Cheap and Chic: Decorating on a Budget

Things are still pretty tough out there and, as many of us have either spent all our money just getting onto the housing ladder, or are stuck in a slightly dilapidated house that we can’t afford to decorate, mad about the house has come to the rescue. I wrote this piece a couple of years ago but it seems to me that all of the advice still holds good so, in the spirit of thriftiness and recycling, here are some great ideas for decorating on a budget from some of Britain’s top designers and interiors experts. Your house doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of Ikea, or your neighbour’s for that matter. Incorporate some of these ideas into your own home and you can retain a sense of freshness and individuality.


Interior Designer

There are a couple of really easy solutions to decorating on a budget. One of my first ideas if you have an old sofa that has gone manky and you can’t afford to get it recovered – as indeed I do – is to use a throw. Buy one from somewhere fabulous like The White Company  and sling it over the back, tucking it in slightly behind the cushions to anchor it and make it look like you meant it to be there and that will give the sofa a whole new lease of life.


Another easy idea is to use your own photographs. You don’t just have to use pictures of your family. Go to one of the online photo libraries ( )and choose a series of pictures – grasses, shells, ferns – anything that you like – and print off lots of them. You need to really go for it, hang say six across and three deep or four rows of two – be bold. I would suggest really plain whitewashed wooden frames and hang them so close that they are almost touching. That will make a real statement.

image from
image from



Owner of Couverture

It’s great if you can sew – invest in a sewing machine and source vintage fabric you love and turn it into floor cushions or poufs. You can also make your own duvet covers.


I once made some curtains out of some old linen sheets with thread worked borders.

This Plumo rug costs £229. Learn to knit or crochet

There are some great vintage wallpaper websites now – best for covering small areas ( ).

Painting makes for dramatic change –floorboards, basic wooden furniture, even a border in a darker shade if you can’t afford a skirting.

from livingetc via

Recycle wooden wine crates (ask your local wine merchant) and use them stacked up to create shelving or for storage containers.

apple crates from

Collections of similar things look great – inexpensive pieces en masse (e.g ceramic jelly moulds).

vintgae jelly mould lights from



Lifestyle designer

You need to get the shell of the room right to start with, then you can add to it later – perhaps when you have more money. I would advise that you choose everything together in terms of the colours and then if you have to buy a cheap sofa you can cover it in the right colours later and the room will still look properly put together.

Buy a good rug. A rug makes a room. You can get lovely funky designs from Ikea and Habitat that don’t cost much. Indian rugs are beautiful too, but don’t buy a new one that is pretending to be old. It will always look wrong.

ikea’s eivor cirkel rug £120

Keep it simple. You don’t need pelmets on the curtains. You will always look good in a beautiful dress and it doesn’t need an amazing necklace as well.

Start off with the thing that you love best and work around that. When I lived in a shared room in New York, I always made it my own by adding throws I loved – perhaps a piece of Indian material or my own candles. It’s the little touches that make the difference once you have got the basic structure right.

throw from Allegra’s collection £178



Managing Director of The Holding Company

Your home is an extension of your own personality and this should follow through into the furniture that you buy. The first tip is to think ahead – will you still love it tomorrow – these things might be your treasures of the future.

Antique markets in small towns can be a haven for bargains. Use your local auction rooms and do buy on eBay – especially if you are looking for branded items.

Don’t spend too much on fitted items – you can’t take them with you. If you can’t afford new kitchen cupboards, try using open chrome shelving which is very stylish. Fill them with baskets and hang pots and pans below on old meat hooks. This can all be dismantled and taken away if you move house.

the holding company stocks chrome shelving that you can take when you move


Clothes storage is a perennial problem, but in my first flat I knocked 16 nails into a piece of 2’’ by 1’’ and fixed it to the wall as a tie rack. I had winter jumpers in plastic boxes under the bed and shoes in old cardboard boxes with pictures on the front. 

shoe storage from the holding company


Managing and design director of The Paint  Library and author of Paint and Paper A Masterclass in Colour and Light (£25 Conran Octopus)

blue is for blondes


The first point to make is that paint is one of the most inexpensive ways to make an impact and covers the largest area of a room. It’s also the only thing people tend to remember when they leave, so it’s a big decision. Choose colours that you like to wear as you will obviously feel comfortable in them and they will suit you and your personality.

Max Factor said brunettes should apply make-up in a pink room                                                image from

In the 1930s, the make up artist Max Factor built three rooms in Hollywood and the models had to be made up in the one that was most suited to the colouring – brunettes in the pale pink room, redheads in the green and blondes in the blue. Back in Georgian times, society hostesses would regularly paint their rooms in colours that matched their eyes to ensure they always looked as attractive as possible.

green rooms for redheads
image from

Pay close attention to areas where the hand and eye are naturally drawn. Door handles, cutlery, bannisters and taps. Those are the bits that people will remember even if the rest of the room is rather dull and neglected.

Buy the cheapest fabric you can – then get a sofa cover made by the best upholsterer you can afford and add a bit of ribbon for decoration. Spend the money on the people doing the work. Years ago in a rented flat, I had a hideous brick wall that I covered in hessian for about £18 and people would come in and gasp at my panelled wall which was so cheap.

Finally, think about adding a splash of really vibrant colour to the inside of the drawers or cupboards. You only see it every now and then so you won’t tire of it and again, that’s the bit that people will remember even if the rest of the room is rather tired and you can’t afford new units.




Textile designer

Neisha’s grape wallpaper

It’s important to get the foundations right, so when you are on a budget, make sure the fixtures and fittings are the best and most beautiful you can afford. Details like radiators and light fittings make all the difference to the overall look. By contrast, wooden flooring doesn’t need to be expensive.

curvy radiator
image from

Start simply and go slowly. Plain walls and curtains can create a low cost blank canvas and you can add impact slowly with cushions and lamps.



Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.