A Parsons desk from West Elm is an example of great designfound at chain stores. A classic natural fiber rug lies beneath. (West Elm)

When it comes to decorating, chain stores get a bad rap.

Retailers such as Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware have made interior design affordable and accessible, but they are routinely dismissed for the same reason. Design-conscious shoppers often turn up their noses at the chains, deeming their wares too common and not special enough.

But if you’re not shopping the chains, you’re missing out.

There is great design to be found at all of them, and outfitting your spaces with pieces from popular stores doesn’t mean your home is destined to look like your neighbor’s or a page from a catalogue.

The key is knowing what to look for and how to use what you find.

If you’re concerned that chain-store buys are too trendy, shop for classic lines and neutral colors. Some safe bets include white dinnerware and bedding, natural fiber rugs, linen window coverings and upholstered headboards in solid colors.

West Elm’s Parsons desk ($349) is an example of a great buy on any budget. The iconic shape will always be in style, and its clean, simple design works in just about any setting or space, including an office, entry, a living room or bedroom.

D.C. designer David Mitchell is a master at incorporating chain-store finds into his high-end interiors.

One of his favorite pieces is West Elm’s Martini side table ($129), which he has used in clients’ homes as well as his own. He has a black version sitting on a porch of his District home. He’s also a fan of the upholstered furniture from Crate and Barrel and outdoor furnishings from Restoration Hardware. He often uses the latter’s Provence beam dining table in his designs.

“Some people are stuck in the belief that it has to be expensive to be nice,” he says. “And people want things to be unique. But you make something unique by the way you use it.”

The easiest way to avoid the catalogue look is to mix things up.

Even if you happen to love the way a store has set up an entire room, resist buying everything. It’s boring, and it won’t showcase your individuality. Mixing different manufacturers, styles and finishes in a space will make your home look more personal and polished.

Another tip: Keep trendy purchases small in scale. Once your interest in the look is over, you may be reluctant to replace a piece if you’ve spent a lot. (Still waiting out a chunky red sofa purchase, anyone?) Instead, incorporate trends with accessories, such as pillows, throws or even paint, which are easier and less expensive to swap out down the road.

Remember, you can always put your own stamp on whatever you buy to make it more special.

In my home, a pair of Peyton Drape white curtain panels from Pottery Barn were given an upgrade with tape trim I had added to the edges. Lamps from Crate and Barrel were outfitted with new English pleated shades, and the Louis upholstered bench from Restoration Hardware was reupholstered in a designer fabric. (If I had a spot for it, I would buy an acrylic console from CB2.)

At the recent DC Design House, Bethesda designer Kelley Proxmire painted and reupholstered three X-bench ottomans from Target to use in her room alongside antique and vintage furniture. She painted the ottoman bases white and upholstered the seats in a gray-and-white linen faux zebra.

Loi Thai, an antiques dealer whose Bethesda shop Tone on Tonespecializes in 18th- and 19th-century Swedish furniture, confesses that he’s “one of the biggest chain-store addicts.”

While his home is mostly filled with centuries-old antiques, Thai says he makes things more interesting by mixing in finds from every chain store, including: dishes and flatware from Pottery Barn; pillows, stools and lamps from Crate and Barrel; lighting from Restoration Hardware; and accessories from West Elm.

“I love chains because I can get instant gratification,” he says. “And you can’t beat them for anything that’s seasonal.”

One of the greatest advantages to shopping at chains, he says, is their liberal return policies.

“I can take something home and try it,” Thai says. “And if I don’t like it, I can always take it back.”

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