Around The House, Recession Decorating for the Holidays and Everyday

Conspicuous consumption is out of fashion this year. I think this is going to be the year I finally make good on my promise to myself to resist the temptation of getting caught up in the rampant materialism of the Christmas season.

Who can’t help but be sobered by the constant barrage of reporting on the collapse of the economy, the layoffs, the credit crunch – there seems to be no end to the bad news and it just doesn’t inspire that expansive holiday shopping spirit. As a society, we’ve been on a consumerist binge – recklessly buying homes we couldn’t afford, driving enormous, inefficient cars, and investing in complex financial instruments that defy common sense (credit default swaps anyone?) and now, while it’s painful to watch the suffering it is causing, it’s inevitable that a period of over- ebullient expansion will be followed by a contraction.

Silver Lining

For me, the silver lining in this cloud is that in the 1990’s downturn, people traveled less, went out less and spent more time at home. The buzzword was "cocooning" and I foresee that we may see the same phenomenon in the near future – at least those of us who still have homes to cocoon in.

For the interior design profession, the benefit of the cocooning phenomenon in the 90s was that since people were spending more time at home, they, more than ever, wanted their homes to be more comfortable and beautiful. Justifiably, money was spent on renovations and improvements. These days, with the real estate market tanking, it may be harder to justify big renovations. If you’re planning a big renovation, you might ask yourself how much you really need. Rather than adding on to the house, maybe you can re-arrange the use of the rooms you have, re-purpose your existing furniture and mine the closets and attic for forgotten treasures. Re-allocating the space, recovering some furniture and investing in a fresh paint job can work wonders. If you’re not happy with your current space, the worst thing to do is to do nothing – we need beauty and we need to periodically change the energy in our environments to lift our spirits and keep us hopeful.

One Couple’s Story

This is the year to celebrate what we already have – most of us probably have more than we realize. The current mantra might be "use what you have; change what you can." I recently did a consultation for an empty nester couple who live in a two-bedroom apartment and really wanted a kitchen renovation but just didn’t feel comfortable spending the money. So, instead of focusing on possibly renovating the kitchen in the indefinite future, we turned our attention to what we could do right now for little or no budget and came up with a plan to streamline and re-decorate their apartment that used almost exclusively the items they already owned. We also identified some possessions that could be sold (including a piano) to defray the cost of painting the walls and re-finishing the floors.

When I left, the husband and wife each had an itemized decorating "to-do list" and a deadline to accomplish each item. While the longed-for kitchen renovation was out of the question, they realized what they could do to re-invigorate their tired space in other ways and they were energized to do it. They started calling me "The Design Coach."

Although I’m loathe to admit it, you don’t necessarily need a professional to accomplish this kind of re-patterning; what you need is an open mind and a willingness to change. Maybe you know someone who has a knack for design – bringing in a fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable in re-evaluating your space. Years ago, I taught interior design workshops to homeowners. The attendees were almost exclusively women and I would have them partner with each other to work on their projects. By the end of the workshop series, most of the women were having so much fun pursuing their projects and collaborating together that they continued the partnership well after the workshops were over. So, if you don’t have the budget for a design professional, find yourself a "design buddy."


The concept of simplifying life in general has been gaining a large following in recent years. Household Organizing has become a profession in itself – helping people to discard useless belongings, systematize their daily routines and organize their stuff. Feng Shui consultants agree that the first step toward change is to rid one’s house of clutter. Magazines like "Real Simple" and "Natural Home" are now chic mainstream publications and websites on simplicity abound: one of the better ones is Wanda Urbanska’s I like Wanda in that she counsels that no effort made to simplify your life or save the planet is too small. Carry re-usable grocery bags, walk to work, and use cloth napkins – it all helps.

Holiday Decorating – Use what you have Holiday Cards: make a tree out of them. This is easy: Find some fallen branches and bunch them together to make a large "bouquet." Put the bouquet in a large pitcher or vase – you may have to lodge some pebbles around it to make it stable. Whenever you receive a holiday card in the mail, punch a hole in the corner and hang it on the branches with some colorful ribbon. Other festive ornaments and ribbons can be added to the bouquet if you wish!

Gift Tags: With a little planning you can make beautiful tags with just a little effort (if you wrap your gifts in the car on the way to the party this won’t work.) You will need some card stock or construction paper, scissors, and glue. If you have saved last year’s holiday cards, you are in luck: simply cut out pieces of them and glue on to cut pieces of the construction paper or card stock and attach a piece of colorful ribbon. Voila! – an original gift card. You can also use postcards, photos, rubber stamps, magazine photos – use your imagination. If you’re ambitious, you can glue buttons, glitter, rick rack or whatever strikes your fancy.

Christmas Trees: As with most decorating, the secret to a fabulous Christmas tree is lighting; don’t stint on the Christmas lights – they bring the tree alive. Nothing is more magical than a well-lit tree in a dimly lit room accompanied by a fire in the fireplace. Use all of your old favorite ornaments, but to make a really striking tree you will need a unifying element. It can be as simple as lots of shimmering tinsel or it can be as labor- intensive as festooning the tree with ropes of cranberry and popcorn (takes forever to string it). A multitude of one kind of ornament can work too – shiny ones especially create more life.

Gifts: Homemade goodies are always welcome; check out your closets for items you can re-gift (I’m shameless when it comes to that), and trade services with your good friends and family: babysitting, cooking, and errand-running are popular, but be as creative as you wish. Present your service on one of your beautiful homemade gift cards.

Make this the year to celebrate the true meaning of the holidays.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at
37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau