Ask a Designer: Interior Design 101

decoratingThis February, we’re focusing on interior design to help you turn your new apartment into a cozy home you’ll love. Since not all of us are design wizards, we’ll be working with Chicago interior designer Kate Marengo of Arranging Order. She’s given me some great tips on decorating that I’ll be sharing throughout the month – and she’s also on-call to answer your Q’s! Ask them below in the comments section and Kate will answer next week!

We’ll also share tips from other design professionals and our own bloggers, including some super budget ideas next week. To get you started, here are a few basic Q&A’s:

If you could give our readers just ONE tip to help them decorate, what would it be?

5810_121281076693_4992624_n Don’t be afraid of painting. I always tell my clients that the easiest way to transform a space on a limited budget is to paint. You don’t even need to have a professional painter do it, or a massive amount of supplies. If you opt to paint the room yourself, go slow around the edges, while using a smaller paint brush, at an angle.  When painting the walls, use a roller (but be sure to not put too much paint on it), and roll along the wall evenly and smoothly.   Sometimes clients are nervous to paint, because their landlord says you’ll need to repaint when you move out.  It’s a small price to pay for creating a home sanctuary.  

Is there a common mistake you see folks make that you want to warn our readers about?

Yes. Absolutely. You don’t have to have a lot of money to revamp your space.  If you are just starting out, and have no furniture, you can completely furnish a home in IKEA furniture pieces. I have a big BUT in this warning, though. There are two pieces of furniture that are worth spending money on: your bed and your couch. You spend an average of 8 hours a night sleeping in your bed, and at least several hours a day sitting on your couch. They should be your most comfortable pieces of furniture. They should also make you feel cozy and relaxed. I always recommend that the largest portion of your budget be allocated to these two important pieces.

Where do you get your design inspiration? Anywhere online we can check out?

I have two web sites that I use regularly for inspiration. The first is Houzz.  Houzz is a collaborative platform for home remodeling and design, which brings homeowners and home professionals together in a uniquely visual community. I regularly ask my clients, who have trouble telling me or describing their preferred style, to create an account on Houzz and collect images they feel drawn to. I then review these images and use them to help guide me on my client’s design. I also use Pinterest to get ideas for clients.  For example, when a homeowner has a neat accessory to display, I turn to Pinterest to get ideas on how I may want to incorporate that item into the room.  Pinterest gave me the idea to turn a vintage plate collection into a wall vignette.  

Any trade secrets in terms of favorite places to buy furniture?

Yes. There are several ways to score great deals on furniture. First, I am a huge fan of Cost Plus World Market and Home Decorators Collection. They have stylish, quality furniture that is highly affordable. They often have pieces that are imitations of much more costly designs.   I also regularly check out for unique but used pieces. allows you to look up all of the estate sales in your area. It’s like a classier version of garage sales! And, finally, I scour wholesale furniture shops in the Chicagoland area. For example, there is a furniture wholesaler in Bensenville, called Interior Express Outlet.  They have very simple and contemporary pieces of furniture for much less money than any of the regular furniture stores that you find throughout most areas. You can get a 5-piece dining table set there for less than $300.

Is there an ideal budget for a new apartment in terms of decorating? How expensive is it to work with an interior designer such as yourself?

There is no ideal budget – everyone’s tastes and needs are different. You may have several pieces of furniture, or you may have none. You may be moving into a studio apartment, or a 2-bedroom with a friend. If you do nothing else, paint your spaces. Paint costs very little for an apartment and can make each space feel unique.   There are many interior designers out there and they range in price. The cost of working with an interior designer depends on the scope of work, and how willing you (the home owner/renter) are willing to get involved in the process. An interior designer can guide you so that you don’t make expensive mistakes, and stay within your budget. Some designers charge a retainer, while others charge hourly, like myself. Typically, if you are working with a designer who charges a retainer, the costs are going to be more expensive (think $1,000+), as they are likely to be a full service firm, rather than an independent consultant, who may cost roughly $500 or less for a room.

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Author My First Apartment

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I've lived in apartments in 6 cities (including 2 foreign countries). Does that make me an expert? As of now, my ceiling isn't leaking and I don't have rodents (knock on wood) -- so I'm going to say yes . . . but ask me again tomorrow:) These days, I'm enjoying life Chicago style, but my years in Brooklyn are never far from my mind. P.S. By day I work at, but these opinions are totally, 100% my own.

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Comments (6)

  1. Avatar Maya

    My husband and I just moved into an apartment with hardwood flooring. (We’ve always had carpet.) The floors are beautiful, but we don’t have much furniture and are wondering if we should buy some interesting rugs to add pizzazz. Good idea, or should we let the floors shine on their own?
    Also, do the rugs have to match each other in some way, or can we mix it up? :)

  2. Avatar Maya

    My husband and I just moved into an apartment with hardwood flooring. (We’ve always had carpet.) The floors are beautiful, but we don’t have much furniture and are wondering if we should buy some interesting rugs to add pizzazz. Good idea, or should we let the floors shine on their own? Also, do the rugs have to match each other in some way??

  3. Avatar Jen C.

    My husband and I are in the market for a sofa, love seat, and two swivel chairs for our living space. The sofa will face the fireplace, with the love seat on one side and the swivel chairs on the other. I want the swivel chairs to be bright, with a fun pattern. Should the sofa and love seat be in the same fabric to off set the swivel chairs? I don’t want things to be too matchy matchy, but I want everything to tie together. Any suggestions?

  4. Avatar Carrie

    My husband and I just moved in to our first apartment together. He’s got some furniture. I’ve got some furniture. And we got some furniture for our wedding. I’m worried because nothing really goes together. How bad is it, for example, that each wooden piece in or living room is a different type of wood? Thanks!