Design on a Shoestring: High, Low and Eccentric
- The New York Times, 05/28/2009

RUSSELL LEWIS, a 37-year-old graphic designer, really liked his one-bedroom apartment in Leigh-on-Sea, a fishing village an hour east of London. It was hardly extravagant — a rubber plant, a fish tank and an old recliner were his main possessions. But the apartment, on the first floor of a white-brick town house, is uphill from the ocean and offered plenty of light.

Then his girlfriend moved in.

“It was dreadful,” said the girlfriend, Gemma Ahern, 36, recalling the mildewed bathroom, mushroom-brown carpet and outdated kitchen. “It was very much a bachelor pad.”

Luckily, Ms. Ahern had recently switched jobs; she had been a freelance florist, then became a design assistant at her sister’s home furnishing and interior design shop in London, called Atelier Abigail Ahern.

Short on cash, the couple tinkered with the apartment in stages. They tore out the musty carpet, tossed the plants and donated the beat-up armchair to a recycling center. Borrowing hand-me-downs from Ms. Ahern’s parents, they also experimented with different furniture, like vintage wrought-iron chairs and a Muji couch.

But no matter what they tried, the sterile white walls and bland kitchen still brought to mind a bachelor pad. Nothing short of a total makeover, they decided, would do. So they pooled their savings — about £6,500, or $10,300 — to overhaul the entire 1,200-square-foot apartment, starting in May 2007.

With so tight a budget, they started by using every designer’s money-saving tool: fresh paint. Choosing a dark, almost funereal color by the British paint company Farrow & Ball called Down Pipe, they transformed the lifeless walls and the floors into a dramatic, lead-gray backdrop.

“Dark paint really cozies up a space, making rooms look far more luxurious and sophisticated than they really are,” said Abigail Ahern, who picked the color and is known for mixing upscale designer pieces with salvaged vintage finds.

Next, the couple dressed up the kitchen. They replaced the white cabinet doors with slender plywood panels bought at a hardware store and painted ocean blue. And for furniture, they bought an old dining table for £30 ($48) at a flea market in West Sussex and spray-painted it glossy black.

The new kitchen cost just £1,000 (about $1,600) — half of which was spent on a hand-blown black glass lamp from Prandina, an Italian lighting company, that hangs over the eating nook. “One or two really wild pieces make everything come together,” Gemma Ahern said.

The whimsical mix of high and low is also on view in the den, where a designer chandelier made of recycled glass hangs over a window seat with views of the tree-lined street. The deer skull above the fireplace, also a flea market find, is a wry reference to the old English manor house cliché.

The bedroom also got the high-low treatment, with an elegant ballroom chandelier and a large Australian bus sign found on eBay. In the bathroom, a new shower was decorated with clay-colored mosaic tiles.

It was a joint effort. Mr. Lewis lent his streetwise, urban sensibility to the mix. In the living room, he hung colorful prints by the street artists Dicy from England and C215 from France. He also created a kind of graffiti collage in the bedroom, layering spray paint and cutouts from newspapers and magazines. It was designed to evoke the surfaces of London train tunnels, crusted with wheat paste.

By the time the renovations were completed last December, all traces of the bachelor pad were gone. “There’s not a single element that we didn’t discuss and spend time together finding,” Mr. Lewis said. “Now it really feels like our space.”