A Budget Decorator's Advice: Go Big, Splurge on Accessories

Nick Olsen bought this sofa for $40 at a thrift store when he was 15 and spiffed it up himself.
Nick Olsen bought this sofa for $40 at a thrift store when he was 15 and spiffed it up himself. (From Nick Olsen)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nick Olsen was 15 when he bought his current sofa: a 1950s French-style Louis XV knockoff that he found at a thrift store for $40. Going for a "Donna Karan in East Hampton" look, he reupholstered the sofa himself using white canvas, a staple gun, a glue gun and duct tape. "I've always had a little DIY flair," he says.

Today, the 27-year-old decorator and design blogger has successfully turned his flair for discount decorating into a design philosophy: Stylish rooms have very little to do with money. In Nick's Dream House (http://www.doublex.com/blog/nicksdreamhouse), a blog he writes for Slate magazine's new Web publication Double X (Slate and Double X are subsidiaries of The Washington Post Co.), the self-proclaimed "budget decorator guy" muses on the best design deals at major retail chains and offers DIY tips, decorating do's and don'ts, and ways to tweak furniture and accessories to make them look more expensive than they are. Said Olsen in his first blog post, "if I can't afford what I want, I'll make it or fake it myself."

For five years he's been assisting Miles Redd, an interior designer based in New York. Olsen says his job responsibilities include "everything from taking Windex around and being a window cleaner to writing all the proposals for an 11,000-square-foot house, to managing entire projects. Whatever needs to be done." In between his day job and his own design projects, Olsen also wrote a blog called "The Deal Hunter" for Domino magazine until it folded in March. Recently, he started another blog, at http://nickolsenstyle.blogspot.com, where he opines on topics from his disdain of accent walls and his love of eBay and Greek key motifs to the correct way to refer to certain window treatments: "curtains (never 'drapes,' people)."

Olsen spoke to us by phone from New York and gave us his best design advice for recent graduates.

What advice would you offer to someone outfitting their first place?

I know it's a big cliche, but start at Ikea. Well, first, figure out your style if you don't know it already. Do you want bare and minimal or a cozy apartment that looks like you've been in it for 15 years? If it's bare and minimal, go to Ikea and pick out the plainest, simplest big pieces you can find, like a sofa, a comfortable chair, a credenza, a bed and probably your dresser. Then splurge on the little things that can give your apartment character, like an interesting area rug that you put over the jute rug from Pottery Barn or expensive-looking pillows. No one is going to notice your couch if you have gorgeous pillows.

What advice would you give to someone who loves high design but can't afford it right now?

Check out auction houses. Not just the expensive ones like Christie's or Sotheby's; most local cities have local auctions. [Auction houses] do the legwork for you as far as putting together the best estate sales you've ever been to. Everything is all in one place . . . if you know what you're looking for, like a sofa, a quirky side table or side chair with character. . . .

But it takes a more adventurous eye to look beyond what's in front of you and be creative. For example, upholstery is one of the more dramatic things you can do to change a piece. You can also paint furniture. If you find a desk with a really ugly yellow-mahogany finish, paint it glossy white or glossy black or glossy any primary color -- it's an instant makeover.

Also check online auctions, like eBay, and other online sites, like Craigslist. It's all about knowing your search terms and honing your eye.

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