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I've long been a fan of the century-old classic city row house. In its original form, the small rooms of a row house can feel tight and cramped. After undergoing the transformative process of a contemporary reno, however, these small spaces can become light and airy, with high ceilings and flexible space. Despite having solid side walls without any windows, there is usually a glass-panelled entry door and windows on both the front and back of the room, so they can be amazingly bright (with views to both the street and back garden from a single room).

While I'm a fan of the efficiency and opportunities presented by the row house vernacular, I'm also well-versed in the challenges of trying to squeeze all the needs of a family into one room. The key to decorating success here lies in having a master plan where all the elements complement one another and work seamlessly together. Any home designed for family living needs to be infused with a healthy dose of practicality, and all decisions need to be made with lifestyle and daily usage in mind. That said, there's absolutely no reason to sacrifice style just because you have little ones underfoot.

Start with the classics

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The best budget-buster advice I have is to buy collectible classic furnishings. You need not pay high prices to secure stylish solutions with a mid-century mood. While teak furniture was previously viewed as strictly the domain of families with the last name Brady, or homes featuring an extensive installation of shag carpeting, teak is not just a time-warp design option any more. I gravitate to the refined proportions, the simple lines, and the restrained forms of vintage teak pieces. Diminutive in scale and executed with an eye on details and materials, teak is proving itself to be a contemporary classic well-suited to life in the 21st century. Often available at bargain prices in vintage and consignment stores, I suggest you take a second look at teak. I picked up a marble-topped coffee table for about $300, a pair of lamps for under $200, and occasional chairs for under $350. With no need for refinishing, these finds kick-started my decorating project with fiscal frugality in mind.

Pick a cool neutral

I'm sure you've heard it said that "grey is the new beige." The way I see it, you can never go too wrong if you work your décor around a tried and true natural hue. Instead of simply grey, I've always gravitated to the oyster-toned shades of grey. With a slight hint of green and a touch of sand, the right grey for me is a changeable choice that alters with the light and the time of day. It will never feel too cold, yet it will prove itself to be an adaptable and flexible choice that naturally complements a wide range of accent colours, which can be used to add vibrancy and energy to you living quarters. As an added bonus, if you've embraced the warm-hued tones of teak, you'll find the cooler side of grey is a more flattering complement than old-school beige.

Seam it up

The key to flexibility with one long room is the choice of area rug. You can go custom and have a piece of broadloom cut and bound to your specific dimensions, but if you want to dress your floor with dynamic pattern, you'll need to find a new solution. Area rugs aren't generally offered in proportions that can be likened to a runway, so if the standard eight- by 10-foot or nine- by 12-foot options aren't making the cut, why not make the size you need from what's available? I found a funky eight- by 10-foot pale grey zebra-patterned pure wool rug and opted to have two of them sewn together along the 10-foot side to create a single 10- by 16-foot carpet that defined the living room. Including the cost to have the rugs sewn together, my total price was still far less than what you'd pay for any "palace-sized" carpet in existence.

Let there be Lucite

I love to add a little glint of light and sparkle to every room. In a room predominated by wood and neutral greys, there's still opportunity for some glassy elements in unexpected places. While stainless and black iron may be the common choices for drapery rods, there are exciting alternatives to consider. Since we only had two windows to dress, I opted to splurge and spent about $100 per rod for clear acrylic rods. I know it's a small touch, but in every project it's the details that make the room work!

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Demand double duty

If you're suffering from the challenge of a living room that is overrun with toys and kid-related paraphernalia, you need to demand more from your furniture choices and embrace every opportunity to stash and stow the necessary trappings and accoutrements that come along with children. When buying side tables, try to find options with an additional shelf, select an entry console that also incorporates closed storage, and seek out innovative two-in-one options like the upholstered stools I found that double as storage bins. Covered in a practical grey cotton/linen blend, these affordable ottomans make stashing toys an accessible solution to the clutter conundrum.

Illuminate your art

If you've got a keen eye and a decent quality digital camera, you can create illuminating artwork for your home. After flipping through a gallery of amateur shots taken by our client, I was inspired to turn a fabulous beach scene from a trip to Portugal into a backlit light box. With a click of my mouse I'd sent the image off to be printed and mounted on Plexiglas, then visited my local lighting supply warehouse to pick up some slim-line fluorescent tube lighting kits that could be easily mounted within a shadowbox frame by my framer (if you're handy, you could make the frame yourself, but I chose to "seek professional help" with this one!). As soon as it was installed, our windowless wall was transformed into a glowing vista of a sunny European destination!

A few more 101 lessons:

The Save

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All of my rooms balance a seamless combination of "high" and "low" elements, and this one is no exception. My practical nature demands that upholstery fabrics be chosen with spills and mishaps in mind, so I will always be a huge fan of durable, washable, inexpensive cotton twill. At $6.99 a yard for the sofa fabric, how can you possibly go wrong? When disaster inevitably strikes, the covers can simply be zipped off and tossed in the washing machine to return to their "as new" condition (this approach worked wonders when my two-year-old got into my purse one morning and experimented with mixing red lipstick and hand cream together on the cream sofa!). I don't like my living room to be off limits, and washable fabrics ensure that there are no regrets. (I find that covers wash best when there's no piping, and it's always key to prewash and preshrink your fabric BEFORE you have the sofa made!)

The Splurge

With a teensy weensy dining area that measured up at less than nine feet wide, our seating options were limited, to say the least. After fruitlessly trying a number of available solutions, I finally decided the only route was a custom choice. I looked to restaurant design for a viable solution and borrowed a page from the classic wraparound banquette commonly used to cram maximum guests into minimum space. By tucking an L-shaped banquette into one corner, it eliminated the need for circulation space around the table, and enabled us to create a dramatically beautiful dining destination. In my need to keep the budget balanced, I offset the cost of our custom splurge with a bargain pedestal table for under $300!

The Signature Sarah

Even the sleekest, coolest spaces need a touch of texture. I automatically gravitate to the tactile beauty of handmade elements for the unique effect they bring to every home, and am always dreaming up ways to weave these hand-hewn wonders into contemporary spaces. One of my favourite discoveries of the last year is the amazing punctured brass hanging pendant that glows above the dining table. With a silvered exterior finish and golden interior, this intricately patterned fixture casts a delicate play of light on ceiling above, and gives the tried and true chandelier a run for the money when it comes to chic solutions.

Sarah Richardson is the host of Sarah 101, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. sarahrichardsondesign.com; http://www.hgtv.ca/sarah101

SOURCES

Fabric on drapes and sofa backs – Crown Wallpaper, www.crownwallpaper.com

Geometric fabric on vintage chairs – Lee Jofa, www.leejofa.com

Grass cloth – Primetime Paint & Paper, www.primetimepaint.ca

Dining table, white dishes, glass tumblers, candles, grey striped vase, cutlery, throw, vases on coffee table, white picture frames, vase on console – Ikea, www.ikea.com

Cory sofa, Matthew low back dining chairs, custom banquette – Sarah Richardson Design, www.sarahrichardsondesign.com

Glass stair railing – Adanac Glass Ltd., www.adanacglass.com

Plexi-mounted image & printed photography – Colourgenics, www.colourgenics.com

Light box electrical supplies – Paul Wolf Lighting, www.paulwolf.com

Light box frame – Elgin Picture & Frame www.elginpictureandframe.com

Fabric on sofa frame, seat cushions, teak chairs, dining chairs, banquette, pillows, drapery rings & brackets – Designer Fabrics, www.designerfabrics.ca

Vintage chairs, teak side tables, wooden ball lamps, console, magazine rack – Queen West Antique Centre, 416-588-2212

Marble top coffee table - Pickwicks Choice, 416-538-4419

Silk throw pillows on sofa, zebra print pillow, horn shell mirrors, zebra print rugs, place mats, napkins, grey storage boxes, horn shell bowl, yellow boxes, metal side tables – West Elm, www.westelm.com

Pendant light fixture – Snob, www.snobstuff.com

Yellow plates & bowls, spotted glasses – Urban Barn, www.urbanbarn.com

Coral on shelves, mirror over console – inVU Drapery Co., www.invudraperyco.com

Grey floral candle holders, grey & black vase, white vase on shelves, crystal candle holder on dining table, yellow glass ball, grey lamp – Homesense, www.homesense.ca

Dining room shelves – Global Views, www.globalviews.com

Grey glass vase, decanter, ceramic vase – Eclectisaurus, www.eclectisaurus.com

Custom square & pleated lampshades – Lampshades Unlimited, 416.299.3113

Lucite drapery rods – Eurofab Inc., www.eurofab.ca

Paint colours – Para Paints, www.para.com www.sarahpaint.com. Walls: Courtyard P5220-44; Stairway wall: Froth SR75 (P5225-24)

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