Claudia Strasser can re-create the Old World charm of a Paris apartment almost anywhere, even in Orange County with its master-planned communities and tract houses.
The New Jersey author of a new book on decorating called "The Paris Apartment" (Regan Books, $25) proved it recently at a visit to Rizzoli Bookstore in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.
Strasser turned a store window into a cozy masculine retreat by filling it from top to bottom with luxuries, including a sheepskin throw, upholstered easy chair, mesh curtains from the 1920s, candelabra, antique books and a top hat. Although the setting looked pricey, Strasser found most of the furnishings at flea markets.
How did the locals respond to Strasser's low-budget Parisian style?
"Everyone was thirsty for information," Strasser says.
When it comes to decorating on the cheap, most people imagine the kind of contemporary, no-frills interiors stocked with inexpensive items from Ikea, Pier 1 and other mass retailers. They don't picture the kind of lush boudoirs that Strasser designs, with their satin-covered chaise-longues and throw pillows, crystal chandeliers, Art Deco dressers, billowy drapes, ornate sconces and Old World chairs.
"They're not antiques," she says. "It's furniture that has a past and a sense of humor. Antiques are technically 100 years old, and you have to apologize for a lot of them if they have a nick. I say, 'Take things as they are.' "
No stickler for style, Strasser encourages clients to mix pieces from different eras. A baroque table, a Victorian lamp and a gothic chandelier can go together simply because they're beautiful, she says. Her first rule of interior design: Fill the room (almost to capacity) with things that you really love.
"It's not the traditional, formal school of decorating," she says. "It's personal. If you love the things, then they'll go together."
To keep the variety from becoming a cluttered mess, Strasser suggests starting with a theme for the room. She has turned apartments into Victorian parlors, Gothic bedrooms and even a harem.
She decorated one actress' entryway as a movie star's dressing room, furnishing it with old costumes and an antique mannequin. Another couple's apartment was inspired by elegant old railroad cars; the narrow quarters were separated into compartments and appointed with steamer trunks, dark wood paneling, rich fabrics and crimson-colored walls.
"If you're not sure of a theme, pick a favorite piece such as an old quilt or a painting, and start from there. Or watch old movies and see what kind of props they used," she says. "If you have a theme in mind, then when you're out shopping and you see a little French vase or a wrought-iron candleholder and you like them both, you'll be able to picture which works in your room."
Flea markets, swap meets and auctions are Strasser's primary source for fanciful furnishings.
Antiques publications also post auctions and shows, and want-ads in newspapers and the Pennysaver fliers are good sources of estate and yard sales.
In Orange County, for instance, there's a large and lively auction of used furnishings every Wednesday at South Coast Auction in Santa Ana, where even antiques dealers go to snap up deals.
On the local swap meet circuit, those who like used furniture know to get up early on Saturday mornings and head to the swap meet at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Although the meet lasts the entire weekend, Saturday is reserved for vendors of used merchandise.
"I prefer flea markets to garage sales. You may pay a bit more, but people have already done the grunt work," Strasser says. "They've shopped the garage sales for things to sell at the market."
While shopping, she keeps an eye out for hidden treasures other buyers might pass up because of a cosmetic flaw.
"Almost anything can be fixed," she says.
A metal frame chair can be repainted. Wood furniture can be refinished, sometimes with just a light sanding and fresh coat of stain.
If you can't fix it yourself, it can pay to hire a professional. One of Strasser's favorite chandeliers had a broken arm when she bought it at a flea market for $200. For $10, she hired a welder to reattach the arm; she estimates that the handblown crystal chandelier is worth about $1,200.
Flea markets are also her favorite source for fabrics, critical to achieving the luxurious look of a Paris apartment.
"In the 1930s and '40s everyone had satin curtains. You can find them in perfect condition. But you might have to dig through a box of grungy-looking fabrics to come up with a wonderful silk that only needs to be laundered to look like new."
Strasser uses fabrics extravagantly, tossing chenille blankets over an upholstered chair, covering windows with satin curtains that drop to the floor, draping tables in lace and piling pillows in a mix of brocades and satins onto chaises, chairs and couches.
Decorators need not hire an upholsterer or invest in expensive custom drapery to dress up rooms in material, she says.