An heirloom bassinet, antique lace curtains, embroidered pillows, and a large , airy room are the stuff of fairy-tale nurseries. But few couples expecting their first child have these items on hand or the large room to put them in.
With careful planning, there are many ways to create charming, efficient nurseries when the budget and space are tight. Even a small nook or room can provide a cheerful sanctuary for a newborn while including necessities such as a crib, changing table, and storage units.
''One advantage of a tiny room is it doesn't require a great deal of time and money to decorate beautifully,'' says interior designer Lucretia Robertson of Lang/Robertson Ltd. in Montclair, N.J. Small nurseries offer the opportunity to upholster the walls with fabric or to use a special paper that will still be appropriate when the room is no longer a nursery. For long-term versatility, it is best to avoid obvious nursery motifs.
''Unless you are in an extremely privileged position, decorating a nursery can be a colossal waste of money if the room has to be redone later,'' she says. ''If you are going to go to the trouble and expense to wallpaper the room, it's important to think generically. When the baby grows up and out, the room can continue to function for the family without sheep all over the walls.''
She describes one nursery that is decorated with a large-scale Americana quilt-pattern wallpaper in navy and white. The pattern will work beyond its immediate use. Decorated now for the baby in white pique fabric with navy-and-white trim, the room can easily be converted for other purposes later using the same wallpaper.
''Sewing for newborns' rooms can be economical and fun,'' Mrs. Robertson adds. A few colorful homemade accessories such as a fabric bumper guard, crib ruffle, and a baby pillow played off against plain walls is one simple, effective decorating scheme.
In planning a nursery, she emphasizes, it's important to consider the parents' as well as the baby's needs.
''The nursery is not just the baby's room, it is a family space. It gets adult activity almost more than any other room,'' she says. Ideally, ''it should not only be a place where Mother goes, but where Father can join in and brothers and sisters can come as well.''
Comfortable seating helps make the nursery an inviting place for everyone. A rocker and an upholstered chair or love seat are welcoming additions that can be used in other settings later.
For her own child's nursery, Mrs. Robertson incorporated a grouping of wicker furniture originally used on the terrace. She resprayed the pieces white, recovered the seat cushions in gingham, and arranged them in a bay window. Interior designer Karen Austin of Wellesley, Mass., likes to include a chaise longue in nurseries so a parent can lie down with the child and read storybooks. ''And there's always a rocking chair with a table next to it,'' she adds.
When she and her partner, Josselyn Chaikin, design a nursery, ''we keep a growing child in mind. We want to keep it attractive and functional,'' she says. ''We are very selective with furniture and choose things that are going to be used for a while.''
To make a toddler feel at home, they often use scaled-down furniture and other elements such as blackboards on the walls or custom furniture reflecting imaginative themes. For one nursery, they commissioned a table with carved soldiers for legs. In another, they had the entire floor painted to look like a village, complete with buildings and roadways - perfect for racing toy cars.
''We use a lot of paint because it's easier to keep clean and you can do a lot with the trim,'' she says. They may paint the baseboard or chair rail a contrasting color or add a border around the ceiling to match the curtains.
For storing baby toys and other paraphernalia on a shoestring budget, Ms. Austin recommends using stackable wooden cubes sprayed in different colors or even painted to look like blocks. To reduce clutter, she prefers shelving concealed with cabinet doors rather than open shelves.
In some cases a newborn may have to share quarters with parents or temporarily occupy a corner of the family room or other area. Ideally, the nursery setup should be located near the parents' room and be convenient to the kitchen and bathroom.
In her new book, ''Babyspace'' (New York: Perigee Books, Putnam, 16.95), Ellen Liman offers useful advice for planning nursery areas and buying baby equipment. When space is tight, she suggests these methods for dividing a room to accommodate an infant:
* Bamboo shades hung as a room divider from the ceiling.
* A curtained alcove concealing a nursery area.
* A folding screen enclosing the crib and changing space to shield the baby from light and draft.
* A free-standing wall unit with cabinet, shelves, or other storage space.
* A folding accordion divider or sliding panels of fabric or wood installed in a ceiling rod.
To streamline the nursery area and create the illusion of more space, she recommends using multifunctional furniture, such as a chest of drawers with a changing pad on top instead of a separate bureau and changing table. A utility cart on wheels can be used for changing and supplies when the baby is small. Later, it may be used for toys.
To store the baby's belongings, look for new storage spaces in unusual spots such as under stairs, on landings, and over and on doors. Take full advantage of wall space by using hooks, metal grids, shelves, storage cubes, chests, and cabinets. Built-in storage or compact modular storage units are good space savers and can make use of awkward spaces.