Ask-Design-Mom question:
I love your blog and I go there for inspiration or just for a moment to myself. We are moving to a new house next month. I am excited, but I also have a few frustrations. The house is BRAND NEW, so my husband thinks we need to buy all BRAND NEW furniture. As nice as that is, I feel like it won’t be mine…it loses all the personal touch when I go to a big furniture chain to furnish every corner. I need ideas of how I can make it have less of a “big box store” feel and more of an “I created this” feel (while still keeping my husband happy). I’m specifically looking for ideas for a desk nook area. Thanks for your help! — Nicole Madsen

Design Mom Answer:
[Warning, marathon post!] I know just what you’re going through Nicole. My sister is moving into a brand-new house and I’m helping her decorate. We’re running into the same issues. She needs pretty much all new furniture but she wants the house to feel like her family has belonged there forever. This seems to be on the minds of many — I posted about a related sentiment I’d read on Decor8 a couple of weeks ago.

But let’s just focus on your office nook, because it’s actually one of the easiest spaces to add lots of personal details. I’m going to start by grabbing some office images my sister has featured over the past few months. (Type in “office” or “craft” in the search field at the top of her blog and all the related posts to these images will come up.)

I like lots of things about these images, but two things especially: 1) they are mostly full of items that are totally bought or new, but they feel totally unique and 2) they look like they are true work-spaces — like someone actually uses them and clutters them up on a daily basis.

The trick is to take advantage of the mix-of-decorating-styles that has suddenly become not only acceptable but oh-so-chic. Look to magazines like Domino, Cottage-Living and Blueprint for good examples of homes that look real and have a mix of styles. That, and do your best not to shop at the enormous furniture stores that aren’t likely to sell anything with personality.

Here are my suggestions. Start with 4 pieces: a desk, a chair, a bullitin board/magnet board, and a sideboard/cabinet/armoire. DO NOT BE IN A HURRY. AND DO NOT BUY A MATCHING SET of these items. In fact they don’t even have to come from the same decade or century, and certainly not from the same store. In the top picture, notice how great the very modern desk — based on a Parson’s table — looks with woven baskets and textured pottery.

Find a used/antique desk from ebay or craig’s list or your local refurbished furniture shop. Check out universities for surplus sales. Or look to places like Sundance that don’t carry a vast line of furniture but have really fantastic pieces. You’re not looking for a deal so much, but looking for a really special, unique piece of furniture. If it’s too much work to find an aged desk, go in the opposite direction. Shop the online modern design stores for a super sleek option that will work as a good background for your trinkets and mess — places like Design Within Reach or even West Elm.

For the storage piece, think about repurposing things like media cabinets, lockers, sideboards intended to store china and linens, and old armoires that you can add shelves to. No special sources come to mind, but I would recommend sticking to small shops and out-of-the way stores. If you find something that would be perfect but needs work, you don’t necessarily have to do it yourself. I have a vintage metal dresser that I love. I found it in an awful state and dropped it off in the industrial part of town to be sandblasted and powdercoated. Voila: fabulous dresser.

The bullitin board presents lots of options. Order a large frame from and fill it with corkboard or fabric-covered homasote. Or just paint the wall with layers of magnetic paint. Or have a piece of sheet metal cut to size and mounted on the wall — with or without a frame. Whatever you decide to do, this is where you’re going to showcase your personality: pretty cards, random photos, a good-looking menu, a happy coaster. Think of your bullitin-board as ever-changing artwork.

It’s hard to advise on the chair, because I haven’t seen the desk yet, but just follow your instincts and you’ll be fine. Putting together a space should be lots of fun and you should feel free to make mistakes. If you buy a desk and then discover it doesn’t work, just craigs list it, no biggie. Once you have those 4 elements in place, you can add whatever else you might “need”: baskets for magazines, a bookshelf above the bullitin board, some filing boxes to sit in the armoire, a pretty lantern to hang from the ceiling, a flowering plant, a ribbon rack, etc. In an ideal world we would surround yourself with things we love and that inspire us and make us smile.

Design Mom Readers: What’s the best feature in your home office?