Wednesday 22 May 2019

How to create an amazing interior - without blowing the budget

It's possible to create an amazing interior from scratch. The secret is to take your time

Ikea sofa and table which double as storage spaces
Ikea sofa and table which double as storage spaces
Decorating on a shoestring concepts by Niamh Mac Gowan
Interior designer Niamh Mac Gowan with her dog
Foxford Woollen Mills throws
Chalbi handstitched cotton bedspread from
Beanbag from Cuckoolandof
Take your time deciding on a wall colour
Decorating on a shoestring concept by Niamh Mac Gowan

Eleanor Flegg

So you've just got the keys to the new gaff. Congratulations! That's not an easy thing to achieve in this country at this time. I'm assuming that you're a first- time buyer and that your home is a new build, either an apartment or one in a series of similar houses. You can expect it to have a fitted kitchen, possibly including appliances, as well as a toilet, bath and shower with tiling in the wet areas of both the kitchen and bathroom.

Otherwise, it's a blank canvas.

If you're good at thinking creatively about interiors, this is a glorious opportunity. You don't have to erase the traces of previous occupants - nobody has ever lived in this space before - it's clean and new, and you can truly make it your own. But there may also be challenges. Irish new builds are known for generic architecture and what the estate agents euphemistically describe as "efficient use of space". And, all too often, the decorating budget gets spent on other things before you've even begun.

So take a deep breath and make yourself comfortable. It is possible to create an amazing interior from scratch for almost no money, but it can't be done in a hurry.

If you can only afford one piece of furniture, buy a decent mattress (even if you have to put it on the floor). So long as you can sleep at night, everything else can wait. That includes the sofa.

"Some people buy a sofa before they've moved in," says Niamh Mac Gowan, interiors stylist and home consultant. "They often end up with one that's too big for the room."

An L-shaped sofa, for example, will tie you down to a certain spot. "You're better off on beanbags until you find out where you want to sit in the room. It's hard to wait for what you want, but a piece of furniture is only new for a minute and then you forget about it, so bide your time, and work out what works in the space." If people want to buy you housewarming presents, she suggests that you ask for perennial plants and vouchers for a gallery that sells fine art prints. They'll make the place feel like home.

Most new builds come ready-painted in a uniform pale grey. While this isn't a recipe for long-term happiness, Mac Gowan recommends that you live with it for a while.

"Leave it like that for a year. We tend to follow the light around the house, so you need to see what happens throughout the seasons as well as at different times of day." When you're ready, painting the rooms in colours that you love will transform the rooms for a relatively low cost and, in the meantime, you can save up for the next phase of the project.

Saving up - there's an old fashioned concept! Our parents' generation knew all about it, but they didn't have the temptation of Ikea. It's easy to think of the Swedish super-store as a one-stop-shop, but an entire home filled with Ikea furniture will look like an Airbnb. Ikea comes into its own when it's used selectively, alongside other furniture. Rather than fork out for an expensive dining suite, consider an Ikea trestle (€15 to €25 each) with a plain table top.

"You can buy a wallpapering table top for next to nothing and cover it with a tablecloth," says Mac Gowan. "Or you can do what we did and buy a really nice piece of wood at the local sawmill and sand it down." Dining chairs can be picked up cheaply at auctions and reupholstered with small pieces of good quality fabric and a staple gun. "It's all about buying time. Money can be spent twice over if you rush into it."

John Gibson, interior designer with Martin-Hudson & Gibson, has years of experience of decorating new homes from scratch.

"There are lots of ways of doing it inexpensively," he says. "Take the floor for starters. You can buy a really good Persian rug at auction for a couple of hundred euro and put it over a cheap-as-chips synthetic carpet. Or you can use strips of wallpaper on the floor. It works much better than you might think and shops like ours often have leftover rolls of good quality wallpaper that we will sell off very cheaply." Wallpaper works best on floors that don't see a great deal of traffic and needs a layer of matt varnish to protect it. While there's no real halfway house with laminate floors or tiling, concrete floors can be painted in bright colours as an interim measure.

For low-cost window treatments, Gibson suggests making up curtains from high-end lining fabric, which can cost as little as €5 per metre, and using a very small quantity of luxury fabric as a decorative trim. "Buy two metres of striped fabric and then cut down the stripes to use as borders," he suggests. "You can create very expensive-looking curtains using inexpensive materials, provided you can run them up yourself."

The cost of hiring someone to make up curtains will be the same, no matter what you spend on the fabric. Curtain poles can be purchased by the length and bought separately to brackets and finials. "If they don't match you can paint them, or cover them in wallpaper," he says. "I've even seen the tubes that fabric comes in painted up and used as temporary curtain poles."

Finally, a word about show houses. Almost all new developments have them and their purpose is to help prospective buyers to imagine themselves into the space. Show houses are your frenemy, so treat them with caution. Sometimes, they can be a source of good ideas, but they are designed to appeal to everyone, which makes them bland, and they are often expensively furnished.

So, if you love the show house, follow the template as far as your budget allows. But don't let it intimidate you or make you feel inadequate. Your new home is your own and you can decorate it in any way that you want.

The show house is a sales tool, not a rule book.

Niamh Mac Gowan is currently taking bookings for workshops on Winter and Festive Styling, which take place on November 24 and December 1 ( See also

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