“Ask Five” is a series where I periodically conduct a 5-question Q&A with experts in home decor, crafting and DIY.
Today’s Ask Five is with designer, TV host and DIY expert Kristan Cunningham. After running showrooms, working with several well-known designers, and working at a small upscale firm in L.A., Kristan competed on HGTV’s “Designer’s Challenge” in 2001. A year later she joined HGTV’s “Design on a Dime” team, kicking off their first of ten seasons, and later served as judge and mentor on “HGTV’s $250,000 Challenge” and “Bang For Your Buck.” She is also known for her role as resident design guru on the “Rachael Ray Show,” and has since served as the go-to designer for several talk shows. Her work has been featured in several top publications, and her own personal homes have graced the pages of The Los Angeles Times, ranking among the top 20 most-viewed homes.
Kristan currently serves as host, mentor and judge on the competition series “Super Saver Showdown,” premiering July 20th on OWN. For more info, check out KristanCunningham.com. You can also find Kristan on Facebook and Twitter.
I hope you’ll enjoy our Q&A — Kristan definitely has a lot of great design wisdom to share. I’ve thrown in some of her home photos featured in The Los Angeles Times as eye candy for you. Enjoy!
What are some tips for creating a designer look on a shoestring budget?
If you purchase a living room in one weekend, it’ll likely look like it, no matter how much you spend. The most beautiful spaces are the ones that feel curated and collected vs. bought and, like it or not, this takes time. Nothing falls flatter — or looks cheaper — than a room outfitted with matching pieces and limited materials.
A tried and true “recipe” for a beautiful room is to stick with a strict color palette and then layer, layer, layer, good God, layer the textures and materials. Shiny with rusty, polished with chipped, nubby with smooth and modern with classic. You can elevate the look of a few simple box store pieces — like the white IKEA Klippin sofa, a seagrass rug from Pier1 and a big ol’ dining table from Cost Plus — by layering vintage pieces on top. If your coffee table is wood, pair it with mismatched metal end tables. If your main reading lamp is industrial, counterbalance it with a pretty ceramic vintage number wearing a crisp new shade.
Point is, if you keep your big ticket items pretty utilitarian and straightforward, don’t invest too heavily in one style, and maintain a chaos-free color scheme, you can add to and massage a space forever without it ever looking fussy or contrived. Things don’t need to be expensive to add value to your space. They just need to tell a story about the person who lives there.
|Living Room in Kristan’s L.A. home|
What are a few “treasure-hunting” tips for someone who is new to shopping at flea markets or thrift stores?
The biggest difference between those who score at flea markets and those who walk away empty-handed is the ability to see items in their ultimate context. It’s very hard to recognize a piece as valuable or pretty when it’s sitting on a table, surrounded by some of the ugliest tchotchkies in all the land, covered in dust. I’ve disregarded things at flea markets only to see them at high-end vintage shops later on and fall madly in love with them there. Infuriating!!! It’s all about the context that you see something in. Tacky things become tasteful when they live with other tasteful things. So, silly or simple as it sounds, it’s important to laser focus on an item — pick it up and truly visualize it in your space, paired with other beautiful things. But most importantly, trust your instincts. If you run over to something because it spoke to you, it’ll make you happy every time you see it. You’re the boss of your home, and if you love it, it’s a treasure.
|Kristan’s Cozy Breakfast Room|
Which items in a room are best to “DIY,” and which should you plan on purchasing?
I’ve always said that you should only make things that will be inherently more beautiful as a result of being handmade — if it’ll up the character quality. A good rule of thumb is to DIY if the end result is supposed to have an emphasis on the materials; ie, if you’re taking on an art piece and you’re not an artist, go abstract. The texture of the paint lines and the “movement” of the composition can wind up looking totally legit, but don’t attempt to letter your kid’s name in a fancy typeface for their room if lettering isn’t your specialty. It’ll wind up looking “homemade” instead of “handmade,” “cheap” instead of “inexpensive” and, let’s be honest, we all want everything we own to look super money.
And, by the way, it’s not always less expensive to do it yourself — especially when you’re learning as you go along, so you absolutely have to recognize the boundaries of your skill set and be honest about what you can responsibly take on. I’m the first one to jump behind anyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and learn, but when it comes to things like wiring, or building heavy pieces that can crash down on someone, safety has to come before enthusiasm.
|Kristan’s Third Floor Home Office|
When designing a room, which items should be top priority in terms of budget?
Always purchase the best sofa, chairs and bed you can afford. The rest of your home can be a nice marriage of the “well made/well designed” pieces and the “crappily made, but it’s so beautiful it doesn’t matter” stuff (and, by the way, you can and should take your sweet time sourcing all of the pretties — the art, accessories, etc.), but the pieces that you sit your tush in and spend hours atop of should be quality. Your back and body in general will thank you for the investment. And since these are the pieces that take up the most visual real estate and the biggest part of your budget, it’s important to go classic and steer away from trends. It’s easy to reinvent your space with new pillows and a few accessories every few years if you’re working around a charcoal square armed sofa. A white lacquered empire sofa, upholstered in blue mohair — not so much. Not that the latter has ever happened to me.
|Master Bedroom in Kristan’s home|
What are some of your favorite sources for finding design inspiration?
I know that “folks in the know” always say travel, but let’s be honest — most of us work like crazy to be able to afford to travel, but don’t travel because we’re so busy working. The good news? Inspiration is literally everywhere, but you have to train yourself/remind yourself/force yourself to catalog it in a way that’s actually useful to you and the way you work creatively.
Personally, my head is way too full of everyday stuff to see a vignette I love and tell myself, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I’ll have to remember that,” and then actually mentally file in a place that I can find it. I take pictures on my phone of EV.ER.Y.THING, and I try to be as literal as possible with my shot about what struck me as interesting in the first place. I was in a cab in NYC a few months ago sitting in traffic, and happened to be stopped next to the most beautifully rusted piece of celadon green steel, so I took a close-up of an area where all of the colors intertwined. The shades of rust/ochre mixed with the jadey green was divine, and I’m planning on building a whole room around that scheme. Having those ideas on my phone at all times means I have an idea library right at my fingertips, so when I sit down to design, going through my photos is priority one, and it works every time.
|Second Floor Hallway in Kristan’s Home|