What can you do with $100 and a bland dining room, or a paneled living room that looks like a lodge, or a kitchen with lime-green Formica countertops? We put redesigner Laura Fage of Casa Terra Design in St. Petersburg to the challenge and learned that a little creative inspiration and design know-how can take even the tiniest budget a long way toward spicing up your home and turning flaws into features.
Fage's decorating challenge was to make eight walls and a ceiling of paneling take a backseat. Though not suited for everyone, including homeowner Denise Yettaw, pecky cypress paneling is rare, highly porous and nearly impossible to paint. Removing it was out of the question, but Fage promised to make it feel like it was always meant to be.
The inspiration? Three pieces of 18th century artwork Yettaw found in Cortona, Italy, which, combined with the woodwork, said "Tuscan country villa" to Fage. A few days later she dropped off a homework assignment: a gallon of glossy white paint to cover the green and brown baseboards, molding and window frames.
"We really needed to brighten up this room," Fage says. "Glossy trim, brass, mirrors — anything that reflects will bring light into a space."
Lamps and color are the most obvious way to lighten a room, and Fage added both, replacing a pastel landscape painting with a bold floral in warm shades of red and gold, exchanging brown corduroy pillows on the sofa for embroidered ivory linen, and placing lamps in dark corners.
The corner opposite the front door, a natural focal point, became a welcoming reading corner when Fage kicked a bulky leather recliner to the curb, replacing it with an upholstered armchair, and added a floor lamp and "world map" side table she found in another room. She also arranged travel books and accessories by texture and color.
Fage cheerfully accepted the challenge of transforming my perfectly functional dining room into a modern, sophisticated space that would still welcome two kids and a dog. She quickly surveyed the room and the rest of the house, pretended not to notice the unmade beds, took a measurement here and there, and snapped a few pictures. Most important, she listened and asked questions: "What do you love about the room? How do you use it? What has to stay? What can go?" The initial appointment lasted a half-hour. One week later, Fage transformed my dining room in an afternoon.
The focal point, a sheer swag over the arched doorway, nearly made me teary. I had always had (unfocused) visions of just such a treatment, but I never imagined it could be done for under $100. Fage not only pulled it off, she also added a few perfect accessories.
"Start with one piece of inspiration and build from there," she advises. A tall, metal candelabra of interlinked circles found for $1 at a thrift shop reminded Fage of the bright, patterned pillows on my sofas, and a theme was born: geometric metals. She added geometric and metal baskets, boxes and candlesticks, and brought it home with a black wrought-iron candelabra centerpiece that echoes the rectangles of the chair backs and French door panes.
Moving and removing a few things also made a huge difference. Gone is the overloaded brass coatrack that had no business in a dining room (or anywhere else for that matter). A pair of fruit still-life paintings were replaced with a black-and-white photograph that pops behind a burgundy and black-beaded lamp shade. Scattered crystal candlesticks and decanters were corralled from around the dining room and displayed on a glass-topped table in the living room.
"Keep collections together and create arrangements of like items," Fage counsels. "People tend to spread their collections around so that they lose their impact."
Color was the biggest challenge for homeowner Karen Kalfopoulos. She hated her lime-green Formica countertops, but ran out of money and ideas after replacing her kitchen appliances. Fage found inspiration in the pantry, or on its pocket door to be exact. Knowing that Kalfopoulos watches two little girls and has two of her own, Fage turned the door into a chalkboard where the kids could draw and Kalfopoulos could write grocery lists and reminders. "Then I found a picture of a cafe that had the perfect green in it, and it struck me: chalkboard . . . menu . . . rustic French bistro." Voila, another theme came to light.
The cafe picture introduced a palette of primary and citrus colors that Fage brought into the room with a new window treatment, cheery freehand fruit paintings, colorful ceramics and blue and green glass plates.
The budget made it impossible to paint the entire room, so Fage painted one wall, taking it from bright white to an ever-so-subtle shade of orange to create warmth, and hit the green bar stools with black spray paint for impact. To bring texture to the room, she added wicker baskets, a large wooden cutting board and a rug. Her last-minute find was a mirror the exact green as the counters, which looked made to fit on the backside of the hanging kitchen cabinets.
After watching Fage work, I turned a fresh eye on my bedroom. I'll never love the hodgepodge of hand-me-down and garage sale furnishings, but by applying a few of Fage's lessons, I was able to make my room a place that invited me to light candles, kick back and say "ahhh" — all without spending a dime.
"That's what my work is all about," Fage says, "inspiring people to fall in love with their homes again."
Wendy Nichols Clark is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg. She can be reached at clarks1999@ tampabay.rr.com.