Behind The Scenes, Interiors

The Joy Of Working With What You’ve Got

Like a lot of people, I long for my so-called dream home and all the money in the world with which to decorate it. But right now that’s not my reality and I suspect it isn’t the reality for many of you. If I’m honest I’m not sure I’d even know what to do with unlimited funds, I’m so used to making do and working with what I’ve got! It’s how I was raised and it has now become one of my trademarks upon which I’ve built my styling and writing careers.

Some of the chapters in my books will tell you all you need to know about my attitude towards decorating your home: “Work with what you’ve got” and “Creativity before consumption” being two of the most telling headings, from my books Bohemian Modern and Life Unstyled. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in creating a home you love while having to be resourceful and careful with your money. It really pushes you to think creatively and the results are often far more personal than if you’d been able to just buy it all in one go. This week I’ve been thinking about my own home and the small changes I can make to refresh the space, and I realised that, much like Marie Kondo and her straightforward guide to decluttering your home (see my last post), there are also clear steps to refreshing your interiors while working with what you’ve got. Using my current apartment  as an example, I hope to inspire you to begin your own creative refresh at home.

I’ve rented my flat for two and a half years. It’s my post-separation home, intended to be temporary but as these things go, temporary might become four or five years. It’s not my dream home by any means, but it’s in a great neighbourhood with shops, restaurants and a lovely park all within walking distance. It’s also quite literally a stone’s throw from my son’s school and most of his friends, a very important factor after living in LA for years where we were a good drive, not a walk from everything. I’ve done an OK job of making it a nice home for me and my kids, and I’ve probably done more than most people would care to do with a rented home. But because I haven’t known when we’d be moving on, I haven’t felt really settled and certain areas have been left looking like we just moved in! Now that I’ve decided I’ll most likely be in this flat for a couple more years, I’m feeling the urge to make it a bit nicer, to tackle some of the annoying and not too pretty areas that I’ve been living with because it’s “temporary”. But of course I’m also keen to curb the spending as I want to keep saving for when I buy my own home again.

In the name of practising what I preach when I talk about Life Unstyled, here are some unflattering photos of my living room as it is, grubby sofa and all. Poor lighting, not styled, barely tidied. (Keep scrolling for step by step tips and ‘after’ images).

First I decided which specific rooms/areas I want to tackle, in this case my main open-plan living room/kitchen and eventually my bedroom. And then I took a hard look around and began the following four steps:

  1. Assess what you already have and decide what is useful, beautiful, or has sentimental value and should therefore be kept.
  2. Decide what key piece(s) needs to be replaced, if any.
  3. Consider small changes you can make that will have maximum impact in renewing the space.
  4. Think about ways to restyle what you already have in order to refresh things.

Using these steps I took a hard look at my own living room and made some notes.

  1. The red Chinese cabinet bought fifteen years ago when we lived in Seoul, South Korea has to stay. It’s the only thing I have that could be considered an heirloom for my kids (sentimental). The cabinets behind the sofa are fine, they work well and hide a lot of my styling stuff. The IKEA armchair is also fine – one day I’ll replace it, but for now it works well draped in sheepskins. The huge glass-fronted cabinet in the kitchen works really hard – part pantry/bar/cookbook storage/collectables catch-all, so it stays. (useful). But the sofa…
  2. So, what to replace? I really want a new sofa – we bought ours for £200 seven years ago in the damaged section of IKEA when we first moved back to London from LA and it was meant to be temporary. Ha ha, there’s that word again. But sofas are expensive and I have a new kitten who likes to scratch so it may not be the right time. I decide the sofa can stay, but maybe I can refresh it somehow for a couple more years. Perhaps I can make that eiderdown-style seat cover I’ve been coveting from Caravane for years. Next, I don’t like the rug. I bought it for a shoot, but it’s not really my style, although there’s nothing actually wrong with it. Perhaps I buy a new rug. Something more in keeping with my style. Then I remember I have a Moroccan style rag rug at my ex husband’s flat. It would need a professional cleaning, but the expense of doing that is far less than buying a new rug. (I discover the rug is moth-infested but I’ve been told it can be cleaned). OK, no new rug, make use of what I have that is in keeping with my style. Book storage is an issue. One side of my living room – behind the sofa – is nice to look at, but the view when sitting on the sofa isn’t as easy on the eyes. A big TV, more books than I have shelves for, an ugly black wall mounted heater straight out of the eighties and not in a cool way (currently hidden behind stacks of books), a red Chinese cabinet that I love for sentimental reasons, but isn’t really in keeping with anything else I own. (It does, however, have the very important job of housing my “office”. Files, printer etc). It’s an unattractive hodge podge of things with no thread to link them. I decide that’s the section to tackle.  The tv sits on an IKEA LACK cubby style cabinet, which I think I bought for one of the kids’ rooms and then it ended up here. Not very grown up or stylish and also not enough storage for my overflowing book collection. A new sideboard might make all the difference. Something wooden, stylish, practical. I decide to look for something I love that is within my budget, works with the rest of the flat, and is nice enough that I’ll want to take it with me when I next move. 
  3. What small changes can I make to the rest of the room that don’t cost much, if anything? I can refresh the textiles – with a relatively neutral base colour palette in the room, it’s easy to quickly change things up with new cushions, throws, even curtains. I decide to change up the sofa throw cushions with some of my rotating collection of vintage and new textiles. I leave the main living room curtains as is – natural linen always works – but I look at adding something new to the smaller kitchen window, perhaps in colours that link to the rest of the room. I also think about painting the base of my tiny kitchen table. Paint can be a cheap and quick way to refresh things. I’ve already sanded and stained the table top almost black (after an unsuccessful attempt to sand it back to a lighter wood), but the base remains the same glossy brown wood as when I bought it at an antiques market. Not very cool and it seems unfinished, not in a good way. A thick coat of white or maybe palest pink on the base would be the modern touch it needs for the price of a small tin of paint. Same goes for one of the dining chairs. A cafe style chair I found on the street sticks out a bit compared to the other three, more modern chairs. Maybe it would also benefit from some darker stain like the table.
  4. Finally, how to change the styling to make it feel fresher? The pine cabinets behind the sofa serve as the main “styled” area with art, plants, candles and so on. I like the way it looks but decide to add some more art to the walls, making use of the full height of the ceilings. I’m now on the hunt for interesting art that fits in with the pair I painted myself. I also consider a new piece of art for above my (yet to be found) new sideboard, something that works next to the Chinese cabinet, not an easy find. In general, I decide to declutter some of the smaller bits I have around. Open-plan living means it can seem messy quite quickly, so it’s important to balance out all the little ‘bits’ with some calmer moments. Back in the days when I was a visual merchandiser and display artist for Anthrolpologie, the key with styling product and displays was to leave some negative space where the eye could rest amid the beautiful chaos. The same rule applies at home, particularly a maximalist one. Full, maximal homes are wonderful but even better if balanced with some less cluttered moments. 

So I have a plan and now I have some work to do. It feels great to properly assess my own needs at home. I’m very good at doing it for my clients when creating shoots, but for myself it’s a different story. Even after I made these changes, it still isn’t my dream home, nor will it be an accurate representation of everything I love in interiors. It will still be me making do, working with what I’ve got for now. But everyone deserves a home they’re proud of, one they look forward to returning to at the end of the day, and with a few easy steps and a little bit of creativity and planning, you can make that a reality.

Update: Here are a few (grainy, sorry) images after tackling just some of my ‘work with what you’ve got’ to-do list.

So take a good look at your place and think about what is realistic, what will give you the most bang for your buck and, using my four key steps, start planning. Because maybe one day we’ll all get our dream homes, but if we don’t let’s make the most of the homes we have.

Emily x

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  • Reply Alison 20 May 2019 at 1:35 PM

    Hi Emily, I have just discovered your blog (your Unstyled book came up in a side bar when I was purchasing books). I immediately felt a resonance with your Unstyled theme. How refreshing and liberating, after a lifetime of subliminal messages of perfected yet unreal and inauthentic images…. So I have just had a peak over here on your blog, and I have to say, I love your home – just as it is! ..And why do we feel the need for everything (furnishings/decor) to have to have a common thread? I get it – I say the same thing, but your Chinese cabinet speaks of “your” story, so should we really care about a thread, when the “thread” is actually the story of our lives (I am speaking to myself now too)…. Your home also reminded me of Rita Konig’s style (authentic, and reflecting her story).
    I love watching movies (dramas or romantic comedy) where I can drink in the set design. I don’t just look for enticing interior design, what I love looking for is (set decoration) styling that shows the personalities and stories of the characters… why is it that in the unreal movies, there appears to be more reality than we allow ourselves in our own homes? Is it because so many of us have absorbed the message that comes across in most of our visual media (that is most of the time selling us stuff overtly or covertly), that says that who we are, and what we have isn’t enough… so seeing your perfectly imperfect home, is inspiring for me, to let my meandering life dictate and express the essence of “me” in my home, rather than an insidious pressure to conform to Stepford wife-like unreality.

    • Reply Emily Henson 21 May 2019 at 12:47 PM

      Dear Alison,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment on my post. I’m so happy that it struck a chord with you. I love Rita Konig’s style as well and I know exactly what you mean about a home telling a story. Often I see homes that look nice but lack soul – perhaps they have all the right things, the right colour combos, great wallpaper, perfectly styled shelves, but for me they are often missing something. And that something is the traces of the lives lived in them. I hope you continue to follow along. I’m not as regular a blogger as I’d like but I post much more frequently on Instagram @lifeunstyled.

      Thank you!


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