When you’re designing a home, it’s easy to get carried away dreaming about pricey sofas, rugs and art. But big-ticket items aren’t as important as they seem, and plunking down the money to buy them is no guarantee you’ll end up with a home you love.
Often it’s the small touches that make a space feel truly inviting and memorable.
“Style is in the mix of things,” said Cliff Fong, founder of the Los Angeles interior design firm Matt Blacke. “It doesn’t take any imagination, or any level of taste, to go to a big-box store or an Italian design store and buy everything. That just takes deep pockets.”
If you’re willing to take your time — hunting for special yet affordable pieces and doing the work yourself — he said, “There’s a way to approach design at any budget.”
To help, we asked Mr. Fong and other interior designers for ideas about how to make a big impact on a small budget.
Use Paint Creatively
“We all know that the biggest bargain in the world is a gallon of paint,” said Jeffrey Bilhuber, an interior designer whose upscale clients include Anna Wintour and Iman, but whose new book from Rizzoli, “Everyday Decorating,” offers punchy decorating tips for everyone.
A fresh coat of paint on walls that have become smudged over the years will immediately renew a room, and a change of color can transform it. “Color connotes confidence,” Mr. Bilhuber said, and painting the walls a bold one “means that you’re confident in the place that you live.”
Paint can be used to cover more than drywall. Will Cooper, a partner and the chief creative officer at the New York firm ASH NYC, said that a quick fix for lackluster wood floors is to paint them.
In his own East Village apartment, he said, “The floors were cheap strip oak that I sanded and painted the same color as the walls and ceiling,” using an oil-based floor paint.
“It made a huge difference and changed the whole atmosphere,” he said, by making the space seem bigger and brighter.
In smaller rooms, he recommended painting brick walls after giving them a light skim-coat of plaster to reduce surface irregularities. Although many people prize exposed brick, he said, “it can suck energy and light from a room.” Painting it lightens things up, while leaving an appealing texture.
Mr. Fong suggested using a contrasting paint color to play up attractive molding, or even to create a wainscot effect. “Painting a line of color that’s about three feet high and goes to the ground is a really nice, interesting way to add a visual vector,” he said. “If you want to get fancy with it, put a chair rail at the top.”
Add Textiles Strategically
Changing a room by swapping out throw pillows is such a well-worn concept, Mr. Bilhuber said, that “if somebody says ‘change your pillows’ one more time, I’m going to change my job.” But, he admitted, that doesn’t make the strategy any less effective.
Adding pillows and a throw in a bright color to a sofa can make a statement in a living room, Mr. Bilhuber said, and you can do the same in a bedroom with minimal expense.
“You can change your bedding in a flash by just changing the pillowcases. They could be daffodil yellow, garnet or sapphire blue — boom,” he said. “Keep everything else straightforward.”
Change the Lampshades
Another easy, affordable way to bring color into a space, Mr. Bilhuber suggested, is with new lampshades. “Buy yellow instead of white,” he said — or choose aubergine, as he did for his home in Locust Valley, N.Y.
Mr. Cooper offered similar advice. “You can get off-the-shelf shades in all different shapes, sizes and colors, which will change the look of a lamp super easily,” he said. For a client in TriBeCa, Mr. Cooper installed black shades on vintage 1970s Pierre Cardin lamps, which gave them “a whole new point of view and a little glamour.”
Or try painting white lampshades with stripes, as Mr. Cooper sometimes does, to make them a striking visual feature.
Adjust the Light
“Change your light bulbs — it can be that fast and economical,” Mr. Bilhuber said. “I walk home at night and see some of the most egregious mistakes when I look up into apartment houses.”
Specifically, Mr. Bilhuber said, he sees too much bright bluish-white light. “You should always use warm light, whether it’s incandescent or LED,” he advised, which typically means installing bulbs with a color temperature of 3,000 Kelvin or lower.
Next, he said, “Bring down the wattage. You do not need to be cutting diamonds in your apartment. Low levels of lighting improve the mood.”
This can be accomplished with lower-wattage bulbs, three-way bulbs or dimmers.
“If you want to take it a little bit further, add picture lights,” Mr. Bilhuber continued, either over paintings or behind pottery on tables. “You’re controlling how you visually navigate your way through the apartment by turning spots of light on certain objects and highlighting their beauty.”
Add a Vintage Find
Not every piece of furniture and accessory needs to be a showstopper. A single distinctive object can create a focal point and enhance the appearance of a larger space.
“One special thing can elevate a whole room,” said Vanessa Alexander, the founder of Alexander Design, in Santa Monica, Calif. “We always try to include something vintage or one of a kind in every room. It’s something that can’t be easily replicated and has a story.”
In one Malibu, Calif., home, Ms. Alexander added a 1950s chair by Osvaldo Borsani to a corner of the living room. It is as much a sculptural element, she noted, as a place to sit.
For her own home in Malibu, she found a perforated, brass-globe pendant lamp at a flea market and had it rewired as a statement piece for a sunroom. “It adds a textural moment,” she said. “And at night, it gives off a pattern” when illuminated.
These pieces needn’t be expensive, said Mr. Fong, who is known for creating interiors filled with vintage treasures, including a home he designed with Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi that featured a room with a beaten-up wooden ring on one wall and a collection of vintage mirrors on another.
“A lot of those mirrors came from flea markets and thrift stores,” Mr. Fong said. “You go to the flea market and find an amazing tray, interesting tabletop items or interesting art, and it can really do a lot for an environment.”
Install Inexpensive Art
In his new book, Mr. Bilhuber writes that “art can animate a room even if it isn’t trophy art.” Expanding on that idea, he explained that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to put art to work in an interior.
“Some of the chicest projects I’ve ever worked on had masterworks next to framed posters,” he said. “Go to MoMA and get a $100 masterwork in poster format, and make no excuses. It’s human, it’s real, it’s humble.”
Or buy pieces by lesser-known or unknown artists simply because they appeal to you.
Better yet, Mr. Bilhuber said, work with what you already have. “You’re always going to have those five pictures you’ve had since your first apartment,” he said. “Take them down and start fresh. Lay them all out on the floor and look at them together. Just rehanging them in a way that is more uniform, or like a collage, can make the difference.”
Remember the Sense of Smell
While the things you see and touch get the most attention when designing a home, scent can also play a role.
“Find a room scent you love,” said Mr. Bilhuber, who prefers home-fragrance sprays over scented candles. “There can be a difference between your apartment and everyone else’s. There can a difference between what’s happening in the hallway and your living room.”
His favorite, he said, is Amber & Smoke from Paddywax’s Apothecary collection.
“I use it every night before I go to bed,” he said. “Two or three spritzes and you’re transported to a completely different place than where you were two seconds before.”