Real Style on a Real Budget

Today’s post is a Christmas present to myself, the big reveal after a one-month makeover of a home in Oakville, Ontario. My client, Nikola, is a 28-year-old bachelor with a three-bedroom, detached home in a newish development. The location screams suburbs but Nikola wanted a space that was “modern and trendy incorporating unique vintage pieces and original art,” according to the brief I distilled from our initial meeting. The client’s wishlist included a revamp of the living room, dining room and master bedroom, if possible, on a budget of $5,000, which would include my 30 per cent decorating fee.

Now, you and I know that $3,500 could be blown in an instant on a single sofa but I gamely waded in determined to get as much bang for that buck as humanly possible. I assured Nikola that I would recover every penny of my commission through savings from smart shopping and designer discounts. In the end, there was some scope creep — we also transformed a breakfast room adjacent to the living space and added art to an empty stairwell and bathroom — along with a bump in the budget from $5,000 to nearly $8,000. What we did with that money amazes even me as I stand back and take it all in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You need to understand what I walked into on my first site visit . . .

Although he’d owned the home for about four years, Nikola had never painted and every room was the same pale, builder’s beige. Nik furnished the house in one fell swoop on a trip to Pottery Barn and some of those pieces would have to be incorporated into the redesign if I was going to have any chance of overcoming the budget limitations. If nothing else, I was pretty much guaranteed some dramatic before and after shots.

The master bedroom is probably the most striking transformation simply because there was so little there to begin with. We colour-blocked using Sherwin Williams‘ Black Fox behind the bed and Dorian Gray on the other three walls, leaving the trim gloss white. The palette was inspired to some extent by the only significant purchase we made for the space, the oversized vintage lamps I found at Toronto’s SMASH. Newly rewired the lamps cost $200 for the pair, plus another $150 for two custom shades from the talented Lia Fagan at Mod Pieces. We repurposed the living room stools and drapes and I scored a Picasso lithograph at auction from A.H. Wilkens for just $78 including buyer’s premium and tax (the mat on the print is almost exactly the same colour as the wall).

An Overman-style pod chair for $200 (Craigslist), gave Nikola somewhere to pull on his socks in the morning. The chair is in amazing condition and the photo provides a good sense of the wall colour, my new favorite gray. To save money, Nikola did all the painting himself with a little help from yours truly and from his lovely girlfriend, Iris.

The living room, below, provides several examples of how to squeeze a budget until it hollers. Craigslist saved us a bundle courtesy of the Paolo Piva coffee table ($100), the chrome/wicker lounge chairs ($325 for the pair), the pendant light ($100) and floor lamp ($200 including custom shade).

The custom drapery panels are made from fabric I sourced for only $3 per yard at Kobe Fabric Outlet in Burlington; the material is a poly-satin that would make any self-respecting bridesmaid run for her life but I used the non-shiny, reverse side and wound up with drapes that look seriously expensive thanks to my brilliant seamstress (thank you Susan!) who sewed them as a favour, including grommets, for just $50 per panel.

The carpet, a Pakistani Chobi, was our biggest splurge at $1,200 but it provided the jumping-off point for the entire room. The beige band works with the Pottery Barn sofa, the gold reflects the wicker of the lounge chairs and the celadon green gave us the wall colour (Farrow & Ball’s Green Ground expertly matched by Sherwin Williams).

The industrial mould/mirror over the fireplace was another SMASH find ($200), the large, vintage West German vases ($300) came from Harbourfront Antiques (now at 213 Queen Street East), as did the Kandinsky-esque watercolour ($100) perched on the Umbra Stellar table ($125 with tax).

The industrial vibe echoes throughout the main floor in the unfinished steel of the floor lamp and the old factory light pendants fitted with Edison-style bulbs over the coffee and kitchen tables. In the photo below, the splash painting came from GUFF ($70) and I found the Gae Aulenti-style lamp at St. Lawrence Antiques Market for just $30.

The adjoining breakfast room provides another radical before and after; the only thing that survived was the table base which now supports a smoked glass top that goes better with the new chairs and light fixture. The well-made, vintage chairs came from Toronto’s Upside Dive ($565 with tax) and the framed Warhol litho was $100 at Acadia Books in Toronto.

Using the same lights and draperies in both spaces, below, lends continuity to what is effectively a great room. A decision about wall colour in the breakfast area will have to wait until Nikola is ready to revamp the kitchen.

And finally to the dining area, which is the largest room in the house and the first space you encounter upon entering the home. Nikola and I started by incorporating the former living room rug (Pottery Barn again) and repositioning the furniture. We placed the bench from the living room under the window, bookended by spare dining chairs, to loosen up the seating.

SMASH provided an affordable alternative to the old light fixture, which really had to go; the five-arm, industrial spoke pendant ($440) has a very modern edge and works nicely with the now-gray walls. It takes up less visual space because of its horizontal nature and yet the scale remains impressive — it spans 4′ across.

The 1960s Galerie Maeght poster was found at Acadia Books ($100), which also provided a catalogue raisonné of Antoni Tàpies posters from which Nikola selected six that appealed. I found the large frame at Goodwill ($6, plus custom mat and assembly $65 from Adina Photo) and I sourced the 8 x 10″ Format frames from Crate & Barrel ($25 each plus tax). I gave the standard cream mats a custom look by rolling them out with the wall colour. There is yellow in most of the artwork to tie in with the carpet.

And lest I pretend there were no missteps along the way, the dining room walls started out yellow and had to be repainted when Nikola expressed misgivings. To save on paint I blended the gray you see here by combining the contents of three different leftover cans that were taking up space in my storage cupboard. Nikola is partial to gray but it had to be an earthy tone to work with the persimmon-coloured Pottery Barn chairs. I have recommended drapery panels to match the chairs once the decorating coffers have been replenished.

The metal star over the buffet is a piece I passed along to Nik because the motif and material reference the light fixture and the centre point is just the right shade of oxblood. All in all, the dining room was transformed for less than $1,000.

My watchword for the entire project was “masculine.” There’s nothing fussy about Nikola; in a game of billiards he’d be solids not stripes, and his home needed to reflect that.

In passing, my client expressed some surprise that the makeover of these four rooms took a whole month to complete. For my part, I can’t believe we were able to pull it off in just four weeks including painting, framing, custom drapery and custom lighting (each of the hanging fixtures had to be wired to length). The Craigslist gods were definitely with us on this job, particularly in the living room (special thanks to Denise and Larry!).

For me, the process was unbelievably satisfying and when I left Nik’s on Friday I remarked that I would be proud and happy to call the place my own even with all the budgetary concessions we were required to make. Decorating will always be about compromises and on this particular job I think we made some good ones.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011 by Chris
This post was written by - who has written 865 posts on styleNorth.

24 Comments For This Post

  1. Michelle Says:

    Wow! Gorgeous – I especially like the floor lamp.

  2. Taylor de Sa Says:

    Chris, you have such a sophisticated eye and an unusual talent. I would love some business cards. I think this is a fantastic path for you!

  3. shescomeundone Says:

    I bow to the reigning Prince of Understatement! I think the true magic is found in Chris’ source-ery and conservative way with edgy pieces. Even with larger budgets it’s so easy to abandon restraint and it only takes a few impulsive purchases to derail the original vision but ya pulled it off Monsieur styleNorth! Ces’t Magnifique! Props for the conspicuous absence of big box ephemera.

  4. David Says:

    It’s so chic Chris, very nicely done Sir!

  5. Tim@DesignMaze Says:

    very impressive Chris! Especially with how little money you have spent and have completely transformed the three spaces! Love the two vintage pendants you found online for a steal, the campbell soup print, the splurge on the perfect rug, and the fab finds from SMASH!!

    I’m totally going to check out these stores in person!

  6. Nikola Says:

    Fantastic work Chris!

    Now that I sit down, take it all in and reflect how far we’ve come, it really is amazing. You are really talented and it certainly shows.

    Thanks again for all the hard work.

  7. Magda Says:

    What a magical transformation. This is truly a special calling that you were gifted with.

  8. Wanda Says:

    Looks fantastic. So well pulled together. Excellent prices too!

  9. VegHead Says:

    $100 for that coffee table? And the chrome/wicker chairs are seriously stylin’. Good job!

  10. Antonella Says:


    This is impressive. You skillfully pulled together a look that is modern, restrained, classic and edgy, all in one. That isn’t easy to pull off!

    Good work.

  11. margo Says:

    WOW Chris,

    This make over will stand the test of time, modern with an edge, I’m in love with the coffee table what a find.

    Hope that your move is going well, here’s wishing you only good things
    in the New Year and thanks for a year of great posting.


  12. Heather @ Interior Groupie Says:

    Incredible! I love the transformation, and it’s really incredible what you did with the budget! Love the variety of sources and creative opportunities you were able to take advantage of. Congratulations, it’s a beautiful space.

  13. Marilyn Says:

    WOW is right! I am totally blown away. Just love the colour combination in the living room and the vases on the hearth make it all sing. Congratulations on a job well done.

  14. Nicola Says:

    Amazing transformation and what a great price. especially over the use of existing pieces in different rooms to keep the budget down and use of paint colour to change the vibe. Very classy new york vibe.

  15. Lois Says:

    Good evening, totally blown away by your budget and how you managed to keep it trimmed. The only thing that doesn’t work for me, is that fireplace. Seems to be muddled in no-man’s land…Lois of excellent work and love the simplicity…

  16. Chris Says:

    Lois, I agree about the fireplace but Nikola didn’t have anything in the way of tchotchkes and there wasn’t a penny left for accessories.
    Thanks everyone for the comments; fireplace notwithstanding, I’m very proud of what we accomplished.

  17. Karen J Says:

    Looks great Chris. I’m amazed how you stretched the budget!
    Have you found your calling?

  18. Chris Says:

    Karen, through the whole job I had this rushy feeling, a certainty that I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. Why does it take some of us sooooo long to figure it out?

  19. Lois Says:

    Oh Christopher what pearls of wisdom, how true…Gayle of at least we DID find that put on this earth to do something. Most don’t

  20. Clare Says:

    Holy shit Chris! Amazing.

  21. shescomeundone Says:

    Hahahaha! what she said!

  22. Rosie Says:

    I’m in love with what you’ve done — amazing work!

  23. Nikola Says:

    The compliments keep coming in from friends and family. I’ll send you the details via email :).

    Looking forward to the next project.

  24. Iris Says:

    I absolutely love everything Chris! The finished product looks so great, it all really came together. It was a pleasure spending time with you and I hope we meet again in the near future :)

    P.S. I hope you enjoyed working outside the city — I am recommending your work to friends/family.

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