Lauren McGrath knows a thing or two about decorating a tiny rental on a tight budget in an overpriced city where space is at a premium.
"I can't even describe how small it was," she says of her first flat in Brooklyn Heights, New York. "I couldn't paint the walls and I wasn't even allowed to put too many nails into the walls - and the space was incredibly limited. So, in the end, it had to be all about the furniture, all about the pieces that I put in it. You see, it's the pieces you use to furnish a property that turn it into a home."
Lauren's emphasis on "the pieces" is part of a decorating philosophy that she shares with her mother, Suzanne. Together, Suzanne and Lauren form a mother-and-daughter design team that believes that the key to decorating isn't flat-pack furniture but rather furniture (that is, pieces) that will last a lifetime and move with you year after year, from a first-time rental all the way up the property ladder to eventually settling in a family home.
This philosophy forms the premise of Suzanne and Lauren's design blog, (Good Bones, Great Pieces), which they started together three years ago. The blog has now developed into a recently published book carrying the same name.
"'Good bones' is an old term used by interior designers to describe a house which has all the right elements you can work with, like high ceilings, pretty mouldings and good structure, while 'great pieces' refers to all the beautiful furniture you can fill your home with," explains Suzanne, who worked for 10 years as a style editor and producer at Martha Stewart Living before launching her own Manhattan-based design firm, Suzanne McGrath Design.
Suzanne says the idea for the book came from the experience of decorating Lauren's Brooklyn flat. "Lauren's apartment was so teeny - I'd call it more a room than an apartment - that there were only a certain number of pieces that would fit in the space, so everything had to have a dual purpose. For instance, her chest of drawers also had to double up as a linen cupboard and keep extra pots and pans in it, too. What we wanted to show was that you can create a home, even in the smallest of spaces."
In the book, Suzanne and Lauren select seven essential pieces of furniture that will "carry you through a lifetime". In contrast to throwaway and mass-produced furniture, the McGraths choose "indispensable" furniture that is multifunctional and often second hand, so there is always a practical use to it beyond the aesthetics.
Their introduction to Good Bones, Great Pieces sums it up: "For us, decorating is not about the quick fix or chasing the latest trend. It's about following one simple rule: almost every piece you purchase should have the ability to take on more than one role in your current or future home ... Each and every piece you choose should have legs - if you can't see using it again 10 years down the road, then it's not worth investing in."
The seven pieces that Suzanne and Lauren have chosen are: a love seat (a small, two-seater sofa), a half-moon table, a bench, a chest of drawers, a slipper chair (a low, slimline armchair without armrests), a side table and an occasional chair. "The pieces we chose aren't necessarily the most obvious," says Lauren. "We didn't include things like a bed or a wardrobe, for instance, because those are pieces that really only serve just one purpose. The final seven pieces are really versatile and that's why we chose them."
At first glance, the versatility that the McGraths talk so frequently about may not always be clear - but they take care to explain their thoughtful vision of timeless multi-functionality.
For instance, a love seat with room for two is about the right size sofa for a young, single professional living in a small studio flat. But Suzanne points out that it might one day serve a new purpose in a bigger home, at the foot of a bed in a larger bedroom or as extra seating in a bigger lounge.
Similarly, a small half-moon table takes up less space than a conventional square table, so would work well in a starter home as an alternative to a kitchen table and could double as a desk when need be. In years to come, the same small half-moon could be reclaimed as a telephone table or a hallway table in a bigger home.
"This is furniture that is versatile enough to move from one room to another and from home to home as well," says Suzanne. "If you choose your pieces well the first time round, then you will want to take it through with you wherever and whenever you move next."
Much of the McGraths's style is a mix of modern, vintage and reclaimed furniture, which helps to create a comforting look that is neither dated nor overly styled.
Shops like Natuzzi, Aati and Bloomingdale's in Dubai sell a range of high-quality, versatile furniture pieces that will retain their appeal and will be worth taking with you when you leave.
While there is a shortage of second hand furniture shops and flea markets in the UAE, it is always worth keeping an eye on Dubizzle for second hand pieces. House sales in residential developments such as the Springs, Meadows and Arabian Ranches are also great places to pick up second hand items. Check community noticeboards such as www.arabianranchesladies.com or www.expatforum.com to see if they are coming up. If you're looking for something specific, why not put up a post of your own?
"Everyone likes a bargain. Our approach is thrifty and creative," says Suzanne. The message is efficient and simple: waste not, want not; don't buy furniture if you only intend to discard it a few years later, and plan your decorating adventures carefully so that there is always a place for every piece you choose.
Lauren has since moved out of her Brooklyn apartment (pictures of which have appeared on blogs around the world) to another apartment in Tribeca. "All of my pieces have gone with me," she says. "Yes, I think they'll keep going with me too."
Good Bones Great Pieces is published by Stewart, Tabori & Tang.