For Thanksgiving last year, I brought in the three pumpkins that had been on exhibit on the front porch, spray-painted them copper and arranged them on the coffee table, along with a collection of mismatched candleholders. While my guests were sufficiently complimentary about the turkey and trimmings, they gushed over the coffee table composition.
And I must admit, it did look good. It was seasonally appropriate, slightly festive and just unexpected enough to one-up the usual bouquet-and-book cliche. I must also admit that the idea for spray-painted pumpkins wasn't mine. It came from a window of a gift store I had passed weeks before. Actually, the store's pumpkins had been gold which was all right for a shop window, but a bit pushy for my humble living room.
Still, the idea was well worth approximating and, considering that my decorating budget can usually be calculated by the penny, copper seemed fitting enough.
The point is that if you limit your search for interior design ideas to what you find between the covers of decorating magazines, you're missing some fresh -- and free -- ideas. And, looking for design inspiration in the real-life world around you is a way of boosting your sensitivity to that world.
For me, the nice thing about shopping for decorating ideas is that it often takes me to stores where I can't afford to shop for merchandise. Generally speaking, the more expensive, exclusive and trendy the store or the in-store shop, the better the design and decorating education it provides.
So, as you make your way through the retail world in the weeks and months ahead, pause to soak up the atmosphere. Notice the backgrounds, the lighting, the materials and colors and the way things have been arranged.
Good decorating ideas can be found at all manner of retail establishments -- apparel shops to hardware stores -- but the richest pickings are usually found at the following:
*High-end department stores: It makes sense to check out the area that has the most to do with home decorating -- the furniture department. Pay close attention to how the in-store designers use contrast to prevent monotony: how they combine furnishings of different styles and periods, how they punctuate a contemporary room with a single antique or how they mix humble pine with glamorous lacquer. Store designers often have to rely on inexpensive materials that can be easily and quickly dismantled. Conseqently, they often devise innovative techniques using paint, wallpaper, inexpensive wood moldings and fabrics.
But don't overlook the display techniques used elsewhere in the store, particularly in the china department (great for interesting tablescaping ideas), lamp department and gift department.
*High-end furniture stores: These are the stores that exhibit furniture in room settings. Again, look less at the furniture than at the backgrounds -- the floors, walls and windows -- and at the composition of elements within the room settings. Chances are, you won't find a room setting with a beige carpet on the floor and off-white paint on the walls. Even though that's what most of us may live with, furniture merchants know we lust for more color and pattern. So that's what they use to make their furniture look good.
*Bed and bath boutiques: Look for shops that have model bedrooms or, at the least, model beds. The best lessons to be learned here are about how to dress and make a bed.
Another surprise is that often sheets, shams and spreads do not match. Compatibility and contrast have now challenged the coordinated look, and it's nothing short of liberating to learn that you can mix and match patterns and solids to get a bed that looks fresh and interesting.
*Flower shops: If you order flowers only by telephone, you're missing out on a great resource for decorating ideas. Today, many flower shops sell decorative accessories, too, everything from candlesticks and baskets to figurines and furniture. And the same design talent that florists bring to bear on flower arrangements they bring to bear on object arrangements.
*Model homes and apartments: Although they're not retail stores, model homes offer abundant ideas for decorating. Home builders hire professional interior designers to create rooms that will appeal to a wide range of buyers. Often the budget for turning a new house into a model home is relatively small. Consequently, model home designers often have to resort to budget-stretching techniques to achieve their aims.
Look for interesting wallpaper and paint ideas, architectural applique (wood molding, chair rails and details), window treatments and furniture arrangements.
*Designer show houses: If you live in a medium to large metropolitan area, chances are spring and summer will bring designer show houses. Usually these are private homes (often for sale) in which each room has been designed by a different professional interior design firm. And usually it's the designer who foots the bill for his or her own room. So, while designers may borrow expensive furnishings from furniture showrooms or antique dealers, they usually have to pay for the materials and labor that goes into decorating floors, walls, ceilings and windows.