There are quick fixes and then there are quick fixes. Naturally, you'll want to avoid the kinds that leave guests pondering your "new" sofa cover ("Is that a tablecloth?") and your sanity.
Everyone wants to switch things up quickly while saving a few bucks. But looking past ho-hum ideas like brightening wall colors or rearranging furniture can be a stretch.
So we thought long and hard—with two of the industry's most enterprising designers—about what changes will make the biggest bang in your living room, for the littlest outlay, with the most lasting impressions.
1. Paint the ceiling.
Everyone knows that a coat of paint transforms any room in minutes and is the cheapest way to go. And it begs repeating here.
A little-known designer trick, says decorator and self-styled "Decor Demon" Brian Patrick Flynn, is to treat the living room ceiling as you would a wall. "Homeowners usually leave it white and focus on furnishing the room instead," says Flynn. "With a white ceiling, no one notices an amazing art collection or cool furniture: The eye is immediately drawn upward, to that pale 18-foot by 15-foot expanse."
Flynn paints a ceiling the same shade as the walls, "if the space isn't too small and doesn't have too many walls," or half to three-quarters of a shade darker than the wall color, "to bring a sense of intimacy to a high-ceilinged space." In low-slung rooms, Flynn does the opposite: A diminutive living room with slate-blue walls is capped with a slightly lighter, blue-gray ceiling, "so it doesn't shrink."
2. Incorporate a lighting design.
Your choice of furniture, its layout, and a living room's color scheme are nothing without a proper lighting plan—and one you can control. It's not only integral to you and guests' enjoyment of the space, but to its versatility as well.
To designer Genevieve Gorder, of HGTV's "Dear Genevieve," a no-frills overhead fixture simply isn't enough. "Table and floor lamps, accent lights, and sconces wired to dimmer switches—even candles—enable you to fine-tune light throughout the day, as natural light shifts."
Flynn typically suspends a pendant lamp or chandelier to further ground certain zones, such as intimate seating clusters or eating areas. And "don't let cost discourage you," says Flynn. "You already have an existing junction box and either a flush-mount ceiling or a contractor-grade fixture in place. For $125 to $140, an electrician will shut off power, take down your old light, and properly wire a new one—in about an hour."
You never know what treasures you'll find. Accessories and furnishings that never made much of a statement on their own can be grouped and unified with a little ingenuity. Such experimentation also helps you conceive successful pairings (for example, maybe your Victorian sofa goes perfectly with the chrome-and-glass console from the guest room).
"I've gathered chairs from every room: dining chairs, a desk chair, a child's rocker—even a bench or ottoman—to create cohesive seating arrangements," says Flynn, who also trolls flea markets and tag sales for affordable finds. "I paint each piece the same color and use the same fabric to reupholster the cushions."
Tchotchkes can be similarly integrated with a coat of spray paint. There are now formulas for nearly any surface, whether it's wood, metal, ceramic or glass.
Keep in mind that with furniture, sizes should be similar. Nearly anything goes with accessories—but dissimilar items (that aren't collections) tend to look best when they're within the same color family.
4. Add architectural interest.
Attractive crown molding, baseboards, and beadboard wainscoting offer a nice side perk, too: Not only are they affordable options to smarten a dull living room; such improvements also add home value.
Picture rails and picture framing, as well as decorative details like ceiling medallions, cornices and arch treatments, add depth and interest to bare walls.
Flynn has even used precut raw-pine molding ("around $30 to $40 worth") to remedy a scourge common to '80s-era homes: mirrored walls. "The purpose of these walls," says Flynn, "is to open up a room, to take focus off blank space or to create the illusion of two exterior walls." He uses painter's tape to temporarily secure trim to the mirrors, creating a large, mullioned windowpane. Once his design is laid out, Liquid Nails seals the trim to the glass surface. "Some drapery hardware and two panels make it far from the eyesore it once was."
Freestanding bookshelves, too, get Flynn's full attention. He nails 1- by 2-inch strips of trim to its top and bottom edges for a faux built-in look.
5. Bring in color.
A foolproof (and perhaps the easiest and cheapest) way to make a big change in a split second is to change out your soft furnishings. In winter, get festive with shimmery throw pillows. Come sunny months, eighty-six the plaid Pendleton for something bolder.
"This summer, bright turquoise and super-saturated salmon, yellows, and emeralds are in," says Gorder. "Fabrics, too, should shift—from acrylics and wools to cottons and linens—as seasons get warmer."
For a more permanent solution, Gorder suggests bringing in a bright area rug, or one with strong graphic patterns.
And don't be timid. "Rarely does an area rug just float by itself in a living room, in a great abyss with nothing on it," she says. "Large pieces of furniture will help break up its configuration. When shopping, think about how many things will be living on and around it."
Flynn offers some final advice when it comes to choosing color: "Stay away from matchy-matchy. Shades should coordinate yet slightly contrast—whether lighter or darker—throughout the room, so the space looks more evolved and less like you cobbled it together in one day, in a few hours."