Creating Unique Timeless Interiors on a Shoestring

This post may seem slightly left of field to what I normally write about here but it’s actually all about creating homes that support and nurture us in a way that doesn’t trash the planet. Interior architecture and design is something I’m very experienced in being a trained spatial designer with over 15 years working in the industry both as a designer and a design writer.  I also had my own design practice for 5 years before the last recession and a ‘coming to my senses’ put a stop to it. It was great to get a chance to use this knowledge to further my goal to help everyone live more sustainably.

Over the past few decades Ireland has really embraced the whole disposable interior culture, particularly since a certain Swedish homeware brand arrived on the scene. Not that I’m laying all the blame at IKEA’s feet, its not like they had to twist our arms too hard.

Not only are disposable interiors bad for the planet and our future, they’re really bad for our wallets and have led to an onslaught of ultra-bland interiors that look less like homes and more like the pages of a furniture catalogue.

Creating a considered interior overtime based on your families unique likes and dislikes is the only way to deliver a space that lifts your spirits when you enter in the long-term and for a reasonable spend. So lets look at how we do that.

Balanced Interiors
Before we launch into what I mean by unique and timeless interiors I want to cover run through the requirements for well-designed balanced interiors regardless of the look or budget. Well-balanced, well-designed interiors

  • are tidy, so either declutter or provide enough storage to hide everything but your display items
  • have different levels of interest. The eye likes to be led around the room so placing items that act as visual stepping-stones makes the space much more pleasing to the eye.
  • have varying light levels. One pendant light in a room makes everything look uniform and bland. Pick out areas of interest with spotlights or create pools of light with table or standing lights. You’d be surprised at how you can transform a space by just adding in lamps.
  • manipulate natural light. If your room doesn’t have a lot of it try to bring it in using glazed doors or internal windows and bounce it around the space using highly polished finishes or mirrors, being careful to avoid glare as you do.
  • use a variation of the 60/30/10 guide for building colour in a space. So 60% of your room should be in your neutral, whether that’s navy, grey, beige or brown, 30% should be your secondary colour, which can be contrasting for impact or complementary for calmness and 10% should be a bold or rich colour to give the interior some vibrancy. Always test your colours in all the light levels experienced in the space, morning, day and evening.
  • group items together in sets of 3 or 5. For some reason odd numbers are more pleasing to the eye.
  • are filled with good quality pieces so best quality you can afford.
  • contain well-designed pieces that stand the test of time. This is something that really only comes to you with experience so take your time, talk to other homeowners, what have they bought that works really well and gives them joy to use.
  • balance, new with old, machine-made with handmade, eye-catching with calmness


Now you would think it’d make sense to start with the word ‘Unique’ and in my first drafts I did but timelessness is the foundation for our interior into which we inject our personality it’s best to tackle this first.

Timeless interiors can never be contemporary because contemporary means ‘of the moment’ so as soon as that moment has past, the item is no longer contemporary. If you don’t believe me feast your peepers on this impressive ultra-contemporary interior from the 1990s.

I also think that, although beautiful, completely contemporary interiors can be quite clinical and cold. This is fine for showhomes and hotel rooms because they’re designed to be devoid of personality so that they appeal to the maximum people possible but that doesn’t fit with my idea of a welcoming and nurturing home. (see white and grey sitting room below)

That doesn’t mean you can’t have contemporary pieces in your interior, it’s all about balance. Modern pieces of furniture, once they’re well designed and made can inject a bit of interest in a room filled with antique or vintage pieces. (see image with purple table above)

It also doesn’t mean you can’t avoid trends. This lovely little corner of a bedroom (first image) is very timeless in its design but the beautiful cushion with vintage-style image of a bird on it injects a bit of personality in a way that’s on trend. It’s all about choosing the trend that’s most appropriate to your likes and your style of decorating. It also crucial not to dispose of the items when they become ‘unfashionable’ because complementing items with other on trend items over time adds layers to the space that gives it a richness not obtained when everything is fresh and sparkly, straight out of a box.

Another way to create a timeless interior is to choose classically style pieces that although made in recent years echo past styles. Like the chairs in this photo that echo the styling of the 1920s without being a direct copy of furniture from that era.

Now there’s no point in creating a timeless interior if it doesn’t wear well so here are some tips on how to create a space that looks better with age.

  • choose mid colours for things that will get wear like sofas, flooring and upholstery. Dark colours show up light stains / dirt, while light colours show up dark stains / dirt. Make life easier by choosing mid colours that mask a wider range of wear and tear. (see green interior below)
  • buy naturally finished natural materials when you can as it wears better. Oiled or waxed timber is not only easier to refinish, it’s mellowness looks better with wear. Same is true of leather, stone and natural fibre fabrics.
  • don’t buy matching stuff or sets. You’re heart will be broken when you break the first item in a matching set and you’ll resent it unless you can complete the set. Instead embrace the eclectic and have nothing matching to start with.
  • invest your money in items that experience a lot of wear and tear and close to your eyes and hands. You can afford to scrimp on a lamp shade that’s way off in the distance but scrimp on sofa upholstery or a coffee table and your whole interior will scream ‘cheap’ in now time. It can be hard to know what is well-made and what isn’t. This website runs through what to look for in quality furniture and fittings but a shorthand is to look for guarantee. A company that gives guarantees for its products is invested in it lasting.
  • only buy stuff that can be repaired because what’s the point of wasting on money on something that can’t stand the test of time. All that stuff in skips used to money once upon a time.
  • avoid things that need to be perfect, unless you can keep it like that. Mirror clad furniture, highly varnished timber don’t look well when scratched or scuffed. Make sure that it’s well protected if you want to have items like this in your home.
  • design items to wear well like this set of white curtains with a dark edge, which serves to protect the pale fabric from handprints when being pulled open and close. (see image of curtain below)


Onto the ‘unique’ part of our title. By unique I mean personal to you and your family, after all what’s the point of living in a home that doesn’t reflect and support your family’s particular way of living.

Before we continue I want you to rid this quote and let in sink in

Some people have such good taste they can’t enjoy anything

There is no such thing as good taste. There is my taste and your taste, they might match they might not, who cares. Now a whole industry has built up around the idea of good taste or more accurately bad taste. They hope that your fear of being seen as having bad taste will drive you to buy their advice / magazine /product and that because that doesn’t generate enough profits they’ve brought out the whole idea of trends so that you get to worry about being old-fashioned as well as having bad taste! I know because I believed this crap for a long time and it’s only as I’ve become older and wiser that I see it for what it is.

Now that’s not to say that there isn’t such a thing as a well-designed interior and I’ve outlined how to create that at the top of the post. Good designers and architects are talented / experienced at visualising spaces and so can be very useful in helping you achieve the best layout to suit your families needs but as soon as they start talking about trends and taste I’d suggest you kick them to the kerb. Okay, rant over.

So what do I mean about spaces with personality. Here’s a few spaces that could never have been created by the same person. You may love them or you may hate them but there’s no denying they have personality.

When most of us start redecorating we typically start researching but that’s putting the cart before the horse. Professional designer always start with a brief and you should to by answering these two questions;

  • What do you I like?
  • What do you I like to do in my home?


For me the answer to 1. would be Japanese style, stylish crafts, textures, muted colours, reading, original art, boldly printed fabrics and to 2. it would be reading in the sunshine, watching TV with a blanket, eating away from my cooking mess.

Only when you have the answers to these questions should you start researching and you should only research what suits your particular likes. For example knowing that I hate eating close to where I’ve generated a huge cooking mess I could never contemplate an open kitchen diner, regardless of how ‘fashionable’ the media tells me they are.

So how do we inject personality into our spaces. We have a few options,

  • art & craft
  • textiles – cushions, throws
  • wall decoration
  • upcycled furniture
  • salvage / recycled furniture
  • repurposed items


The photo above is of a timeless interior but I think it’s pretty devoid of personality. This next photo shows the same room but showing an original artwork. Wham! Now you get a better idea of the type of person who lives here.

Crafts are a great way to soften the machine-made look of modern furniture and if you can make it yourself it can be a very inexpensive way to make a home look unique. If you’re not crafty then support local crafters. Displaying something crafting in your locality, with local materials if possible, is a great way to give an interior a sense of place and will ensure it won’t be a carbon copy of another room 200 miles away. Just be sure to buy a craft that reflects your interest and not just something because it’s on-trend.

Paint effects are a very simple way of personalising a space for very little spend. The first image below of a wall in a nursery was created by masking off sections with masking tape and then painting it all with one colour, simple as and very effective. I love the cuteness of the next paint effect idea by Fox Hollow Style. So simple, so chic, so inspired. I’ll be robbing that one for my own house. She’s also responsible for the eye-popping dressing area featured further up in the blog post.

Upcycled furniture is a great way to bring life into a space, once it’s done well. Painting a beautiful mahogany sideboard with chalk paint because it’s fashionable is not upcycling, it’s downcyling. Upcycling only applies when something with low or no value is made desirable through remodelling or styling. My favourite upcyclers at the moment are  Home Street Home in Dublin (first image) Quirkistuff in Wicklow (second image) and Altered and Electic in Galway (third image). You’ll find a list of others on my blog post Sustainable Ethical Living Rooms

Repurposing is the simple act of using something for a purpose that it wasn’t designed for. It can be as big as a bike as a sink stand or an egg cup as a plant pot. It’s a great way of bringing fun into a space and will make you look so clever!

Onto the last part of our title and most likely the one you’re most interested in. Before you delve into my list of tips let me just say that shoestring does not mean cheap because cheap looks cheap. I’m talking about getting most bang for your buck and be clever with your money. Understood? Grand, here are my tips for savvy decorating

  • decluttering is the cheapest form of decoration. Only display what you love!
  • embrace the eclectic or minimalism look, they’re the most economical forms of aesthetic to create. Eclectic because it means mismatched so you can choose from a wide range of good meaning it’s easier to hunt bargains and minimalism because it means having less stuff overall, which reduces the overall cost.
  • Invest in items expose to a lot of wear and items close to your hands and eye-line . See point under ‘well-balanced interior’ above for useful links.
  • paint wall white. It’s the easiest and most cost-effective way to get that art gallery / New York loft look and works brilliantly to help eclectic pieces hand together.
  • introduce visual interest with accent walls. See the section ‘Unique’ for examples
  • stencils are a cheaper to decorate a wall that wall paper
  • as are reusable wall stickers, which you can sell on if you want
  • add your own trims and details to budget items. Most low-cost items don’t come with all the bells and whistles so a great way to personalise them at very little cost is to add your own trims.
  • size carpet, tile size to minimise wastage. Buying the right carpet width or tile size can save you up to 20% on the overall cost of the flooring. A good supplier or fitter can help you with this.
  • buy through tradespeople to save on Vat. Tradespeople typically get 10% discount on materials and if they incorporate the materials into the cost of the job, along with labour the vat rate on the goods is charged at 13.5% instead of the higher 23%. There are restrictions depending on the cost of the labour versus the material but it’s worth asking about.
  • buy second-hand. The easiest way to save a fortune is to buy pre-loved furniture and in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Living Rooms I’ve listed some great ones. is also a great resource and it allows you to set up email alerts for particular items. has online auctions twice a week for new end-of-line items. You can also view the pieces in their showroom in Sandyford before deciding to buy.
  • raid the houses of family and close friends for unwanted items. You’d be surprised just how much they no longer want when you ask, but be careful not to take the stuff you don’t like / want or you’ll end up paying to rehome it.
  • upcycle / repurpose what you already own. Another great way to save on money, get creative and introduce personality into your home. Just make sure it’s done to a very high standard or it’ll look tacky.
  • homemade chalk paint. I make this by mixing the powder version of wall filler with any bog-standard emulsion. I’ll post the recipe on the blog in the future but if you google it you’ll find it online.
  • buy remnants, wrongly-mixed paint, wrong orders, end of line sales and ask suppliers about them now don’t wait for sales. Tell them what you’re looking for and if they’ve anything that might suit. They’ll be delighted to turn that dead stock into money.
  • future proof you interior design. For example if you know you’re going to rearrange your kitchen make sure to run your flooring under the units. That way you won’t have to lay a new floor when it comes time to remodel the kitchen. And if you’re going to have to lift some tiles to re-route pipes make sure you’ve a few spare for the tiler to relay when the work is done.
  • black and white photos are simple way to add elegance if your childhood photos from the 70s don’t fit the vision you have.
  • get samples for floor finishes or upholster and put it through hell before ordering or visit a place that’s had them down for a few years to see how it wears.
  • allows you to access magazines online for free using your local library card. Titles on there include House and Home, Ideal Home, Good Housekeeping, Homes and Gardens, Living etc and on and on and on

Here are some examples of shoestring decoration in my own home. Apologies for the quality of the photos, I’m avoiding buying a new phone! The first image is of your bog standard IKEA wardrobes that I wrapped in IKEA fabric to spruce them up. Total Cost: €20

The second image is a really cute 1930s kitchen cupboard that I painted in left over satinwood (off-white) and homemade chalk paint, made by mixing some powder polyfill into a tester pot of Dulux emulsion (coral). Total Cost: €2

The third image shows our downstairs doors that were so light they used to close over when the wind blew. To stop this and to make the doors appear to be of higher quality we screwed MDF panels and rounded moulding onto both sides of the doors, which we then painted to match the door. Total cost: €150

Next Step
Often times people hear how something should be done but not how to take the first step. Not this time. If you want to get confident about creating unique timeless interiors for your own home here’s how you should start your journey

  • choose one non-public room or one corner of a non-public room to start with.
  • imagine how you’d like it to feel and what you’d like to do in it and write that down or put images that reflect those answers on a board or in a book.
  • audit what you currently own and can reuse
  • pick one item you own to repurpose / upcycle
  • research only the items you’ve shortlisted, don’t get distracted. Check out my Pinterest boards for ideas. I’d also suggest watching programme like Money for Nothing and Salvage Hunters to help you wean you off that shiny and new aesthetic pushed so hard by magazines and retailers. You’ll find some episodes on YouTube.
  • don’t do it all at once, let it evolve, it’s takes time and practice! You’ll have a richer more nuance interior as a result.
  • involve your favourite companies in your project, tell them what you’re looking for and let them do some of the legwork.
  • and have fun, don’t take it too seriously. If your home doesn’t make you smile you’re doing it wrong!



Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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