I have friends of various ages, some of whom are just starting to create homes for themselves. How to create a home is a topic that comes up regularly. They take a look around my house, trying to figure out how I worked everything into a form of personal expression. They're not looking for a carbon copy of my home, just wondering where and how to start - and still do it on a budget. I tell them to hit the thrift stores, the antique malls, and the flea markets.
I'm not a purist. I happily mix IKEA and discount store items with finds from thrift stores and antique malls, interspersed with a few exceptional pieces. But I follow two rules - I don't overpay for something, even if I love it (because the knowledge that I overpaid usually takes away from any pleasure the item may have brought me) and I only buy what I truly love. I also edit my collections on a regular basis, disposing of anything I've grown tired of living with. I move things around a lot, too, bringing things in on a seasonal basis, creating different focal points in my home.
But I think it's the details that really make up the character of a home, and a lot of my details come via visually crowded antique malls, thrift stores, and flea markets. Some people, in the face of such visual overload, shut down and only see junk. Others view it as an adventure. I'm the latter, but only because I've learned how to cut through the clutter to find what I want.
So to my friends who want to make the most of an antique mall (and create a home in the process), here are a few exercises I use to help make shopping a productive, pleasurable, cohesive process:
(The industrial lightbulb will become part of an idea I'll share in the fall. The labware I find to be both useful and good for display. The child's muffin tin is a good prop and will store small craft items on my desk in the meantime.)
1. If you're starting with a virtually empty room, buy one thing you love and build a collection, room, or home around it. My kitchen began with a $20, vintage industrial find that dictated (and continues to dictate) everything else that followed. It doesn't have to be a precious piece - just something that serves as a creative lynchpin.
2. Set a tight budget for yourself before you go. If you strictly limit what you'll spend on any given trip, you'll be less tempted to scatter your resources and better able to hone in on what you really want to buy.
3. Set a theme for the day. When I set a theme for myself, I can scan through clutter more easily and come back with a cohesive collection of goods. On my last trip, I settled on vintage industrial style and came home with the items you see in the photograph - culled from a variety of stores and vendors. My only deviation came at the end of the day when I saw the white serving dish and snapped it up. It works perfectly with the collection of white dishes I already own.
4. Shop by color. I think this is one of the easiest ways to unify a disparate collection of objects. I have lots of dishes and serving pieces, but I limit myself to shades of white or neutral colors. That way, when I mix my vintage finds with newer pieces, they still work together and look good on display. To shake it up, I bring color in through table linens, napkins, or flowers. But if red is your passion, buy it in bulk and temper it with a neutral here and there.
5. Shop by decade. When you shop within a decade, most of the items will work well together. This doesn't mean that your home can't be an eclectic mix of periods, it's just another way to create focus on a particular excursion.
6. Limit the displays. If I'm on the road, I feel the need to take in as many vendors as humanly possible. But if I'm shopping close to home, I'll limit myself to just a few vendors and spend time looking over each and every item they have available. Doing this, I've managed to find some prized possessions that would have easily been overlooked in a rapid scanning.
(The ruler I purchased was originally used to measure hemlines. I repurposed it to display a photo)
In addition to these exercises, there are things you can do to prepare beforehand. First, sketch out floorplans of your home, including things like electrical outlets. Fill in the dimensions of the space, along with the dimensions of any existing furniture. If you really want to flesh it out, include existing paint or fabric swatches. It also helps to bring along a tape measure.
Second, discover your personal style by exploring what visually inspires you. Tools like Pinterest are great for this. If you start pinning images of interiors that you like, however inexplicable, you can go back and look over your boards to see if there are visual themes that emerge. I like this because it's a more subconscious process and eventually, your style will become clear.
And in the end -
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. William Morris