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20 Small Design Changes with Big Impact

Itching to refresh your space but don’t want to spend a small fortune? It is possible! With a little imagination and some elbow grease—plus paint and a few well chosen accessories—these simple strategies can help turn your home into a haven.

man painting front door red illustration

1. Deck out your door

A chic entrance can set the tone for your whole house, so if your front door has seen better days, start by giving it a fresh coat of paint. “A door can be a great moment to splurge on a high-end paint or push out of your color comfort zone a little,” says New York City–based designer Kevin Dumais. And don’t freak out if the wall of paint chips at the hardware store makes your head spin: New innovations are making it easier than ever to find that “just right” hue. In 2018, designer Nicole Gibbons launched Clare, a curated direct-to-consumer line of eco-friendly paints in on-trend colorways like Rosé Season (a warm, summery blush) and Headspace (a serene blue-gray). Or try Datacolor’s ColorReader EZ, a new device that allows you to paint-match your door to anything that inspires you, whether it’s a piece of art, a pillow, or your favorite nail polish.

people cooking in kitchen illustration

2. Cook up some color

The kitchen may be the hardest-working room in your house, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cute, too! A durable wool or recycled-plastic rug in a stain-concealing pattern is a quick way to bring in color and texture and makes standing at the stove or sink comfier, too. Have open shelves or bare walls? Studies show that reflecting on happy memories can increase your feeling of well-being, so while you’re chopping veggies, why not have a collection of meaningful mementos in your line of sight? Family photos are an obvious choice, but “you can hang anything, from your grandmother’s recipe cards to embroidered dish towels,” says Tessa Wolf, creative director for online framing service Framebridge.

3. Pick a new number

Interior designer Sara Barney of Bandd Design in Austin, Texas, says she thinks of stylish address numbers as “lipstick for your house”—and with hundreds of options available these days (traditional brass, handmade ceramic, laser-cut steel), it’s easy to find a look to suit your style. Not sure where to begin? Barney suggests checking out the selections at Rejuvenation, Heath Ceramics, or Etsy for a super-personalized set.

bedside books illustration

4. Brighten up the bedside

“Small nightstands fill up so quickly with stacks of books and glasses of water and phones,” says Dumais. “That’s valuable real estate!” To maximize space, he always recommends wall sconces rather than table lamps for bedside lighting. If there are outlets nearby, hiring an electrician to install a hardwired fixture is usually inexpensive—but if that’s more of a project than you’re up for, there are plenty of plug-in options to choose from.

5. Upgrade your “shelfie”

Open shelves are a great backdrop for personal collections and objets d’art, but they don’t have to be a blank canvas! Try painting the insides of your bookshelves or cabinets with contrasting paint, or lining shelves with bold wallpaper. “We do this all the time,” says Sara Barney. “It’s a great way to create a little extra dimension.”

hand opening handles illustration

6. Get handy with hardware

Like pairing big, shiny earrings with a basic outfit, accessorizing a vanity or dresser with stylish new hardware is a great way to transform the entire look. “Adding unique handles or knobs can give a second life to a piece that’s maybe not top-of-the-line,” says Carolina Gentry of Pulp Design Studios in Seattle and Dallas. “Just that tweak can make something budget-priced look bespoke.” But remember: To avoid the fiddly work of patching holes, measure before you go shopping and seek out replacements that are the same size as the originals.

hand holding basket of flowers illustration

7. Forage a DIY arrangement

Research from Harvard University has shown that keeping fresh flowers at home can help reduce anxiety and improve your emotional health, but you don’t need to drop a bundle at the florist to get the benefits. Just take a walk through your backyard or around the block to forage for a homespun arrangement. “Use your imagination and explore with your eyes,” says Dumais. “Even a maple branch or a little clipping of greenery in a bud vase can bring a table to life.”

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8. Use an old-school alarm clock

Studies have shown the hazards of slumbering with your smartphone. Beyond the radiation risk, the blue light emitted from electronic devices can seriously mess with the quality of your sleep. And waking up with your phone is no better—we’re all guilty of hitting snooze and then immediately checking work email, social media, and those panic-inducing news apps first thing in the morn. Break your bedtime scrolling habit by subbing in an alarm clock—yup, an old-fashioned, distraction-free alarm clock. Added bonus? Clocks have style! Choose one that fits your decor, whether it’s a wooden analog number that matches your minimalist vibe or a vintage moment that will stand up to all your antiques.

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9. Embrace a low-waste morning routine

If worries about waste have you phasing plastics out of your home, don’t forget to tackle your bathroom, too. (Conditioner bottles, we’re looking at you!) These days, more and more cosmetic companies are offering bar soaps and shampoos for all hair types. And swapping in a few refillable glass or metal containers for that cluttered pile of moisturizers and cleansers doesn’t just look prettier; it’s more sustainable, too. Of course, the best way to reduce waste is to not bring it into your bathroom in the first place. “We always tell clients to fill a small bin with small items that tend to pile up—but when that bin is full, they’re done,” says Marissa Hagmeyer of home-organizing company The Neat Method. “Because ‘editing’ is always eco-friendly!”

10. Celebrate the everyday

You know those cocktail glasses you’ve been saving for a “special occasion?” What exactly are you waiting for? If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that life is short and unpredictable, so go ahead and actually use—and enjoy!—your “good” stuff now.

11. Spruce your small spaces

Mudrooms and laundry rooms tend to be kept behind closed doors, but a few small design flourishes can turn these workaday spaces into jewel boxes worth celebrating. For mudrooms that really pop, Gentry suggests wallpapering ceilings with grass cloth or playful prints, such as the durable, washable designs from French firm Élitis. Or go simpler still: To create texture while still keeping function in mind, Boston-based interior designer Liz Caan recommends hanging shaker pegs to display a colorful hat collection.

hands moving furniture illustration

12. Shuffle your furniture

Don’t have a big renovation budget? Don’t fret! One of the easiest and cheapest ways to breathe new life into an old room is by rearranging the furniture you already have. There are therapeutic benefits to this change of scenery: A 2020 study out of New York University and the University of Miami showed that variety in our daily physical environments has a positive effect on our sense of well-being. Playing with your layout also gives you a chance to clean under those heavy items, reconsider the function of your pieces, experiment with angles, and choose a new focal point to spotlight. Trust us; change is good!

13. Stick to it

When you don’t have the budget for a full-fledged reno, temporary tiles and wallpaper are affordable ways to upgrade unsightly floors, walls, and backsplashes— without the mess of wallpaper paste, the labor of demolition, or the commitment of a more permanent fix. “Peel-and-stick tiles and wall coverings have really come a long way lately in terms of colors and styles,” says Adam D’Agostine, CMO of WallPops, whose firm saw a huge spike in sales in 2020. “We love to see clients think outside of the box by doing things like ‘tiling’ stair risers. It adds an unexpected dose of cool.”

woman lounging in living room eating popcorn illustration

14. Channel your inner kid

Instead of squeezing another chair into your living room, inject some playfulness into your space by adding big floor cushions (perfect for flopping in front of the TV for movie night) or hanging a hammock swing as a “side chair.” (Just remember to find a stud first.) Or go even simpler with pillows or ottomans that channel the spirit of stuffies. “I love using ball-shaped pillows from ZAK+FOX on a sectional or life-size wool-and-wooden sheep as footrests,” says Caan. “They add tons of character, and you can sit on them!”

showering surrounded by plants illustration

15. Tend a shower garden

Think about it: With tiled walls, a drain, and a built-in water source, your shower is basically a ready-made greenhouse—so why not treat it like one? Turn your shower into an indoor oasis by installing a few pretty hanging or potted plants that thrive in low light and humid conditions, like ferns, spider plants, and orchids. Don’t have a green thumb? Take a page out of L.A.–based designer and lifestyle blogger Breegan Jane’s playbook and mix a grouping of faux plants in with a few real ones. “To fool the eye, I always look for real plants that are a little waxy,” she says with a laugh. “That way, it seems cohesive.”

broken cabinet illustration

16. Go semi-custom

Custom kitchen cabinets can get super spendy, but pairing new doors with budget bases is a great way to get a high-end look at a fraction of the cost. “No one sees the cabinet boxes anyway, so new doors are a great way to turn around your look on a budget,” says Sara Barney. Companies like Reform, Semihandmade, and Kokeena sell a wide array of Ikea-compatible custom doors, drawer fronts, and panels that are all the rage with contemporary designers and come in a kaleidoscope of styles, from traditional Shaker to minimalist modern.

finger dimming light illustration

17. Install a dimmer

Nothing kills a mood faster than harsh lighting—which is why Dumais encourages his clients to install dimmers in every room. “Lighting should be flexible as the time of day changes, as your mood changes, and as your tasks change,” he says. “It’s such an affordable and simple way to take control of your environment.”

18. Upgrade utilitarian pieces

Dish racks, paper towel holders, soap dispensers: These heavy-use pieces are always out on the countertop, so it’s worth investing in versions that are pretty and practical. “It might seem silly, but I have a Carrara marble paper towel holder that I love so much” says Breegan Jane. “The stand-up style makes it easy to slide towel rolls on and off, and it just looks like it belongs in my kitchen.”

19. Add architecture

Can you handle a hammer and nails? Congratulations! You have what it takes to upgrade your space with simple elements—like beadboard, chair rails, or molding—that pack a big architectural punch. “We deal with a lot of basic, builder-grade homes, so we do this all the time,” says Sara Barney. “Things like crown molding and beadboard paneling don’t have to be in every single room, but adding them strategically can go a long way toward making a white box space feel less cookie-cutter.”

couch outside of house illustration

20. Think outside the house

With families spending more time than ever at home, making the most of outdoor living is key. Happily, all it takes is a quick power wash and a colorful outdoor rug to give even the drabbest concrete patio an instant face-lift. Feeling more ambitious? Try using a big stencil and a few coats of concrete paint to create a faux “cement tile” floor. For maximum durability, Breegan Jane recommends epoxy floor coverings, which are available in a variety of colors at most home-improvement stores. And if your “yard” is barely big enough to fit a grill, get creative. “Lately it seems like all my neighbors are turning their garages into gyms or hangout rooms,” says Jane. “Just lift the door and it’s the perfect indoor-outdoor space.”

By Sarah Karnasiewicz | Illustrations by Anthony Russo

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