How do you make a house a home?

That’s not a rhetorical question, even if it’s kind of melodramatic. I seriously don’t know how to create a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere in the physical space of our apartment. Whenever I see pictures of where my friends live, they look like the home of real grownups – there are places for stuff, for people, and they don’t conflict. Everything seems so solid, so anchored.

Whereas our apartment feels transient, unmoored, the residence of those who are still becoming, and it’s not entirely sure what. I don’t know how to arrange furniture so that it coalesces into a useful communal space rather than being a bunch of scattered stuff sitting around.

It probably doesn’t help that I grew up in a very traditional house – like, built in 1803 traditional – where there were clearly defined rooms, and now keep living in modern apartments with big (or small) amorphous kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living spaces.

It also probably doesn’t help that we don’t have that much stuff. We own nothing that the two of us can’t easily lift and move between us. (The worst pieces are probably the headboard of the bed and the queen-sized mattress.) That’s great for moving and reducing one’s carbon footprint, but not always for creating a welcoming space. That said, if the solution is “buy more/nicer furniture” I’m SOL for the moment because we don’t really have the money. (Leaving aside the fact that I’m married to someone who didn’t even think we should buy two plastic Adirondack chairs from Target, rather than one, because I was the one who wanted to sit on the balcony so why bother with two? It’s not that he’s at all stingy, it just doesn’t occur to him to want these things.)

It probably even more doesn’t help that we seem to accumulate piles and piles of little things – a lot of papers, but also just various odds and ends – without having much to put them in. So the clutter is endless. And without much furniture, it sits on the same few surfaces. (Including the floor, which drives me NUTS.)

But I refuse to think that the solution is simply buying more stuff (much as I enjoy buying stuff). So what do you do? How do you make where you live a welcoming place that soothes your soul and into which you can actually bring others? (I never entertain because I don’t like how the apartment looks.) Is there some way I can learn how to best arrange furniture for a given space? How do you do it???

15 thoughts on “How do you make a house a home?

  1. to me, what makes a place feel homey is the personal–the photographs of places you’ve been, of special times, the knick knacks of places traveled.
    and the cat fur.

  2. Some colorful curtains, a throw, and pillows help. You can make cheap curtains with fabric @ iron-on tape for hemming and then use ring clips to hang.
    Expedit bookcases from Ikea are cheap and attractive ways to store all the stuff.
    I would look at for ideas as well as
    For inexpensive art, I’ve been known to frame wrapping paper, and Sherry @ has quite a few posts about that.
    You can also by inexpensive canvases at an art store like Michaels and then get sample pots of paint for $2 at Lowes/Home Depot and paint the canvas different solid colors. Hang in a group for a really cool effect.
    I fantasize about being a decorator instead of an engineering professor …

  3. Have some co-workers over for a beer or for the Super Bowl. People generally do not care what type of furniture you have. Just feel good about it and make it a fun event.

  4. I wouldn’t say I’m good at this, either, but it sounds like you’re asking about very basic principles, so here goes. A room needs a focal point: the TV, a picture window, a painting, the bed in a bedroom. Group the furniture so people can sit and both talk to one another and see the focal point. A room will feel really weird if you’ve turned your back on that focus. Unless your rooms are tiny, it’s probably better not to have all the furniture backed up against the wall. Make a group of sofa and chairs out in the middle if they’ll fit. A large-ish coffee table is a good item to have in the middle of such a group of sitting places, and you can use something like a storage trunk or a table specially made for storage so you have somewhere to put all the bits of paper. I do think it would be worth buying a little stuff just to have somewhere to stash the clutter. If nothing else, get some sturdy cardboard boxes and cover them in fabric or contact paper, then use them as end tables/paper stashing boxes.

  5. I agree with the suggestion of a bookcase (you want something tall and narrow) to display tchotchkes and cute odds and ends. I find that art on the walls helps me feel like our tiny, also not-grown-up, also badly furnished apartment feel more beautiful and home-like. I know that you don’t have much money to spend, but when framing prints/photos/whatever, pay for good matting and framing.

  6. In terms of the furniture — step one is probably to clear out the piles of things — then start experimenting with it… put the couch where it “feels” right — then move chairs around it.. live with it for a week or so and see where you and NLLDH actually sit.

  7. I have a color family that basically works in my entire house, that way, when things feel stale I can just shuffle things around a bit and it feels new again. A few things you love can go a long way–maybe a few nice framed photographs you have taken, a vase you like full of fresh flowers, new curtains in the living room and pillows for the couch pillows, maybe a throw for a chair etc. I live in a townhouse, so the bottom floor is kind of one big room. Keeping the same ‘look’ really helps keep our place from looking cluttered and makes it feel larger. You can start by decluttering one room and go from there. We also don’t have a TV downstairs so when people come over they are forced to sit and chat 😉 People comment on that and seem to like it.

  8. I don’t know if I DO do it. We also suffer from The Poverty, so most of what we own was handed down. That doesn’t mean it’s all crap – but it is all old, and doesn’t necessarily match.
    I’ll say what I do, though, bc I do mostly like our living space:
    1. I spend money on attractive storage options (or functional ones that hide in a closet). It’s not much money – a decent basket at Wal Mart is like $8 – but if I find that I always put bills in XYZ spot, and I can’t train myself to put them in a better place, then I find a bill collection system that fits in XYZ spot. Clutter control keeps me sane, and I will invest in it.
    2. I make sure each piece of furniture has adequate lighting, someplace to set a drink or book, and ample space for feet. This has usually meant rearranging, rather than purchasing, but I’m totally down with buying weird stuff and having it serve as a side table. (One example – I spent $3 at an antique store on a crate that was apparently used to ship explosives. It is my husband’s bedside table.)
    3. I remove furniture or accessories that serve no use. Form and function are equally important in my house! If it’s lovely but useless, out it goes! (usually to another room, though occasionally to Goodwill.)

  9. I think the most important thing you can do is pay attention to how you use the space, and decorate accordingly. Make the space work for you — not anyone else, not the Ethan Allen catalog or the IKEA small space showroom, but you. Organize accordingly. (Example: I am a big one for arranging the kitchen so that I don’t have to move when I am unloading the dishwasher.) And get the second Adirondack chair. (We also only have one, a real one, because it was a graduation present from my grandmother from law school, and I can’t afford a second real one.)
    I was blessed with parents who could decorate well with the random pieces they had, which is good, except that I emulate them when I decorate, which is not necessarily good. Having distinct rooms is a great cheat for having different styles of furniture. When we lived in the loft, most of my antiques went into storage because there was no way I could make them work in that space.

  10. Is there some way I can learn how to best arrange furniture for a given space? How do you do it???
    As far as I can tell, you’re either born with this skill, or not. I am not, and much as I like to look at Crate and Barrel or Room and Board catalogs, I’ve never been able to translate my appreciation for certain style into actually being able to decorate my apartment. (And that’s what interior designers are for, I guess, though if you don’t have much money for furniture, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that you don’t have any for a designer, either.)

  11. We only have one deck chair, too. Mike refuses to do something as damnfool as sit out on the back deck.
    Inside, we’re a bit more homey though I need to tackle the growing clutter. But having art on the wall, some sort of area rug on the floor and seating that allows you to see something nice as well as each other? That’s the bare minimum for a homey feel, I’d think.

  12. I do not actually have any suggestions because I am not a natural at this either, but I’ve found that I like to create small spaces that have soothing items for me. And I’ve found that it’s important to pay attention to my view in various places: like i have these really annoying neighbors, and after living in this house for probably two years, I rearranged my reading area so that my chair does not face that direction because just seeing their house sends me some sort of subconscious irritating vibes. i’ve been really slow to “decorate” spaces in our current house where we’ve now been for nearly five years because when we moved, we got rid of *everything* except T&G’s stuff, bookshelves, and our mattresses. After a lot of years of feeling like i’d had my spaces dictated by others who gave me Crap and then dictated also by circumstances (like kid paraphernalia), I wanted to move slowly with replacing everything. I think that I used to also move furniture a lot, and now i tend to let it sit unless I really don’t like it then I try to figure out why before I start moving stuff. I am also very much a minimalist. We definitely don’t have any heavy furniture here either that two of us can’t move, and i actually rearranged a great deal of our common spaces by myself over winter break while at home. I like fountains, too. I find water so soothing. I can hands down say I have the most peaceful personal office in my entire building, and it’s mostly the due to the fountain and the homedics noise maker.
    G is going to paint his room soon for the first time. I am interested to see where he goes with it! 🙂

  13. Read the blog Apartment Therapy. You might want to pick up their book too (Apartment Therapy: The Eight Step Home Cure), which is a little woo-woo at times, but also has some solid advice. Not worth owning, but the library should be able to get it.
    Haunt Craigslist for new (used) furniture at astonishingly cheap prices.
    Also, if you have a friend who’s good at this stuff, invite them over, feed them, and take notes while they tell you what they would do with your space. If you lived in Chicago, I would do this for you — I’m good at it. But I’m guessing you’re not in Chicago!

  14. I second the Apartment Therapy recommendation. That site is a little addictive and has a special section for smaller apartments.
    Also, painting (if you’re allowed to) helps. We painted several rooms and it really helps removing the college-apartment feel from the rooms.

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