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First-Home Decor Need Not Cost Last Dime

Design: Creativity and convenience are the keys to crafting a comfortable living space on little more than a living wage.


Starting out in a first home--whether it's a college student's apartment or a couple's first house--doesn't have to mean sacrificing ambience for cash flow.

Good design is livable design--furniture that fits your lifestyle, storage space that's ample and convenient, a few homey touches and window treatments that protect privacy.

Instant Furniture

We're not talking brick-and-board bookcase. A stereo cabinet made of wooden crates can be painted with a faux finish--marbleizing, sponging or combed strie.

For faux finishes, start with a fresh coat of paint. While wet, dab with sponge or crinkled bag for a marbled effect. Sponge on a contrasting color as highlights or for an overall effect.

Create a strie look by stroking wet paint with the teeth of a comb. Jackson Pollack fans can dip brushes into a contrasting paint color and flick gently or tap on the brush handle to get spatters. Experiment first, as changing brush shape and wetness can vary the spatter patterns.

To make a desk, mount an inexpensive hollow-core door (available at decorating centers, lumberyards and home centers) over two file cabinets. A basic 24-inch hollow-core door is $18; a 36-inch is $22 at the HomeBase Home Improvement Warehouse in Laguna Niguel.

A two-drawer metal file cabinet is $20 at Target stores. Used file cabinets can be purchased from office furniture stores or swap meets. Watch for any store going out of business and liquidating; most have an office in back that will need to be cleaned out as well.

Build an all-purpose sideboard by placing a sturdy piece of wood over a pair of sawhorses. Drape it with fabric for a softer look.

A flat sheet with finished edges can be purchased new for less than $5; with a few stitches pulled out and rearranged, pillowcases can be made into a coordinating runner for the dinner table or seat cushions.

Linens can be found at thrift stores for less than $1.

If you're short on space and money, a sideboard can hold a TV. When company comes, slip the TV under the sheet and use the sideboard as a serving buffet or bar.

A Warholian idea for a colorful coffee table recycles giant boxes (sturdy, Price Club-size boxes of powdered laundry detergent are a good example) under a piece of glass or mirror.

A hollow-core door also makes a fine bed. For legs, screw 6-inch-long, thick wood dowels to the corners and top with a futon mattress.

No headboard? Paint one on the wall. Or use an old quilted comforter (or one from a thrift store for about $3) and a staple gun to create a soft headboard.

This can be done directly against the wall or on a backing of thick corrugated cardboard (glue together several layers of flattened cardboard boxes); the cardboard structure can be hung above the bed like a work of art or attached to the wall with Velcro or another removable adhesive.

If you think you don't have room for furniture and storage, think about ways to combine both. For the avid music collector, stacked crates of CDs can make sturdy legs for a simple table or desk. For grad students and aspiring writers, three-shelf bookcases do the same.

Secret Storage

Key to a livable home is enough storage for all the items you want within reach but, preferably, out of sight.

One great way to create storage is with fabric skirts. Skirting an old-fashioned sink conceals old pipes and creates a storage area for towels, cleaning supplies, even a cat litter box. Attach the skirt with adhesive Velcro for easy removal and laundering.

Skirted end tables, night stands and dining tables are also multipurpose. A covered dining table can conceal a multitude of flaws. Nicer dishes or seldom-used pots can be stored underneath, to keep them close to a too-small kitchen. Skirted end or coffee tables can keep a stash of board games, or unruly piles of videos or CDs, in the living room but out of sight until wanted.

In the living room or a home office, a wicker or other type of chest can serve as a table and store extra linens within reach.

A paneled screen or a pair of brightly painted hollow-core doors can be used in a corner to hide from view a stationary bike or treadmill. Many art supply stores sell wooden frames to make your screen. Staple on decorative fabric or painted canvas.

A unique screen can be achieved with the canvases of novices' original oil paintings--inevitably available at rummage sales and thrift stores. Or create your own.

Another suggestion: Use a dark-colored, permanent marker to write over a light-colored fabric. Use sayings, the names of foods or famous people, or even your own signature over and over.

Bookshelves can also provide hidden storage: If the shelves are deeper than the books, you'd be amazed at what can be kept behind that set of romance novels or encyclopedias.

And remember, not everything that's stored should be out of sight. Look around to see what space is unused and how you can use it.

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