In an ideal world, we would all be proud owners of our dream iconic chairs. We would own sprawling extra-deep sectional sofas and designer dining tables. Our homes would be cool and edgy with just the slightest hint of tradition. Just like a perfect street style outfit, our space would balance timeless classics, statement pieces, and chic basics effortlessly. But in reality, our limited budgets mean that we sometimes have to make do with a few less-than-stellar pieces in our homes: a dresser straight from grandma's attic, a sofa that used to belong to our parents' basement, or a chair that was picked up for a song at a garage sale.
In the worst scenarios, these pieces stick out like a sore thumb—clashing with everything else we own and ruining our entire design scheme. But this is no excuse to declare defeat—with just a few clever hacks, it's possible to blend these lackluster pieces into a room so seamlessly, they might even become a favorite. To get some insight on how to work hand-me-downs into a room before throwing them out (it's almost Earth Day, after all), we turned to a group of talented interior designers who have more than a few DIY tricks up their sleeves. Don't kick that old dresser to the curb just yet; these experts have all the right tricks to give it a fresh new life.
Refinish a Worn Dresser
When it comes to refinishing old furniture, you'll usually come across two types of people: those who DIY and those who don't. "I buy vintage dressers and cabinets from estate sales all the time and refinish them myself," says interior designer Max Humphrey. "It takes some practice, but sanding it down and spraying on a fresh coat of shiny paint isn't as hard as it looks. I used to paint with a brush by hand, but I invested in a simple paint spray gun, and it makes the finish so much more consistent and hides brush strokes.
I love these sort of DIY projects because re-using vintage furniture is a way to be sustainable in your home décor decisions."
Designer Brady Tolbert is also of the DIY camp, but he warns against going too bold in paint choices: "I have painted and repainted dressers too many times to count, but it has taught me that bright colors or what you think might be fun may not actually work with the piece. Pay attention to what else you have going on in the room, and opt for a more neutral color for the dresser."
In the other camp, there are people who like to leave this work to the professionals: "While I have always admired people that can DIY on the weekends, refurbishing old pieces and making them shine like new, I know that it's just not for me," says interior designer Katie Hodges. "I suggest visiting a flea market and getting a quote from a vendor who rehabs vintage pieces. I've done this several times for myself and clients on a budget, and I have found the pricing to be more reasonable than the brick-and-mortar refinishing shops."
TV personality and interior designer Emily Henderson agrees that some jobs are best left to the pros: "If the piece has good bones and solid construction, it can be refinished professionally for a couple hundred dollars depending on the size and the amount of detail it has. It may be more expensive than doing it yourself, but I've been so happy with the pieces that we have had redone."
Reupholster an Old Sofa
"If budget allows, I would work an unloved hand-me-down sofa or chair into a room by having it reupholstered," says Humphrey. "There's tons of well-made old furniture out there with good bones that can get a whole new life with some snappy, fresh fabric. You don't need to buy designer fabric either; I go to fabric warehouses and buy second-run fabric for a few dollars per yard all the time."
Finding an upholsterer can be tricky, but Humphrey has found the secret to getting the job done right through trial and error: "The key is being very specific in your design direction," he says. "This can mean specifying the size of the welt, cushion fill options, the direction the fabric should run, and the tufting options. Sometimes you can save a few dollars by using the existing seat and back cushion inserts—as long as they aren't grody. Occasionally, having a slipcover made can be more cost-effective, and you can remove it for easy washing."
Hide With Chic Textiles
For anything upholstered, from sofas to chairs, and even headboards, designers know the value of throwing a quality fabric over a problem piece: "The easiest and quickest way to give a sofa some new life without reupholstery is to drape a vintage textile over the back to help bring it into the scheme of the room," says Henderson.
"My first instinct is to reupholster a sofa if it has good shape and lines, but having been on the 'hand-me-down train' myself, I know that it’s often not a reality," adds Hodges. "If you don't love the fabric, drape a textile or tapestry on the most visible area (front or back), and layer in pillows. Don't focus too much on the one thing that you don't love in the room, and just roll with it." Humphrey sometimes goes a step further by tucking the fabric around the cushions to really wrap the piece: "I like to use suzanis because they're fun and colorful."
Edit Your Color Palette
"Mixing different styles or pieces from different time periods can work well in a room," says Houston-based interior designer Paloma Contreras. "The key element is that you need to have something that helps tie all the elements together, such as a cohesive color palette. Textiles, such as pillows, throws, and rugs, are an easy way to pull everything together."
In fact, most designers we spoke to stressed the importance of sticking to a strict color palette: "The biggest mistake people often make is not having a consistent color palette," says Tolbert. "Different styles can be easily mixed throughout a room as long as they have a good color story throughout that isn't too jarring on the eyes." To achieve this coherent look, Hodges recommends picking two or three colors that complement the space and layering various design elements like pillows, blankets, books, and artwork to drive the theme.
"A unified color scheme amid random furniture bridges the style gaps and looks intentional."
Create a Focal Point
Creating a focal point on a single vintage piece (or away from another) can also help in working hand-me-downs into a room. "A bold statement can divert the eye away from the least favorite pieces of furniture in a room," says Hodges. "Use a large tree, a colorful painting, a gallery wall, or a wallpapered accent wall to establish the focal point, and use accessories carefully to support the leading role."
When playing with multiple pieces, Henderson warns against mixing and matching too carelessly: "Keep in mind the styles of the pieces and scale as you begin to mix and match. As long as you keep scale and style in mind, you can have fun mixing things up."
Throw Pillows on It
It may seem obvious, but a good mix of pillows can help hide almost any piece of furniture. "If you are working with a more limited budget, a quick fix is to add new throw pillows to the sofa," says Contreras. "I love to change throw pillows seasonally to freshen up a space." Tolbert agrees: "If the piece has good bones and is in a neutral color, accessorizing it with some new pillows to help blend it into the room is a quick and easy update—just remember to bring in some other vintage items into the room to help balance out the sofa so it's not the only old thing in the room."
If All Else Fails, Donate
Despite our best intentions, some pieces simply cannot be salvaged. "If your piece is in good condition consider donating it to a local charity," says Henderson. "There are a lot of local homes, missions, and charities in your own neighborhood that often get looked over because people donate to the larger organizations out there. A lot of them will even come to your place to pick them up." This is a great solution for those who are time-poor. "I am a huge fan of the Salvation Army's program for recycling furniture," adds Hodges.
Pickup is often provided, and its program is funded solely on the generosity of individuals who donate goods to be sold in their stores."
If you're looking to make a few dollars to go toward a replacement piece, Tolbert recommends Craigslist, Chairish, and eBay. "It keeps my inner hoarder from taking over too much real estate in my small apartment and also allows me to switch things out pretty regularly when I find a new piece that I love."
Next up: Here's the deal on living sustainably (without being totally granola).