Category Archives: Blog

Shopping in a Recession

Recently I went to a swap meet (AKA flea market, open air market, etc.).

A friend of mine who is a rather savvy shopper met me there. I made off with a TON of goods for great prices and truly one-of-a-kind pieces that no one else will ever have.

Several hours, sunburned shoulders and a FIVE dollar cup of lemonade later, I was in a chipper mood, ready to take my leave and re-explore my newly found objects d’ art!

A basket purchased while junking, becomes a great recycling bin that is also decorative!

My friend, on the other hand, was deflated.

Later that night, I asked how she enjoyed herself. She told me she felt overwhelmed by everything, and even when she found something she liked she had a nagging suspicion she was being ripped off.

As a designer I am always mentally recording cost vs. quality. When I go to a swap meet, or any second-hand shopping, (my mother would refer to this as “junking”) I am armed with an extraordinary sense of a good deal. That is my job, my duty to the client.

I realized that some basic guidelines would really help someone who is a new shopper, or an old shopper new to the swap meet game.

A table found on the side of the road becomes a great occasional table under a Papier Mache rhino head found at Anthropolgie.

A desk found at a swap meet doubles as a dining table in a small apartment.

A table found on the side of the road becomes a great occasional table under a Papier Mache rhino head found at Anthropolgie.
1. Monthly swap meets tend to draw a more seasoned veteran of sales than a weekly swap meet does. This is because they generally have shops that they run during the week and they get a better clientele from a monthly. Having said that, you will likely pay a higher premium at say, The Rosebowl, than you would The Rodium. But – the tradeoff is higher-quality merchandise sold by a professional who has a discerning eye.

2. When going to a swap meet for things you actually need, as opposed to pleasure browsing, ALWAYS make a list and bring it with you. I find the easiest way to do this is by making notes on my phone throughout the month. I add to it regularly and by the time my choice of swap meets rolls around I have a really good list!

3. Have measurements on hand (on your list is best). For example, if you need a side table, a couch, a head board, include the maximum and minimum amounts of space you have allocated to the piece of furniture.

A desk found at a swap meet doubles as a dining table in a small apartment.
4. Do some internet research to get a general idea of pricing on the items you want to buy and add this information to your list.

5. The best people to buy from at a swap meet are those who are in the same place time and time again, even if they are a little higher priced than another guy – if you have an issue you know right where to find them and they tend to be very interested in making sure you come back again and again!

6. Haggle, dicker, wheel and deal, and join in all the other varying forms of asking for a better deal. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for a lower price. The people who are at a swap meet are fully cognizant that they aren’t Bloomingdale’s (although my husband has been known to haggle a better price even on 5th Avenue).

7. Don’t mistake a swap meet for a yard sale. It isn’t one. These are professionals who make their living selling merchandise that they have either purchased and are selling for a profit or have found and restored in some way. I say that because you cannot expect to pay a buck oh five for everything at a swap meet. Some of the spaces cost upwards of $200 for the day alone!

8. Finally, enjoy yourself, take in all the sights, people watch, and bring your own water and lemonade!!


I recently completed a commercial office for a client. In doing so, I realized that there is a multitude to know about finishes for wood. I thought I would share some insight and information on this topic.

First off, there are a variety of sealants, stains, finishes, etc., to protect wood. None are exactly alike so don’t be fooled to think that you can start with one finish product and if you run out go back to a store to get more of the same, as they may not have it!

For example, Tung oil, a nice finishing oil that is easy to apply, leaves the wood in a similar color tone to what it was originally is not sold in supplies of more than a quart these days due to environmental issues.

There is a “wax” finish, which when applied has to be buffed to a very smooth glossy finish to really protect the surface. The brand I use most is Briwax, it has a bee wax base and goes on smoothly and without mess.

There is a Danish Oil which goes on nicely, spreads smoothly, it dries fairly glossy, which if you like, is nice!

And of course, there are the usual polyurethanes that come in a multitude of finishes, Minwax makes a stain and sealer in one, which is a time saver.

Reuse, Reclaim, Recycle… The New 3 R’s

With the controversy of Global Warming, whether you believe it or not, it certainly shouldn’t prevent you from reusing goods in the home. I recall in the eye popping book by Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World, one of the main concepts in the “New World” was to never recycle anything. It gives one the idea of a stratosphere of rubbish floating around in outer space, so much for starry nights…

I know I have said it before, but I always donate anything of value to a local charity rather than putting into the trash.

Recently, I started a design project for an office renovation and I discovered beautiful old wood behind walls that needed to be removed to make way for other things. My contractor and I, both having an eye for the art of reclamation put our heads together and decided to reuse some of that old timber.

We saved a substantial amount of wood from the early 1900′s. And the best part? We saved the client hundreds of dollars that he would have had to spend to get what we gave him out of his old walls!

I realized that there are things that don’t really get factored into reusing the old until you really look at it. So I thought I would give the savings of the reusable goods: the cost of wood, the cost of transporting the wood, the cost of the people to stock the wood, the cost of the drive to the store to procure the wood, the cost of the dump run to remove the wood from the property… I mean it goes on and on, not to mention the eco-footprint one saves in reclamation!

Also, the grade of wood from the early 1900′s is truly incomparable. It is magnificent to look at and feel! When it is all done I will post a picture.

It is a growing trend to use recycled materials, I hope it is a trend that lasts to the end of time! Not like big hair or neon t-shirts!

Make Pretty Happen!

New Flooring

After talking to multiple flooring experts, contractors, craftsmen etc., I have concluded simply one thing:

Hardwood flooring is hardwood flooring. While there are a multitude of different woods, and there are a number grades of quality, if you go with a nice quality it actually doesn’t much matter if it is engineered or conventional hardwood.

In fact, one of the kitchen experts I spoke to insists engineered is the way to go because it is more durable in that the finish is usually “fired on” or “baked on”, so it is a harder finish which means it will wear better.

So, what is “engineered flooring”? It is  several layers of wood glued and laminated together to form a wood plank. They range in thickness from 1/4″ to just over a half inch. One of the great things about engineered floors is that it can  be installed almost anywhere, including over concrete, and doesn’t require the plywood or other flex layer that traditional hardwood requires.

It is even suitable for kitchens and comes in beautiful finishes.

Another plus is that there are no harsh chemicals used inside the home to seal the flooring because it is pre-finished outside the home! The glue can be stinky that they use to adhere it though!

I would love some questions about finishes, grades of wood, types of wood, etc!

Make Pretty Happen!

‘Tis the Season!

This year I went with an unusual palette for Christmas.

My wrapping and decor is lime green, turquoise, red, pink, white, and silver. I have to say I LOVE IT!

In doing this, I realized people sometimes feel if there isn’t exact traditional coloring it isn’t as valid or workable, but really, decor for the season is about what makes you feel good! The one thing that IS tradition for us is to use our MANY homemade Christmas ornaments no matter what colors we do the house and tree in. That will always be a mainstay in our home.

I snapped a shot of the wrapping and a vase with some balls that I like to display. It is not a great shot – photography is not my expertise – but it does show how very festive even an unusual color can be!

Back Camera
For my labels, I despise the way gift tags look, I  printed B&W photos of each person (several for kids who will get more than one gift), onto round labels and affixed them to the hang tags, then I added an inexpensive ornament to finish the package. You can see one of them that says “Joy” in this photo.

I like to take normal items for the season, like pine cones, or plastic icicles, and spray paint them in the same color scheme that I have going to keep the traditional nostalgia, but give it an updated fun twist.

Holidays can be a great way to make your home feel different with decorating and it doesn’t have to be thousands of dollars to make it fantastic or unique!

Make Pretty Happen!

How to Keep the Perfect Home

The other day a friend came over and said to me “How do you keep your house clean all the time?!”

I laughed. Then I pointed out that I have a three-year-old and there are only momentary points in any given day where there are no messes in my house. Generally there are Legos, Tonkas, and a variety of other big toys, and little, strewn from one end to the other!

She told me that every time she comes over, even unannounced, the house always looks orderly and put together.

Ahhh, I know why that is: because I have a place for everything I own. EVERYTHING. If I don’t have a place for it I know that the home God clearly did not want me to have it. That is why my house is always orderly. And, as a designer, I always bear this in mind when designing for a client. Does everything have a place? If no, do they need it? If yes, make a place for it!!

Let me ‘splain: I have a fetish for fabulous pitchers. Years ago I had the most beautiful pink Depression Glass pitcher with a very feminine shape and someone dropped it. Ever since I have been buying this one and that in hopes it will somehow make up for the broken one. Alas, it never does!

So I came to realize that the second to last pitcher I bought (which is a deep crimson, fat bottomed, round, dotted delight) at a yard sale was the last space I had in my pitcher cabinet… Sorrow owned me.

I then made an affirmation that IF I HAD to buy a new pitcher I would just have to give up an old one! Easy enough. Mostly.

In my mind, I have an inventory of my pitchers and I basically weigh the potential new candidate against the inventory. If it seems a good trade I take the plunge! And my house stays clutter free! I do this with most things in my house.

The great news is, my girlfriends’ have the joy of receiving my pitchers that have out grown the cabinet. Last week I gave away a celery toned Italian pitcher and my friend was in heaven because she could fill it with hydrangea! Oish – now I want it back!

Make Pretty Happen!

The Quest for the Perfect Kitchen

Recently I surveyed dozens of people about their kitchens, likes, loves, dislikes, hates, in my quest for the perfect kitchen for a design project I am doing.

The most outstanding dislike was: Not enough storage space!! Resoundingly the number one complaint about kitchens, no doubt! Whether the cabinets are too high, not deep enough, not wide enough, or just plainly – not enough!

The least wanted item: A second dishwasher for entertaining, even those who would have entertaining as one of the priorities in their life would rather have more storage than a second dishwasher!

I found that pot racks are a MUST! Those who didn’t have them wanted them, those who had them love them! A tiny percentage felt they were untidy… Not mine!

So, here is some of my own advice about the perfect kitchen.

1. Be innovative, almost no one had a compost container and no one had a built-in composting bin, which is a small circular bin with a carbon filter, like one you would get at a Fish Store, cut out and shoved into the top of the bin which has tiny holes to let the food waste “breathe”. It should be used like a built in rubbish bin. I like this one for counter top:|hkgtrsrcy and they have replacement filters.

Composting, which is to say, collecting food waste (no animal products, please) separately from other waste and either having a composter somewhere out of the house or putting the food waste into your “green waste” bin provided in many cities, by the city, will cut down on land fill waste anywhere from 35% to 85%.

2. Build in a recycling bin for bottles, cans and plastics, it will force you to recycle. I am not trying to be too granola girl here, but it is about the planet for our children and future generations and it makes a HUGE difference! The movie Idiocracy (which isn’t a word- which is even funnier) shows these massive trash heaps everywhere, and truly, it could happen!! So recycle!

3. When thinking of a new kitchen, the counter top is the MOST USED space in the kitchen, if you are going to splurge on anything, splurge on a solid stone counter top. It is more cost effective in the long run than tile and it is far easier to keep clean which cuts down on illness causing bacteria growth in grout lines. There are multiple choices for solid surfaces in a variety of budgets, go to your local hardware store and peruse! You will undoubtedly find something you love!

4. Attend a Kitchen and Bath Expo, they are held in major cities several times a year, this is where you can get FANTASTIC ideas that are ingenious, innovative and totally new! A designer or contractor can help to locate shows for you and arrange for purchases after the show!

Make Pretty Happen!


Should it Stay or Should it Go Now…

I have been asked lately by clients “Do you think I should keep the ____ or should I throw it out?”

Well, first, I am a die hard believer in throwing out only actual TRASH, the old addage, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is a mantra of mine. So, especially in these times, don’t can it, Goodwill it! The Goodwill, or Salvation Army not only helps to save the planet by recycling our used goods, but they also provide jobs for people who might otherwise be in the Welfare system.

I digress, so, here is the rule: If you don’t A. Love it B. Have a sentimental attachment to it or C. Need it for a specific purpose, get rid of it!

A kludgey house is a messy house.  Pare things down when possible, because if it doesn’t fall into one of the above categories it likely doesn’t contribute to your design aesthetic and therefore doesn’t need to be a part of your world.

If you have a piece that is a necessity in your life, but you don’t love it, do yourself a favor and add it to your “Dreality” binder (see blog #1) as an item you want to replace with something as useful, but more to your taste. Then, in your travels you can pick up something that is cost friendly and something you love!

Make Pretty Happen!

Melinda Brownstone

Home Beauty on a Budget

In today’s society our home reflects our personal style almost as much as the clothing we wear.

As a designer I have worked on twenty million dollar homes and six hundred dollar a month rentals and they all have one thing in common – style!

Style doesn’t actually cost a thing!

Did you see the movie Pretty in Pink? Do you remember her fabulous room? Her unusual and comfortable stylish clothing? And the character was DIRT POOR.

That movie was a great inspiration to me as a young girl, because my parents were not wealthy by any means and yet I too wanted style.

And so, I learned the art of the “thrifting” and “junking” as my mother would call it.

One of the greatest gold mines in home décor is that which someone else has gotten bored with and either donated to a Goodwill or Salvation Army or has put out on a hot Saturday morning to pawn on their own.

I have gotten furniture, accessories, art work, lamps – you name it – at yard sales and thrift stores and all for a fraction of what they would cost in a store.

What’s the trick? How do you know when a piece is right or just cheap?

First, invest in some great magazines, Elle Décor, Veranda, etc., then get on mailing lists- I know, I know, who wants more junk mail? But sincerely, a great Pottery barn catalogue or a Napa Style could have spectacular inspiration and design ideas.

Once you’ve collected your magazines together, get a decent 3 ring binder and some plastic sleeves from an office supply store.

Now, the real fun begins! Start ripping the pages out of the various magazines/catalogues and use a Sharpie marker to write notes on the pages about what on the page you like.

Once you have a big pile of pictures put them into the plastic sleeves (if you want to get really anal like me you can group them into categories and P-touch tabs for each category) and stick them into your binder.

Now, whenever you go out for your thrifting excursions or junking take your big book with you and look for things that are similar to the items you’ve ripped out of the magazines and catalogues. You don’t have to have exact matches to things, what is important is that whatever you find is reminiscent of the style you’ve found in the magazines.

I like to keep a book that I call my “Dreality Home” which is a little play on the words “dream” and “reality” so that I can keep working at making my dream home a reality!

Some of my “rips” include architectural ideas, some are furnishings, others are just some color inspiration or something I liked the idea of for somewhere in my house.

Most recently I happened upon an “estate sale” and I found a spectacular fire place screen that is a 3 panel screen from the 1920’s – a solid wrought iron screen – it is probably worth about $600.00.

How much did I pay? $25.00! It was ridiculous!

Make Pretty Happen!

Melinda Brownstone 2010©