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Oh, what a bargain, baby!

You're expecting a baby and you want everything to be perfect, right down to the color of the walls in the nursery.

You and your little one will be spending a lot of time in this room, so you want to create an environment that is fun and stimulating. But how? Money is limited. You're afraid to take chances. Or you're just short on ideas.

If you fit into one or all of the above categories, take a look around 1-year-old Stormy Joy Ritter's room. It's like stepping into a child's wonderland. Bright colors are everywhere. Mobiles, ornaments and wind chimes dangle from the ceiling. Dolls, pictures and knickknack shelves hang on the walls, and toys are easily within baby's reach. Hand-painted murals of flowers and birds bring the room to life.

It may look as if Stormy's parents, Trisha and Tim Ritter, spent thousands of dollars and hired an interior designer to get the look they wanted. But aside from some of the furniture and the comforter set, which the Ritters bought new, everything was done with relatively little money and a lot of imagination.

"I knew I wanted to really do it up," said Trisha Ritter, 34. "It was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun."

The wicker rocking chair in the corner? She found it sitting on the side of a road, took it home and spruced it up with black paint. To make it comfortable to sit on, she made a cushion from a receiving blanket, on which she had painted a colorful design.

For curtains, Ritter bought white queen-size sheets for about $3 each, painted them to match the design on the comforter and canopy set, and tied them back with rubber bands and colorful bows.

"This is all new for me," said Ritter, who left a job at Nielsen Media Research when her daughter was born. Before that, she had worked in the hotel business.

She enjoyed decorating her daughter's room so much that she has started a small consulting and design business, Storm Design, named after Stormy.

Ritter is one of those people bursting with creative ideas, combined with a natural artistic ability. Her only formal training is several art classes she took in high school.

So far she's picked up clients just by word of mouth.

"Most people know what they want but are afraid, or don't have the time or imagination, todo it," Ritter says.

She recently painted a nursery using the children's book character Madeline, for a baby with the same name. She did a tropical fish theme for another customer. She talked someone else out of plastering the nursery with TV dinosaur Barney and into going with farm animals instead, an idea taken from a quilt the customer had.

Rather than sticking with one restrictive theme for Stormy's room, Ritter carried the comforter's color scheme of black and white mixed with purple, yellow and green throughout the rest of the room.

"That's the center point of the room but everything around it was practically free. I knew I wanted black and white. You have to have black and white for the first three months for the baby's vision." It's now believed that newborns recognize black and white before other colors.

The operative word here is paint, which is everywhere. Ritter said the cost was less than $25. She used only non-toxic paint and was able to work while she was pregnant.

"You can't be afraid to do something. I've painted rooms three times in two weeks until I got it right," she said.

Door frames were painted to match the bright colors of the comforter. Ritter designed and painted several wall murals of birds, flowers, a sun and clouds. Some are low to the ground, at baby's eye level.

"Start from the floor up," Ritter said. "You want to make the room fun to play in. Even the adults want to come in here and play."

When Ritter was six months' pregnant she was in a car accident, which put her in bed for the next three months. So instead of painting a border around the center of the room herself, she designed stencils for her husband to work from.

Skilled in woodworking, Tim Ritter also built knickknack shelves, which Trisha Ritter painted the same bright colors that frame the doors.

"It just gives the room a little more character and more personality," she said.

She used more paint to restore several picture frames she had picked up at garage sales for 5 cents to $1. She decorated some of the frames with frilly lace and filled them with family photographs, Stormy's baptism announcement and other interesting items she found. Above the dresser are old birth announcements that make beautiful, contemporary black and white pictures.

An important part of a baby's room is furniture. Ritter bought a few expensive pieces (crib, dresser and changing table), but bargains can be hunted down at garage sales and in the classifieds. However, child-care experts warn against buying a crib that is old because newer ones conform to stricter safety standards. Crib slats, for example, should be no more than 2] inches apart, and cribs made before 1978 and particularly before 1970 may have a finish that contains lead. See the May 1993 Consumer Reports for more on choosing safe cribs.

Remember to buy items your child can grow with. Some changing tables can be used to store toys and books later on. A good dresser can last a lifetime.

Many people think a bassinet is impractical since babies quickly outgrow it. Stormy's is now used for dolls and stuffed animals. Ritter said that later on she'll "put it out on the porch and stick some plants in it."

Where do her ideas come from? "I read books. I love flowers. Sunflowers seemed like a natural thing to have in her room," Ritter said.

Her creativity doesn't stop here. She and her husband are branching out into other small-business ventures so she can work at home.

She recently sold a line of handmade headbands to USA Baby in Clearwater. "Not one bow is the same," she said.

The couple also are getting into the stork business, renting signs to proud parents who want to announce their newborn's birth to neighbors and passing cars. They designed and built the storks themselves.

Ritter also creates contemporary pictures for homes, and she makes decorative cakes for special occasions.

Storm Design can be reached at 734-3770.

Trisha's thrifty tips

Shop at garage sales and consignment shops to save money.

Buy items that will be useful as baby grows.

Pass on your childhood treasures to your baby.

Frame postcards and photos instead of buying pictures.

Make a collage from baby shower cards to hang on the wall.

Use sheets for curtains.

If you have to buy new items, find a good sale or buy floor models.

Decorate with colorful baskets, bows, ribbons and other inexpensive items.

Decorate at the child's eye level.

Remember safety. Keep cords, ribbons and strings out of the way. Be careful of lamps or bookshelves that baby can tip over.

Use non-toxic paint.

Try these inexpensive ideas

Among the creative and inexpensive ideas Trisha Ritter used:

An old nightstand of Tim's grandmother's was painted to match the new dresser.

Who would think to hang a doll on the wall? Ritter did, and it looks great. Stormy's "too little for it now anyway," she said.

Christmas ornaments, small stuffed animals and wind chimes are hung from the ceiling to create additional visual and auditory stimulation.

Ceramic knickknacks, stuffed animals and other treasured items from Ritter's childhood are placed around the room. Breakables are out of baby's reach.

Old cornices from a pair of French doors someone was throwing away serve as trinket shelves. She painted one white and sponge-painted the other purple and black.

An old framed mirror that was lying around the house was painted and hung on the wall.

A painted cloth diaper makes a decorative cushion for an old wooden foot stool. A piece of yarn holds it in place.

A ceramic flower holder that Ritter received in the hospital makes a pretty container for baby's hair bows.

Outgrown booties are hung on the wall for added decoration.

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