Thrift-Store Mediterranean

Getting "the look" on a budget
Story and photos by Sonia Michaels

Here's inspiration, for a daydream or a design scheme: an ivy-covered villa in Spain against a Mediterranean blue sky

I could use a month in Provence right about now. Or a few weeks in Italy, perhaps. I'd love to wander through ancient cobbled streets, dropping in at the occasional wine bar for a snack and a glass of Pastis or "vino rosso," and combing through market stalls to find armloads of lavender, fresh, beautiful produce to fill a wicker market-basket, and fresh-roasted coffee beans by the bagful to bring home and grind every morning...

But I'm stuck here for a while, in the gray and breezy Pacific Northwest, where the only way I can bring a little Mediterranean flavor into my life is by sitting down to watch my personal copy of "A Room with a View" for the 200th time, while munching on a sundried tomato and feta sandwich, and drinking a cup of decent coffee or a glass of cheap chianti. Fortunately, my living room is full of Mediterranean accents that bring some warmth and sunshine into the house, even when it's pouring outside!

One of the most popular decorating styles around right now is the "Mediterranean Look." Whether you want your home to be reminiscent of an Italian villa, a Provencal hideaway, or a Turkish palace, you can always find wonderful accessories--often at a hefty price--to help you capture that look.

There are many ways to get that look that don't require you to cash in your retirement funds, though; while you may not be able to afford the "big ticket" items like wrought-iron beds or eight-foot stone fountains, you can still capture the warmth and romance of the Mediterranean basin, no matter what your budget. Here are some hints to help you bring some Italian sunshine, Greek warmth, Spanish style, Turkish opulence, or French fashion into your home!

Think Color!

When people walk into my home, the first thing they say is "I love the colors!" The second thing they say, almost inevitably, is something along the lines of "I wish I had the courage to do that with my house!"

Courage, I tell them, is not a necessity when you are trying to decide what color to paint your dining room. After all, you can always repaint it. My living space may be blue and gold this year, but that doesn't mean that it can't be white and green at some point in the future.

One of the most important elements of Mediterranean decorating is the use of strong colors, and of vibrant color combinations that capture the warmth of the region. Deciding what colors to use is actually the easy part, but choosing the right depth of color is tricky, and really depends on the size of your rooms, the furniture you already have, and the amount of light exposure--as well as your personal taste, of course.

Before you start making choices, though, head to the library, and check out some travel books, art and design books, and picture books dealing with the Mediterranean region. The photographs and paintings will give you a good idea about what colors "work" together, and will also provide you with a lot of visual images to keep in mind while you are hunting for accessories. Don't be afraid of making bold color choices, especially when it comes to fabrics and accessories--just restrict yourself to one main color and no more than two or three accent colors, to avoid overwhelming your room.

The Mediterranean Palette
Red --Poppies waving in golden fields, and geraniums clustered beneath
open windows. Ripe tomatoes, roasted red peppers, deep, dark red wine.
red palette
Orange--Thick-skinned, glossy Valencia oranges, bright nasturtiums, and
soft, muted terracotta--the roofs of houses, the tiles of courtyards, the pots overflowing with geraniums and herbs.
orange palette
Yellow--The bright gold of the morning sun, and the deep glow of late
afternoon. Gold jewelry in the shop windows on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Fresh lemons piled high on a market stall.
yellow palette
Green--The silver-green of Olive leaves, or the deeper green of Cypress
trees. The green of pesto, of oregano, of thyme and mint. The deep, soft green of grape leaves, tinted with gold in the Fall.
green palette
Blue--Mediterranean, Adriatic, or Aegean. Bluebells and cornflowers. blue palette
Purple--Violets and irises in fields and gardens, and on hillsides. Eggplants, glossy and dark. Bunches of ripe, succulent grapes. purle palette
White--The whitewashed stucco walls of the cottages in rural Spanish or
Greek villages. The white of a priest's robes or a little girl's first communion dress.
white palette
Black--The glossy black of tiled floors, or the matte black of the dresses worn by country grandmothers. The deep blue-black of the night sky, far away from city lights. A steaming shot of espresso in a tiny white cup, or a bowl of ripe olives glistening in their own oil. black palette

If you don't want to paint your walls any color other than white, you don't have to; beautiful, colorful accessories and fabrics can give it all the warmth and brightness you require. You could also consider adding a wallpaper border to a room, or papering the whole room, depending on your budget. But if you do feel like painting, remember that the color on the paint chip at the hardware store will almost invariably come out darker than it looks on the card--so choose a shade that looks just a touch lighter than the results you are hoping for!

If you like bright, rich colors on your walls, and if your room is large enough to handle a very deep or bright color, your imagination is your only limit. My dining room is a deep blue-purple. It's a very rich color, but it works well in my house, because of the sunny south-facing windows in the room, and because I have light pine furniture in that room.

Some colors that might work well on your walls include deep golden yellows (my personal favorite--it makes the room feel sunny), and leafy greens (great if you have a lot of dark wooden furniture). I have seen wonderful red rooms, all accessorized with gold and blue, that brought visions of Turkish palaces to my mind, and bright blue rooms filled with glossy white furniture that made me yearn for a cruise in the Greek islands. Or, if you prefer understated elegance to "in your face" color, you could go for pale, elegant combinations of cream, gold, tan, and even add touches of navy, to give your room the look and feel of a Venetian palazzo or Parisian drawing room.

One more thing: whatever style you are trying to capture, be sure to use good quality paint. It may seem like an unnecessary expense, but in my experience, it's really important. A good quality paint will be easier to work with, throw off fewer noxious fumes, provide you with better coverage (which means you will use less paint anyway!), and last much longer than a cheap brand. My favorite brand of paint these days is Behr, but I have also heard good things about Benjamin Moore paints.

Don'T Just Look--Touch!

One of the most wonderful elements of Mediterranean style is the universal use of rich textures on walls, fabrics, floors, and accessories. If you have the time and the inclination, consider sponging or "ragging" your walls to get a textured finish.

If you would rather not experiment on your walls, a piece of second-hand furniture can be sponged, stippled, or stencilled to add some texture to a room! I'm currently preparing an old yard-sale coffee table for that treatment. Though it will take a while to sand it down and get it ready for the paint, I'm looking forward to adding some color and life to it. When I've sponged the surface, I will finish it off with a couple of coats of varnish, just to make sure the finished surface is durable enough to take the punishment my two-year-old can dish out.

When choosing fabrics for cushion covers (a great way to spice up a room), window treatments, or table linens, always choose something that feels good as well as looks good. Whether you end up with nubbly raw cotton, heavy tapestry, or translucent silk, the texture of the fabric will be important to the "feel" of the finished room. You don't have to spend a lot on fabric. I always keep a lookout for discounted roll-ends and remnants of furnishing fabric that I can use for cushion covers, placemats, and lots of other purposes.

Rugs, kilims, and floorcloths can add a lot of color and texture to a room; they are not always expensive, either. And, you may find that creating a braided rag rug or a handpainted floorcloth is a wonderful weekend family project.

Dare To Be Different!

Avoid perfect symmetry. But be careful. One of the most beautiful things about Mediterranean d├ęcor--and one of the hardest elements to capture--is its eclectic nature.

When you walk into a villa in Italy or France, not much matches, though everything does coordinate to some degree. The furniture and accessories always seem to have been handed down through centuries (which they probably have), or bought from local artisans, and everything is combined artfully to create a pleasing overall effect.

But you can capture that "old-world charm" without having a thousand years' worth of collected heirlooms, in part by avoiding the urge to make everything match. So what if you have two different end tables, and two different floral cushions? What does it matter if your blue glass collection is punctuated with a green vase? Who cares if you don't have matching gilded frames on every picture in the living room?Don't worry. No one is going to ask Martha Stewart to come over and flog you with a damask linen tea-towel.

But seriously--while I'm not suggesting that everything in your home should be different from everything else, I am suggesting that you shouldn't be afraid of variety and asymmetry, at least if you are trying to achieve that classic Mediterranean style. While you probably will want all the drapes in your room to match, the tablecloths and cushion covers don't have to match the curtains or each other, though they should work well together.

Accessorize Creatively Within Your Budget

Some of the best accessories--including those on a Mediterranean or old-world theme--are fairly inexpensive and easy to find. I have ugly but neutral curtains, which I can't afford to replace right now, so I recently made tie-backs from some fabric scraps and a couple of fat, beautiful tassels I found at a local fabric store. (My next project is going to be tea-dyeing my curtains, but I haven't worked up the courage yet!) My old pillows have been stuffed into home-made cushion covers, with more pretty tassels at the corners, and my ancient and dilapidated steamer trunk makes a beautiful window-seat, camouflaged with lots of pillows, and an old woven bedspread that was given to me many years ago.

If you want to buy a couple of pretty things to add Mediterranean flavor to your home, consider glassware and ceramics. Blue glassware is cheap, beautiful, and easy to find; a pretty blue or green pitcher filled with spring flowers, or a blue glass bowl filled with fresh lemons or oranges, makes an amazing table centerpiece!

Buy a couple of pretty imported tiles from a specialty store, and turn them into coasters or trivets; this is a lot cheaper than retiling your whole kitchen, but will give you a similar effect. Terracotta pots filled with geraniums and herbs are affordable and easy to care for; they are also the mainstay of practically every patio, balcony, window-box and doorway in Spain, Italy, and the South of France.

Looking for more inexpensive ideas for home decorating? Check out the TNH eBook Budget Decorating Tips!

Many cities and towns now have paint-your-own ceramic stores; even if you don't consider yourself an artist, these stores/workshops provide a great opportunity for you to add affordable accessories to your home, in the color scheme and theme of your choice. While (like most of us) you may not be able to afford to import handpainted ceramics from Italy or Spain, you may be able to paint a fair imitation on a platter, a pair of candlesticks, or even a switchplate, without spending beyond your budget.

Candles and dried flowers can help you to capture the essence of the Mediterranean, too--beeswax candles are easy and inexpensive to make, and the wax sheets (available at most craft stores) come in just about any color you could want. Bunches of dried lavender hanging from the ceiling, or displayed in a vase, will make your room look and smell like Provence in the summertime! Keep your eyes open for wrought-iron accessories, too--an iron candelabra (stocked with your hand-rolled beeswax candles) can be relatively inexpensive, and very beautiful.

Essentially, Mediterranean style is a state of mind, available to anyone who has ever dreamed of sailing through the Greek Islands, touring Italy's wine country, lounging on the beach in Nice or Monaco, or eating tapas and watching flamenco in Spain. Whether or not you have ever visited--or plan to visit--any of those places, you can still bring some Mediterranean sunshine into your home without spending a fortune.

Sonia Michaels is a writer, parent and homemaker, and the owner of The Magic Wardrobe, a home-based maker of handcrafted knitwear for children and nursing mothers. She lives in Victoria, BC with her husband, daughter and parents.

By the way: If you're looking for even more ideas to bring the Mediterranean look into your home without spending a ton, check out
The Ultimate Tuscan Home Decorating Guide
! Turn any room in your home into a Tuscan dream escape, with easy, step by step tips and instructions utilizing up-to-date products and design techniques.

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