Decorating your first home -- with or without professional help

HOUSE BEAUTIFUL

September 24, 1995|By LAURA BARNHARDT

"When we got back from our honeymoon, we didn't have to sleep on the floor exactly. But our living room was totally empty."

The recollection of Silver Spring newlywed Heidi Ingram, 22, describes a situation that many young married couples confront.

With wedding plans so all-consuming, details such as decorating a first home together often don't get attended to until after the honeymoon.

To help prospective brides and grooms get a head start on designing their new home, we asked decorating pros for some tips on making the job easier.

Setting a budget

First you need to decide how much you're willing to spend, immediately and then over the next few years. In addition to allotting money for such things as furniture, floor coverings, and painting and wallpaper, you may want to budget some for professional design advice. Keep in mind, however, that many retail furniture stores will offer consultation with decorators for free. For couples who want more personal attention, hiring a decorator for a one-time consultation or longer-term advice might be worth the money.

It was for Scott and Mary Carol Flewelling, a young Rodgers Forge couple in their first home.

The Flewellings, both 31, had all the basic furniture pieces. "But I knew we needed something to tie [them] all in together," says Ms. Flewelling, an accountant with Legg Mason. "Rather than spend a lot of money with a hit-or-miss approach, I decided to hire someone professional. Since I don't have to run around to a million different stores, I figured this way I'd actually save time and money."

Starting out

Most interior designers recommend that whether you're getting professional help or taking the do-it-yourself approach, you should make a list of what you have and what you need before you start shopping.

"Get a picture in your mind of what you'd like [your first home] to look like. Cut out photos of styles that you like," says Susan Dixon, a designer for Ikea.

Similarly, Joan Rush, a design consultant for Ethan Allen Home Interiors, recommends that couples plan ahead. "That's what's great about a game plan. There might be minor changes but it's something you're working toward," she says.

Armed with lists, color swatches and perhaps a room diagram sketched out on a napkin, let your vision of the perfect home guide you to a furniture store.

But don't forget to measure before you go. You need room dimensions and should also have measurements for windows, doors and stairs.

Recalling her own mistakes, Ms. Dixon says, "We bought a sectional couch that didn't fit down the stairs. Fortunately, my dad was in construction. We actually had them cut down the wall and take off doors."

Furniture investments

If you don't have anything except a tight budget, you'll want to determine what pieces you really want to invest in and what things you can get inexpensively.

"Always buy quality upholstery," says Stuart Rehr, vice president for interior design for George Vaeth Associates, a Columbia-based decorating firm.

He also points out that your first living room couch could be used in a family room or recreation room years later if it's a quality piece.

Helga Willemain, a design consultant for Ethan Allen Home Interiors, suggests purchasing a quality bedroom suite "because it's something not replaced too often. It's redone and redecorated over the years with the fabrics [not furniture]."

As for furniture style, Ms. Willemain recommends buying pieces with clean, straight lines because they match almost any other style. She also says, "Especially at the beginning, stay with the neutrals and add colors with pillows, throws, flowers -- things that can be replaced. . . . You can always pick up a print or plaid or stripe later."

Storage systems that can be extended are an especially good bet for newlyeds, says Mr. Rehr. "Look at places like Ikea and Scan. You can start small and add pieces later."

Backyard bargains

For extremely tight budgets, the used-furniture market is the practical solution to an empty room, Mr. Rehr says.

Picking up minor seating elements and small tables for less money is smart, he adds. But pay attention to the difference between quality and cost. "Older things are often higher quality," he says.

He suggests making an adventure out of shopping at second-hand and antique shops, church bazaars and yard sales. "You really can find things in unusual places. . . . The experience of buying [such] a piece can add value to it -- sentimental value."

When shopping at antique and second-hand shops, you especially may want to consider buying at least one versatile piece, such as an armoire, which can be used in the bedroom to store clothing or in the family room to hold the TV and other entertaining equipment.

Mr. Rehr praises the versatility of the two-seat settee, another staple of the used-furniture business. "They can go almost anywhere -- an eat-in kitchen, for example," he says.

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