 
Erin Austen Abbott: I’d tell my younger self not to rush the process. I’d focus on loving time in my home, surrounded by good friends and throwing dinner parties. Creating experiences in my home, collecting useful yet sentimental pieces while taking my time figuring out who I am in the long run rather than what I love in that moment. I’d also invest in built-in bookshelves from the beginning — filling them with books and records early on, all with a place and with purpose. I’d wait to live in my home for awhile, learning the patterns of the natural light before deciding what color to paint the walls. My biggest piece of advice to my my younger self would be to not let hand-me-downs define and dictate my style. You can love a hand-me-down, but you don’t have to say “yes” to every piece that comes your way. Someone else can find joy in a piece you pass on. Don’t feel guilty for saying “no thank you.” Saying “yes” too often just recreates someone else’s vision in your home.
Caitlin Kelch: I so much wish I would know that all of the purchases I justified by thinking “Oh you can just sell if it doesn’t work” will probably sit in a closet or basement. I feel like the internet and today’s disposal culture can seep into our heads and allow us to think that way too many pieces are the perfect piece and someone else will pay a lot of money for our over indulgences. “Be selective and prudent” would be my advice to younger, impulsive Caitlin. When you want to buy a vintage pink ostrich-print vinyl cushioned sofa, find a beautiful book with a striking cover that reminds you of it. Trust me.

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Comments

  • I would say take some time to think about what you actually want your space to look and feel like before you go and buy things – especially things like bedding and rugs that can transform how a room looks. That beautiful bold quilt I loved the look of in store didn’t make my room feel like the calm haven I was really after.

    Also, plants go a long way to make a place feel more homey, especially if you live in the frozen midwest and miss seeing the color green during the winter. I wish I had learned that a lot sooner!

  • So many of these resonate with me! I have always been interested in design and when my partner and I bought our first home, I dove deep into the blog world. Every choice I made was based on serious consideration and research.

    Then we had kids. Not only was there not nearly as much time for blog reading (let alone DIY projects!), suddenly we had to adapt our space for little ones too. Things started looking less design-y … but more real life-y. And honestly, I love it that way. My new couches may not be Pinterest-worthy, but they sure are great to snuggle the kiddos on. The indoor-outdoor rug under my dining table may not be on trend, but I can literally take it out back and hose it off. Score. My house feels livable in a way it never did.

    Oh, and I’m starting to dip into the DIY world again (I have a picture ledge project planned for this coming weekend!), but I have also found the value in not putting off projects “until I have the time”. Sure, refurbishing an old buffet for a media center would look fantastic, but if I don’t get to it for five years, isn’t that Ikea cabinet actually a better choice?

    (While I may not have as much blog-reading time anymore, I still love D*S! Thanks for keeping me from falling totally off the design wagon!)

  • I would say take your time. Live with emptiness and just the essentials for a while. Don’t rush to fill up the space. You’ll need less space (cheaper!) and will have time to get things that are right instead of right now.
    I also wish I had shopped secondhand first. It’s very easy to go to Ikea or Target or Crate & Barrel or Kohl’s and buy something that looks nice. But it’s expensive (even at Ikea and Target, considering the quality) and too often temporary. I had lots of hand-me-downs from my grandma, much of which I still have decades later. Can’t say the same about a lot of other things. And I am much more aware today of the environmental impact. Nothing new if I can help it.

    • I love this. apart from my bed frame, which I hugely researched and then waited for the sale to come around every piece in my house is second hand in one way or another. And I have been turning that way with clothes too.

  • Don’t hang your wall pieces too high. Luckily though, while I was still young, someone mentioned it to me so I read up on where they should hang, how to group and so on then purchased a small level and the appropriate hardware to do it right.

  • Things I’ve learned:
    Don’t doubt your own intuition. I often look up and notice that pieces bought decades apart, share something that ties them together.
    It’s just paint.
    Never buy an uncomfortable sofa, no matter how pretty it may be.
    The less money I have, the more creative I am. These are the purchases and projects I love the most.
    Incorporate trends. Don’t live by them
    Nail holes can be filled.
    Give away the things that you no longer use.
    A good cleaning will make any space look better.
    <3

  • I would tell my younger self that it is ok to want a home, to want well-designed, beautiful, useful things in it. To sometimes spend money on those things that will last. I would tell my younger self that deep desire for beauty and function is not frivolous.

    • Thank you! I’ve always felt shallow wanting a beautiful home (even as a broke college kid) compared to my peers who usually couldn’t care less about their home space. Letting myself enjoy pretty things has done so much good for my soul.

  • My favorite Design Sponge blogs are actually the earliest ones – the houses weren’t perfect, the decorations weren’t necessarily “in,” but they felt like real lived in homes. I agree with everything said above, buy things that will last, take your time purchasing, make tag sales and craig’s list a part of your purchasing routine, etc., but i think the most important thing is to make your home your own. You don’t need to follow trends: a kitchen island, or the latest sofa configuration, or minimalism – you need a home that works for you.

  • Loved reading your reflections about this, Grace! I’ve been having a lot of similar revelations lately. While I am still really passionate about decorating our apartment, at the end of the day I am honestly just grateful to have a roof over my head. There may be perpetual muddy little dog footprints on our rug and sofa, but that just means our home is a cozy one filled with love and joy. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  • So many great takeaways from this! I over decorated from an early age, but learned to pare back eventually and that last iteration of my home was the one I loved the most, though it would still be overdecorated for current me. After 8 years of traveling and living in furnished rentals, my hubby and I are planning to buy a home later this year. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to scratch that decorating itch (though I rearrange stuff in every single rental to make it work better for us), I will be striving to keep some of this insight in mind and not go crazy at the first trip to a furniture store. I especially loved Kaitlyn’s advice about buying a book (or something else small) that reminds you of that larger investment piece you think you love but know you’ll get tired of.

  • For a while, there was a ranch for every phase in life. There was the micro-sized starter ranch I bought with a boyfriend. Then there was ranch in a sought-after neighborhood where I learned the design rules and applied them (as dutifully as I’d applied myself to a one-sided marriage). Then we divorced and I rented a 500 square foot ranch with old creaky floors, drafty windows and yellow oak cabinets; I brought only my most cherished possessions, learned to live with the imperfections and oddities of that old creaky space and I blatantly broke any rule that got in the way of my self expression. Later, I bought a true fixer-upper ranch and I remodeled it by myself in a blaze of independence; this home became distressing with all of its challenges, but for a while it was part of my identity, until I proudly sold it as a completed project to create a new space with my current spouse.

    I wish I could go back and assure my younger self that you’ll always be slightly nostalgic for an old space, and probably as it was before you remodeled it out of its quirky ways, so don’t forget to enjoy it as you have it now. Make memories, take pictures, don’t worry about that next step just yet.

    Now I’m in a beautiful-yet-dated home on a wooded wilderness trail with the love of my life and our young son. I dream up ways to make the home more beautiful and more functional, but I also appreciate that I’ll always be sentimental for what I have now, regardless of what it becomes in the future.

  • Thanks for starting off with number 1. I like design blogs as a fun hobby or distraction. My biggest complaint is when people talk about all the things they need to do or fix in their homes. Humans need shelter, food, water, safety—not a new kitchen, flooring, paint color, etc. We can want those things but we don’t need them.

    Related to how I want my home to be—I want it to tell our story and reveal something about what we value. I value supporting artists, travel, cooking and sharing food, my kitty, my family, sustainability. I hope the form and function of the items in my home reflect that!

  • Buy original art! And bonus points by buying from local artists.

    For not much more than the price of a mass-produced print, you can find beautiful, reasonably priced art at local galleries, artist co-ops & art schools. If you go to art openings & studio tours, you may even get to know the artists which will add extra meaning to the work.

    Pick up frames at the thrift store and voila! you’ve got a home that truly reflects your unique personality.

    P.S. Grace, thank you so much for all the wonderful ideas you have given us all over the years! D*S* is so much more than just a home design website — it is a place that makes you think about what home means and how to truly welcome all into it. I am so happy that you are going to archive the site. One suggestion — is there any way you could make it searchable, i.e. small spaces, kitchens, accessibility (thank you so much for showing us that accessible design can also be beautiful!) etc.?

    • Hi Cynthia

      Thank you for your kind comment :)

      DS is searchable by term and tag (including kitchens, etc)- did you want specific types of spaces to search by?

      Grace

      • Grace, you are the embodiment of your name for not calling me a nincompoop! Now, I see the Search…

        I tried several categories — accessible, small spaces, states, etc. — and found exactly what I was looking for.

        Thanks!!!

  • For my husband and I, being thankful that we have a home was always more important than whether or not it is/was fully furnished. At the age of 26, my husband and I took out a mortgage and built our home. That was in 1994 and we still live in said home. We did not have much furniture – a bed, two bean bags, a plastic table and chairs and a small TV. That was it, but more than many others had. When my first child was born in 1997, the home was still bare. We still were not able to afford window furnishings, a proper kitchen table, a TV or couches. Only the main bedroom and the baby’s room had store bought curtains temporarily fixed to the windows. I used to breastfeed sitting on the carpet in the empty living room, leaning against a wall. Family and friends would often joke about out bare home. But I was content and happy – our family had a home. The main priority for my husband and I was paying off our mortgage as quickly as possible so that the home that I loved was ours and not the bank’s. Furnishing and decorating could be done later. Which we slowly did – as we were able to afford items. We both had professional jobs – he is a computer analyst, I was an accountant. By 2009 we had paid off our mortgage. It had taken 15 years to do so and of those 15 years, 7 were spent as a single income family as I was a stay at home mum. It was not easy as many sacrifices were made, but importantly for us, we were debt free. Today, our home is fully furnished, we have a mature garden – filled with many varieties of fruit trees, a vegie garden and chickens for fresh eggs. Our children have grown up in this home and since 2009, our earnings have gone into educating our children, saving for retirement and spending on ourselves and those we love. In the media, so much emphasis is given to instantly having a fully furnished home and landscaped garden. That, I believe, “forces” families/individuals to take on credit that they cannot afford. Be grateful that you have a home and focus on owning that home – if home ownership is your goal. Don’t feel inferior or guilty if it isn’t furnished or decorated as you would like it to be.

  • I have found the pieces that were really special, I saved for, or may have felt SO expensive but so intuitively me are still the right pieces. All the items I’ve let go of, or tried to sell off were trendy, from box stores, or the cheap version of what I really wanted. It’s better to wait for exactly what you want and to buy things that will last.

  • Now retired, I would tell my younger self to think more about the future than the present when it comes to having “things”. I was always an avid art collector of all genres. I just had to have that beautiful piece of this or that. Everyone enjoyed coming to my home and enjoying the “museum” I had created. I enjoyed it too, as long as I was employed. Then, I wasn’t! And though I still love everything I purchased, I now see dollar signs and what could have been more financial security.
    So now, at the age of seventy-two, I am slowly selling my collections. And, Grace, do you know what? I’m not missing what goes. I’m rediscovering what stays, enjoying the extra income, and living the space. This was a valuable article, Grace. I wish I was as wise at a younger age. Love to you and Julia.

  • I read this with great joy because yes, I have many things that I would tell my younger self, but I’m STILL reminding myself of these things everyday as I renovate my fixer upper:

    Never stop being grateful for the roof over your head.
    Pinterest is fun & useful, but it’s not the “be all, end all” .
    Spend big money on timeless & classic. Spend little money on trends.
    A good friend will voice an opinion. A great friend will love your space because it’s YOU.
    It’s ok NOT to have a “design style”.
    Don’t let “but it’s on sale” be your only deciding factor.
    Trust your gut. You’ll be right 99% of the time.

    And Thank You Design Sponge for all the inspiration that you’ve provided over the years. So glad everything will be archived. I’d hate to lose all of those bookmarks.

  • On gratitude and what people need: people do need beauty. They make it in the most dire situations. I have fine baskets from Burundian refugee camps in the Congo and Rwandan camps in Burundi, an exquisite carved headrest from Somali refugees in Ethiopia and all sorts of cloth and other goods from around the world where people were rebuilding or just catching their breath after flight.

    One of my lessons came from a Congolese refugee in Zambia when I was 24ish. She was educated, and had been important in government prior to flight. She had no more money than the other refugees and had more space only because she had no family left. But she scrimped and she whitewashed the walls of her house; made her bed up like a day-bed with bright local cloth, and hung her three cooking utensils in a diagonal line opposite the door. She was peaceful with what she had left and made the best of things – starting with making friends with her neighbours and a tidy and simple home for herself…with a little flair.

    My grandmother’s version was to always have some red lipstick handy.

    Yes, we need to be grateful for our homes – and we need to let ourselves off the hook when we want to make them beautiful.

    • I love this, Kristiem!

      I would tell my younger self to never buy something just because you think it will “go with” something you already have. So much waste. I made a rather spontaneous move in my early 30s. I kept and stored only the things I loved most and sold or gave away the rest. A year and a half later when things came out of storage, I was afraid my space was going to look like a mish-mash of stuff. To my surprise, my decor came together more beautifully than any of my prior planned decorating attempts. That was a lesson to bring into my home only what I truly love.

  • Thank you Design Sponge for more than a wonderful decade of inspiration! Some things I have learned about decorating homes over the years:
    Let your home reflect your life stage. It’s ok if you don’t have that carpet under the dining table when your kids are little or if your house is messy most of the times. Time to let go of your guilt and enjoy the process.
    If you have a good sense of colour and form, little money can go a long way. At all budgets you can reach the home of your dreams, just let go of your rigid ideas of what good decor is.
    It’s not about the objects but about the feeling your home evokes.
    Try to find affordable big scale art because it creates high impact in a simple setting.
    Don’t tear down something that works just because it doesn’t have the on trend design feel. Spruce it up, love it up. Functionality comes first and wastage is not ok in the times we live in.
    Homes should work for you and not the other way around!

  • A typewriter that doesn’t work? Sure, that’s hip and cool – I’ll take it! Five giant glass vases just for decoration? Load ’em up. I’m sure I’ll actually use them sometime… My house was full of this.

    For many years I thought I was on my way to happiness with these items. But over time, they actually contributed to my house feeling like it was closing in on me. Then, with a sudden death in my family, I had an avalanche of “stuff” appear, and just like that, I went from slightly claustrophobic to completely overwhelmed.

    Having grown up financially strapped, it breaks my heart to part with usable items for free. I always dream of making 60-80% of the original amount back in resale. But while it takes just a split second to buy something, it can take forever to sell it. That said, Caitlin, your advice really spoke to me.

    …To my younger self, hang on before you buy that meh skirt that’s on sale, the meaningless broken scale on eBay that just “looks so cool”, and the antique bookshelf that is so fragile it can’t hold any books. In fact, I wish I’d held on to my fascination of having a giant empty room – a dance studio, as my preteen self used to dream of. Today I’d probably call it a meditation space.

  • Whenever someone asks me “where are you from?” I answer “yes” because I have lived many places in many areas, both foreign and domestic. I have been poor, middle class, upper middle class. And, I have always been a ‘picker’….consignment shops, flea markets, auctions, estate sales, websites selling other people’s collections. A long time ago, I settled on the palette of colors that made ME feel cozy and comfortable. Take a look at a vibrant picture of autumn…reds, yellows, Chinese green (grey green), Brown, and a pop of orange. At age 71 I have made a few mistakes along the way…garage sale, ebay, children and now grandchildren take a few items that said “oops”. And as I have downsized, I realize that the new items purchased at retail and won’t work in a smaller environment..mIght take a loss. Those ‘finds’ along the way are still with me…even the Goodwill items. If I had any advice I would offer to young people: find a color palette that pleases YOU, Google what separates well made furniture from the schlock, stay away from fads and add one piece at a time making sure the dimensions fit your space. Best cities for consignment stores: Naples, Scottsdale, LA area, Miami…usually any where there is a preponderance of wealthy people who change their mind on a regular basis! Have fun and negotiate a lower price!

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