This article is by Kassondra Cloos, an Earnest client and freelance journalist.
Finding your new home and signing the papers might be the hard part, but figuring out how to decorate it just so isn’t exactly easy, either. So we asked interior designer Christina Tello, of Portland-based Tello Interiors, where to start.
Tello does both residential and hospitality work and recently designed the interior of the unique Atticus Hotel in McMinnville, Oregon, which just opened earlier this year. Even on a budget, Tello, and architect, Nathan Cooprider, managed to add old-school character to a brand-new building with salvaged materials and vintage-inspired fixtures.
We asked Tello how to really stretch a dollar, how to figure out what you want, and how to make your new house into a home.
OK, so you have an empty house—a blank slate. Where do you even begin?
That is the joy of the design process. Typically I start with sketches and show clients examples of other spaces. I ask, “Is this making you comfortable?”
I have like a million secret Pinterest boards and kind of just dump things there for different clients. Before I share them, I filter through them and create a final board that’s more narrowed down. I don’t just look at images of whole living rooms—I’ll pin photos of seven different chandeliers I’m considering, along with their prices. Once I see where the budget is settling out, I’ll know which one of those chandeliers is the right price.
I’ve worked with a lot of first-time home buyers, where they have to furnish the whole house. I don’t want to say there’s no cheap way to do it, but it does all add up. Especially with Pinterest, a lot of people see all these spaces and want a super polished, high-style look, which is a budget challenge.
The answer is sometimes phasing the work. Focus on your living room first, for example—after you get a bed. You have to have a bed. Tackle the spaces that you’re going to get the most use out of, and then prioritize the money and design. It’s OK if your guest bedroom has a futon for a while.
Hiring an interior designer can actually help you with the budgeting phase, to set realistic expectations about how much things are going to cost. I think designers actually save money—not everyone does this, but I pass on a lot of my trade discounts to my clients.
Aside from Pinterest, are there any other tools that are helpful in the design process?
This is not going to sound fun, but the most important tool really is creating a budget. I use Google Docs and I share a budget template with clients.
“This is not going to sound fun, but the most important tool really is creating a budget. ”
It’s important to take ownership of your own budget. It’s your money and your final decision. Sometimes I ask, “So, would you ever pay $4,000 for a sofa?” And then the client says, “No way! I would never pay more than $2,000 for a sofa.” That’s a great thing to know ahead of time.
Like anything in life, having a budget motivates you. It can help you push back against people when they give you numbers that don’t work. You can say, “I want to work with you, but I only have $100 for a chair. So, what can we do?”
When should you save, and when should you splurge?
You should splurge on the pieces that you’re going to interact with the most, like your sofa. Your sofa needs to be comfortable, not just aesthetically pleasing. I don’t think you should buy more than two or three sofas in your lifetime. You should really just buy one quality sofa and keep it forever. Tables, on the other hand, are so easy to find at thrift stores. I mean, you can get a table for almost any price point, and if it’s solid wood, it’s going to last.
How can you stretch your budget for art?
One of the best ideas we had for the Atticus was that we decided to ask artists if they would share their process sketches with us. Through those conversations, we came across some of their journals and these charcoal nude studies, which the artist was willing to sell for like $20 because they hadn’t been planning to sell them at all.
We paired real oil paintings with these studies that were more like sketches. In your home, maybe you have one piece of “real” art, like an original piece you splurged on. You can pair that with something more informal.
Black and white photography is always a great budget move, too. IKEA has these cool, 20 by 20 square frames. Framing any black and white photo in those looks totally custom.
Vintage and Goodwill stores also have tons of framed art. If you like the art, great—but if not, take the frame and use it for something else that’s meaningful to you.
What’s the best way to find unique, vintage pieces at affordable prices?
Get up early and go to estate sales this summer. You can furnish your whole house with other people’s stuff for a great price. If you get to have a personal conversation with the person selling it to you, tell them you’re a young couple and just bought a house. If they connect with you emotionally, you can get some great deals. People are happy to help you out.
It’s astonishing how local you were able to go at The Atticus. You found mattresses, furniture, light fixtures, tiles, and even wallpaper made in Oregon, much of it in the local community. In your experience, is it typically more budget-friendly to go local?
It can be, but not always. Certainly, you can find a cheaper chair made in China, from wayfair.com. But would you keep it for the rest of your life? If you look at, like, your lifetime budget for chairs, the next thing you know, you got rid of that $100 chair from Wayfair and bought something else. Collectively, you’re wasting money that you could have used buy one classic, heirloom-quality thing and kept for the rest of your life. Local quality that you keep for longer can save you money over time. But you probably have to be willing to put out more money initially.
“Local quality that you keep for longer can save you money over time. But you probably have to be willing to put out more money initially.”
Do you have a lifetime chair budget for yourself?
Ha! Well, I’ve only bought one sofa in my life. It’s definitely an heirloom. It’s a Herman Miller Goetz, black leather with walnut, and I love it. I coveted it for years and years, and I saved money to buy it. I’ve had it for 12 years and I still love it. I’m never getting rid of it. I hope to pass it on to my children one day.
Header photo credit: Sionnie LaFollette