Decorating with little but ideas

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Decorating on a shoestring budget is an endlessly intriguing subject to people without much cash or who are frequently on the move. Likewise, putting a home together with ingenuity, imagination, and personal style is a matter of fascination to a great many people.

One recently published book are aimed at helping these cost-minded but creatively inclined people find some innovative ideas for solving their own decorating problems is "Your Space: How to Put It Together for Practically Nothing," by Jon Naar and Mary Ellen Moore (New York: St. Martin's Press. $12.95 cloth, $6.95 paper).

These authors say they are chiefly concerned about "mobility, crowded schedules, and soaring costs." They interviewed dozens of people who designed their own places for practically nothing. Mr. Naar photographed the results of their efforts and Miss Moore describes in words what she calls "alternative approaches to decorating." She also refers to these novel do-it-yourself jobs as "anything goes," "underground," and "anti-traditional" decorating.

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Mr. Naar says he photographed rooms that would never be seen in slick magazines, and he is absolutely right. The rooms he photographs have one thing in common: Each is permanently unfinished. They ever evolve and change as new additions of "found, recycled, and homemade objects" are added. The whimsical and sometimes bizarre decorating schemes they cover tend to include such titles as "art wrecko," "cheap chic," and "the flea-market factor." "Found furniture" is just that -- other people's discards and trowaways, found usually on curbsides and in trash rooms.

The authors tell people to look at things with the idea that the items could be something other than what they are. Old office and dental lab furniture, for instance, finds infinite new storage purposes in these apartments. Mr. Naar and Miss Moore advise readers not to rush into decorating, but to relax, take time, and get acclimated to new surroundings before trying to arrange things to suit themselves.

The authors say that the overriding lesson they learned from their explorations is this: "Don't let anyone tell you something can't or shouldn't be done. Just do it. It's your place. And try to use things that you can take with you or items that you don't mind throwing or giving away or leaving behind for the next tenants when you move. Always be free with your imagination and stingy with your cash."

The book is, of course, full of easily adaptable ideas. One couple bought 13 patterned sheets at $3 from a discount store and, using a staple gun, concealed flaking walls and got sound insulation to boot. Another placed a mirror cater-cornered and set a few plants in front of it to get the reflected effect of a veritable forest. Another couple used flawed lace tablecloths to cover windows, ceiling, furniture, and radiator.

The authors' basic conclusion is that you can express yourself in decorating your own place and be fun, cheap, and ingenious about it. Yet they don't toss out all the rules. They advise: "Be organized where you work in your home. Plan your kitchen for maximum efficiency, and make sure your living room is comfortable."

If they hate having anything ever be finished, it is because "being unfinished means not being stuck with a certain look." It is a kooky book that professional designers will abhor and adventurous young homesteaders will no doubt like.

A second book on decorating on a limited budget is Catherine C. Crane's "What Do You Say to a Naked Room?" (New York: Dial Press. $19.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.) With the aid of words and photographs, the author unfolds a discovery trip that helps people recognize those colors, textures, and objects that they innately like best and want to live with as constant companions.

"Help!" is what most people exclaim at their first glimpse of an empty room, but the author shows them how to get initial help by asking the right questions of the room.

These include such questions as how many people will live there? Where is it located? What are its bad features which must be camouflaged and its good features which must be emphasized? Is it light and airy, or dark and gloomy? It is small and confined, or large and spacious? Is money limited and therefore an important factor in its decoration?

Even an unfurnished room talks back and yields answers, Catherine Crane says. She sets forth decorating options, and actually shows people how they can best reflect themselves in their homes. The young author describes her own present Manhattan apartment as a case in point.

"I had been living in a lousy walk-up apartment which my Yankee upbringing and thrift kept telling me I had to endure," she says. "Then one day a friend reminded me that because I worked at home and spent so much time there, a good apartment was not an indulgence but a bona fide expense.

"So I walked down my four flights of stairs, past the garbage cans, and signed a lease for a new apartment, complete with lobby, doorman, view of the East River, and, best of all, an elevator. I was jubilant the day I moved in and started talking to my 12-by-25- foot studio apartment, with entrance hallways, alcove, bath, and kitchen. The decoration that has emerged is my own look."

She says proudly, "It is wonderful to feel you live in a place where something good is going for you, and I have become a firm believer in the positive power of a pretty home."

To attain her present look, Catherine Crane has spent almost $5,000. That figure includes blue wall-to-wall carpeting throughout to make it look more spacious, a whole wall of modular sectional bookcase units that look built in but aren't, and three movable seating units that she had a carpenter build for her. Beneath each upholstered sectional seat is a toy-box-like storage space. She had the same carpenter partition off the conversation area of her living room with a waist-high plywood screen. It has a corkboard bulleting board and a Formica-covered hanging desk shelf on the bedroom side.

The author covered the walls and ceiling of her narrow entrance hall in silver Mylar wallpaper for glint and reflection and put silvery thin-slatted louvered blinds at the windows.

"Although I think I'd have to be an archaeologist to dig through to the bottom of my round dining table where I work, the apartment is simple and works well for me. It havens me beautifully. Whether you think $5,000 is a lot, or a little, the result has been worth every cent to me."

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