thrift-store decorating tips: the main room

main room, right side, with reclaimed-teak bookcase and tall vintage lamps

See that big window? It used to look out onto a brick wall. I know I keep talking about all the natural light in my apartment lately in tones of wonder, and yes, I did like that brick wall, but its being gone makes all the difference in how well this space photographs, so I can finally show this place to effect, give it justice. (And if you suspect I'm exaggerating, just compare the main-room photo in this post back in August versus these newer ones.) It actually gets so bright in here on sunny afternoons, now that the building next door is gone, that I must close at least one curtain if I want to see anything other than my reflection or the layer of dust on my laptop screen. It almost requires sunglasses in here on days between rainstorms. This is not a complaint, mind you, simply . . . adjustment. (The downside is all the head-rattling drilling and beeping noise on weekdays and most Saturdays, which is why I'm moving.)

Fifteen months ago, I was thrilled to find an apartment with hardwood floors and a great layout at the lower end of the rental market in a central downtown Portland location. Score, right? On the plus side, there's plenty of storage in here for such a small apartment: one long, narrow bedroom closet, a deep storage closet aside the entryway that I call The Garage, and a walk-in closet off the main room, leading to the bathroom. The floors, other than the kitchen and bathroom vinyl, are original blond oak in the entryway and main room and something rougher in the bedroom and walk-in closet, whose carpet I asked the manager to have pulled up and the wood refinished before I moved in. The ceilings are fairly high, nine feet. And the doors all have their original hardware, meaning beautiful glass knobs and brass fittings (some of which have been painted over by careless workers—Grrr!—since who cares about rentals?).

But despite the many positives of this apartment, I compromised on light and soon came to regret it. While lamps and candles make for cozy evenings, nothing can replace regular doses of sunlight. My lamps were switched on pretty much anytime I wasn't asleep because, though I had moved into a south- and west-facing corner apartment, which normally would get good sun, most of that light was blocked by neighboring buildings. And though the light's been wonderful this past month, the price for it has been high. Moreover, after the shiny fifteen-story building goes up, the light situation in this apartment will be even worse: future tenants will have no direct sunlight at all. Yet light is critical to health and mood, especially in gloomy-most-of-the-year climates that compound seasonal affective disorder (SAD) effects, as in the Northwest. The point is that if you crave natural light and don't like living in a cave, make sure the place you rent or buy has big windows and plenty of light. No hip vintage lamp can compensate for that lack.

view of main room from entryway

With that caveat, let's get on with the tour. Continuing into the apartment from the entryway into the main room, you must veer right or run into the dining table. Frankly, I never ate at the dining table—a no-name, round, Goodwill-thrifted, mid-century piece beautifully refinished by my talented vintage-reseller friend Jeff, who sanded down and oiled the beat-up legs and replaced the original wood-grain laminate top with white Formica for a more contemporary look. I love that table so much it was worth its hogging up the apartment's center, even if it was only used for folding laundry and wrapping packages. (I didn't have a dining chair till a few months ago, so I ate at the coffee table, seated on a floor pillow.)

refinished round mid-century dining table with new white Formica top; lone Thonet chair; Drexel secretary

vintage dining table detail

Opposite the entrance and beyond the dining table, a large paned window is the natural focal point of the room. Though the former old brick wall across the alley blocked a lot of light (see above), it also muffled most of the city street noise, so there's another of life's little trade-offs. The apartment windows are all original, giving lots of character, though this also means they're uninsulated and chilly in winter, especially in the main room around the large metal window that won't completely close. (If I had stayed here this winter, I would install some temporary weather stripping from the ReStore to reduce heat loss, which I should have done last year.)

And that's about it for the room tour itself. The kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all lie off the main room on the right (west) side. The deep storage closet sits to the left of the entryway. Altogether, the apartment's about 500 square feet, fairly small as American homes go, but a good size for me—even too big. One person doesn't technically need this much living space.

A simple living proponent, I believe not only in slow food and slowing life down generally, but, too, in slow decorating in small spaces. As someone on a tight budget who strongly believes well-off Westerners must drastically be reducing our rapacious consumption of Earth's resources and limiting both our space and our physical possessions, the only way to align my ethics and aesthetics with my finances has been to switch to secondhand use, secondhand goods. In slow decorating, it's taken lots of time to get this place looking as well as it does (or did, rather). And of course my personal tastes won't necessarily suit everyone else's, nor would I want them to. I've been in this apartment for 15 months, and I still wouldn't have called the space "finished," though it was getting there. The ceiling fixtures were never switched out and I still only have one dining chair, for example. But at least nesting is a highly enjoyable process for me, as good as, say, world travel.

So from real-life experimentation, here are some well considered and hard-won decorating lessons I've researched and practiced over the years as an amateur design lover, long-time secondhand shopper, and professional educator, with the goal of helping spread the joy of secondhand use—proving that previously owned things can indeed be better than new.

geranium pots on windowsill

Living Room Decorating Tips:

  • Make a big window the focal point, instead of the TV. I only have a TV at all because it was a (very nice) hand-me-down, but my sofa is instead pointed at the window, while enabling easy movie viewing via the angled TV seated low on the metro shelving to avoid eye and neck strain (see photos below).
  • Remove rental blinds and hang curtains or shades promptly after move-in. (Don't wait and waste a whole year like I did.) Decent natural-fiber curtain panels are easily found at the the thrift store. IKEA, sadly (because the quality is poor), is the most affordable curtain-rod source option without going a total DIY route, though you might get lucky at Goodwill and find a new rod set in box . . . with hardware . . . in the right size . . . that you actually like. (Good luck with that.) Thrifted tension rods, though, are a good option for smaller windows or for double coverage.
  • Add a large plant. If large enough, the plant in a striking pot can not only process air-based toxins but function as a dramatic statement piece, like my hairy Dracaena marginata, or the currently popular fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). Large plants are of course more expensive than smaller ones because of paying for prior growth time but worth the investment if you already know how to keep plants alive. Buy from a local nursery, or if that's out of budget, there's always IKEA (where, at least recently here in Portland, you can get a four-foot fiddle leaf fig for just $13).

kitchen view from main room

  • Hang round vintage mirrors adjacent to or across from windows as portholes of reflected light—alternate windows floating unexpectedly on interior walls. Round beveled mirrors tend to have more visual impact than rectangular ones because most windows aren't round, giving more oomph in less space. By contrast, large rectangular mirrors can mimic whole walls or full windows by essentially disappearing into the wall. So the shape choice really depends on what effect you're after. I own both circular and rectangular vintage mirrors but prefer the circles. Plus, circles, being smaller, are easier to move. Regardless, I strongly recommend buying vintage mirrors because, like most everything else, they will inevitably be better made, thicker and of better quality than newer mirrors, with a solid backing (though they might need to be rewired for safety). Such mirrors can be found fairly easily at resale shops, so check back at your favorite vintage store from time to time, especially if you're looking for a particular diameter.
  • Select sturdy coffee tables that don't require trips to the emergency room, constant dusting or fingerprint wiping, or the perpetual refinishing of water-glass rings. That means buying nothing made of easily dented soft wood like pine (think children and their toys—bang, bong, crash!) or anything with dark glass or sharp corners. I prefer metal or marble coffee tables for their durability, but I also don't have children to worry about. Nesting tables, like easily found mid-century sets or new acrylic ones, can be a good solution for small spaces. Here are a few pretty contemporary coffee tables as examples. Look for similar vintage or secondhand versions to reduce the price tag, while opting for reuse.

seating area

  • Find a square cubby-style bookcase like this reclaimed-teak staircase style (that doubles as a cat exerciser!), and dress it up. I found various rocks and natural materials over time at thrift stores: local Oregon thundereggs and ancient leaf fossils, carved primitive stone tourist-trade figures, a stylized myrtlewood bird from the Oregon coast, a Russian carved-and-painted wooden treasure box (a long-ago gift), a framed family photo, and a gleaming brass bowl atop a pile of stacked books. (I'm also secretly hoping I can one day use my long-owned stair-step bookcase as an actual set of stairs!)
  • Place inexpensive can-style uplights in hidden corners for a warm, unobtrusive glow. I stole the idea from my friend Jeff and used one at the junction of the sofa and metro shelving by the wall. They take up much less space than a lamp and add variety to lighting scattered around a room. Remember the rule of three lighting sources per room, preferably non-overhead. Plus, can uplights can easily be found secondhand at Goodwill for around five bucks.

repurposed metro shelving entertainment center

  • Rethink the entertainment center. A basic six-shelf metro shelving unit is an extremely versatile, easily moveable, and inexpensive storage piece. On castors, it can be wheeled around, reconfigured, used with or without wheels, or even dismantled altogether for flat storage. This practical, industrial piece works just as well in a kitchen as the garage. I found mine secondhand on Craigslist five years ago and have used it for kitchen storage and in this apartment as a media cart (holding a flat-screen TV, radio, modem, router, and printer) and visible closet, with a variety of baskets storing everything from candles to an emergency hand-crank radio to hand-sewing supplies to vintage board games to medicine-cabinet items.
  • Source original art. With patience, good original pieces—professionally framed photographs, drawings, and oil paintings—can be found inexpensively at resale shops, thrift stores, and garage sales. Tip: Please avoid ironically hanging amateur oil portraits of people who look like your grandparents unless they actually were your grandparents. (And yes, I realize my current art collection has a solitary, antisocial theme.)

gallery wall of vintage art

  • Buy old furniture and furnishings, whatever your style, at thrift stores, garage sales, vintage shops, estate sales, or auctions. Though vintage or antique pieces at the lower price end will often need some light refinishing, reupholstery, or a new paint job, they will almost inevitably be better made than comparably priced contemporary options and maintain or exceed resale value, a win-win. 

vintage Drexel secretary with original white ceramic knobs & brass cuffs

  • Use round things to help break up all the right angles of most furniture: rounded lamps, round dining table, round coffee table, rounded chair backs, a vintage globe, round mirrors, a rounded pouf—even round knobs on a cabinet. The Franco Albini ottoman qualifies, as do the classic George Nelson bubble lamps, the Noguchi table, and those beautiful, pricey marble-topped Saarinen Pedestal tulip tables.
  • Mix furniture periods, even if your style mostly leans a particular way, such as antique aside a touch of high modern, or vice versa. It just makes everything more interesting. I prefer an eclectic look: antique Thonet cafĂ© chair, mid-century round dining table and low MCM sofa, industrial coffee table, vintage designer ottoman, reclaimed-wood bookcase, vintage lamps, and so on.

vintage oversized brass lamp, shade detail

  • Use oversized table lamps as floor lamps. Inspired by Abigail Ahern, master of juxtaposition, I set two oversized vintage table lamps directly on the floor and skipped side tables. (Note, though, that tall folks might not like looking directly down into the light source.)

vintage herringbone lamp & gold velvet chair

vintage brass lamp closeup

  • Finally, consider maintenance and disposal at the crossroads of any purchase or acquisition—in other words, how easily it will be to maintain and get rid of anything you buy. This is the least sexy part of thrifty decorating, but one of the most important parts. What comes into your home will eventually need to leave it, even if that time is after you die. So ask yourself whether that item is worth your a) "life energy" to afford it in the first place, b) time cleaning or otherwise maintaining it, and c) time selling or donating it. If it's not, pass.

main room view into bedroom

A home, by definition, is a sanctuary from the world outside. And when it no longer functions as such, when the outside encroaches either physically with construction noise and dust, or blocked light, or loud neighbors, or mentally with worries about finances or safety, it sadly is no longer functioning as a refuge. But I will miss this place and the convenience of downtown living.

What's ahead? A new experience of living with a good friend, something I've never actually done before—roommates, yes, romantic partners, yes, friends, no—with its own pluses and minuses, the next chapter, so far blank.


  1. Thanks for your great and detailed posts. I am sad you are leaving downtown, b/c I enjoyed seeing your photos of my 'hood. I am also a downtown dweller, paying more than half my salary on rent. For me it's worth it, because I also work downtown, so my commute is a walk up the street. Best wishes for your next steps.

    1. Thanks for saying that. I hope I'll find enough to post about down in Gladstone to keep you checking back in!

      I understand about the walk-to-work situation and why it's worth it, and that had been my own goal. But it feels like my larger goal has for some reason gotten more urgent: wanting to own a place outright, some kind of tiny home. And I just can't save up for that living alone. Maybe I could have gotten a roommate (or three?!—looking at some of the CL listings) downtown, but then I wouldn't have been able to live with a friend (because my available friend refinishes furniture and needs a garage space for that) or save as much money. And shared housing is hard enough for me as it is, being an introvert who needs lots of internal space. Well, we're all experimenting and making the best choices we can for any given time, right? I envy your walking commute. (That's the next thing I need to figure out for myself: reconsidering employment.) Enjoy autumn downtown! I'll sure miss its convenience.

  2. Anonymous3/11/14 21:34

    Downtown will always be here, in case you decide to come back. In the meantime, I think you are right to look at the big picture and long term goals and make a change in that direction. I have never been to Gladstone, so it'll be interesting to see what you find there.

  3. Gladstone is all new to me, too. So far, it seems like a small town dropped in the middle of the metropolis (or rather, an old town swallowed up by the metropolis), with a tiny downtown and a big strip-mall thoroughfare on the west side (McLoughlin). They've got a nice scenic river, though, passing through on the south edge of town. We'll see how it goes. . . .


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