7 DIYs that add instant character, according to interior designers

The pros share their best secrets for amping up a room’s personality without spending a lot

For this Houston home, New York City-based designer Jennifer Hunter used the owner’s antique china to create a dramatic plate wall. (Jack Thompson)
6 min

Ask an interior designer how to make a room feel one-of-a-kind, and you’ll probably hear something about the importance of details. While it’s true that made-to-order embellishments — such as bespoke pillows and window treatments — can give a room the kind of oomph and personality that doesn’t come from a catalogue, those little extras also tend to come with not-so-little price tags. Here, designers reveal tricks of the trade to make a space look custom — on an off-the-rack budget.

Personalize window treatments

Custom drapes and shades require hours of labor and are often made with expensive, to-the-trade fabrics and trims, but stylist and author Eddie Ross offers a hack for the budget-minded. Adding trim to plain curtain panels from Pottery Barn or Ikea, he says, is an easy way to zhush them up. The trim should be inset an inch or two, and run along the leading edge of the curtain panel (the side you might grab to “lead” the curtain into an open or closed position).

While attaching trim doesn’t require ace sewing skills, Ross suggests an even easier shortcut that won’t cost a fortune: “With something simple like adding a border or edging to a curtain panel, I just drop them off with the seamstress at the dry cleaner.”

Personalize pillows

The same hack also applies to throw pillows. In this case, Ross suggests using tape trim to create an inset with mitered corners (for instance, a smaller square border within the perimeter of a square pillow). “You can sew it on or use a good strong fabric glue and a fray binder, which is an adhesive that will stop the cut edges of the ribbon from fraying,” he explains.

There are options for the non-crafty among us, too. “Etsy and Instagram are more accessible places to shop for pillows and lampshades, especially if you don’t want to hire a designer,” says Griffith Roberts Roth, one half of Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Blythe Interiors. Some shops on Etsy, such as Pop O’Color and Chloe and Olive Pillows, sell options made from remnants of expensive trade fabrics. Look for names such as Schumacher, Scalamandré and Lee Jofa — all top-quality fabric brands.

Add something old

“We always source vintage pieces when we want a room to feel collected and not like we bought everything from one store,” says Roth. She recommends Chairish and 1stDibs. “Just make sure the vendor is a verified source and always examine the photos carefully to assess the condition of an item before buying,” she says.

Sometimes, though, there’s no need to go shopping at all. For a recent project, New York City designer Jennifer Hunter created a dramatic plate wall using the client’s grandmother’s china, which had been sitting unused in a cabinet for years. “She’s really happy because she gets to see it every day now and it was a different way to bring in something special,” Hunter says.

Enliven a basic lamp

“Custom lampshades are a great way to bring in a different color or pattern to a room,” says Blythe Roberts McNerney, the other half of Griffith Blythe Interiors. Retailers such as Ballard Designs and Oka sell a variety of pretty fabric shades, which can easily swap in for the standard linen or paper ones that come with lamps from most big box stores. (For British brand Oka, you’ll need to buy a shade adapter.) As a guide, the shade’s diameter should be twice the width of the lamp base, and its height should be two-thirds the height of the base, not including the rod or socket. Ross says the new shade should completely cover the rod and socket. If it doesn’t, try switching out the harp for a smaller one.

To give an existing shade a quick DIY makeover, Ross suggests covering it with wallpaper or a fabric remnant. “Use a spray adhesive and opt for a standard drum shade, not a tapered one, so you don’t have to worry about the slant,” he says. The stylist is also a fan of dip-dyeing lampshades using Rit dye, a task he usually performs outdoors with a tarp and tub of water. He claims the process isn’t as messy as it sounds, and the key to success is wetting the lampshade first so the color takes evenly. “As soon as you get it in the tub with the color that you want, it’s not that hard,” he says.

Layer area rugs

“People tend to focus on the paint color or the wallpaper they plan to install, but they forget about the floor, and the floor can be just as impactful as the walls,” says McNerney. Her trick for bringing in patina and pattern when working with a budget-conscious client is to layer rugs. “For instance, we’ll put a smaller antique oushak rug over a much larger neutral sisal,” she says.

McNerney suggests perusing Etsy or eBay for well-priced vintage options. To narrow your search, enter key terms for the style you want (for example, Turkish, Anatolian, Moroccan) and the approximate size you need.

Use wallpaper in small doses

Between materials and labor, the expense of wallpapering an entire room is often shocking. Installing paper just on the ceiling (the ever-popular “fifth wall” in design lingo) and on the backs of bookcases are both cost-effective ways to create impact in a space with less.

Lately, Ross has also noticed a resurgence of wallpaper borders — long viewed as a decorating don’t that’s better left in the 1980s — but with a fresh twist that draws attention to the architectural elements of a room. “I’ve seen wallpaper used in less expected ways, for instance, around the baseboards and door frames,” he says.

Amp up trim work

Jenna Gross of Colordrunk Designs in Decatur, Ga., suggests painting a room’s trim a color other than white as a high-impact, low-cost way to add personality. Choose a high gloss or semi-gloss paint finish, since those are the best at highlighting trim details and are the easiest to wipe clean. One caveat: The shiniest finishes can draw attention to imperfections.

The more vibrant the color, the bigger the contrast. “Often so many pretty, intricate details can get lost in your trim work when it’s all white,” she says. “When it’s a bold color, you notice it right away and appreciate it that much more.”

Michelle Brunner is a writer in D.C., who covers interior design and culture.

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