10 rules of freestyle decorating Expert tips on how to make the most of what you have and indulge with care The secrets to creative home decorating Prioritize your space & choose key furnishings firstOakland, Calif., interior designer Sheri Sheridan says the most important areas in a house are the entryway and the living and dining rooms. “These are your entertaining spaces, and they should be celebrated every day.” Each needs something big and bold, so the room feels substantial. “You want to add something tall to support flow and draw the eye up, making the ceiling seem higher,” Sheridan says. Note her Greek column in the corner.Invest in furniture that will withstand the test of time; its basic shapes and colors serve as decorating cornerstones. In Sheridan’s house, design icons like a Saarinen dining table, a modern sofa, bubble lamps, and an acrylic coffee table balance her colorful, eclectic accessories. Pinterest Celebrate tchotchkes For Sheridan, every surface is an opportunity to tell a story or create a mood. A still life on her dresser is made up of trinket boxes she’s had since childhood, a vintage-looking phone from Pottery Barn, and other ephemera, including a 1920s art deco figurine she found at a flea market.On a lawyer’s bookcase in her kitchen, she’s combined a doll form found at a flea market with antlers her dad found at his Oregon ranch (nostalgic pieces she plans to accent with gold leaf), a wax diorama from a 1920s biology class, and a stuffed duck (“I don’t support taxidermy, but I do celebrate antique art forms,” Sheridan explains). Indulge in art Sheridan adamantly advises that any high-end purchases be original art. “Never be afraid to buy art if you love it,” she says. “Art is always a smart investment.” To counter such indulgence, Sheridan shows off her valuable 19th-century original Beaux-Arts illustrations in $20 frames from arts and crafts store Michaels (michaels.com for locations). Salvage something Sheridan found this bench on a street corner ― and though it came with a broken leg and some pretty sorry fabric, she saw its potential. She repaired the leg, painted the frame white, and had the cushion reupholstered in a $75 fabric remnant. Take a chance on color Sheridan paid retail prices for the kitchen’s sunny yellow paint and for the rich, neutral trim (Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee) throughout the house. The rest of her colors came from the paint store’s $5 bin ― a collection of slightly mismixed paint and orders that were never picked up. “You can’t always find all your colors, but you can usually locate some for one or two rooms,” she says. Consider creative alternatives Although Sheridan originally wanted a pricey tufted headboard, she instead bought four-packs of miniature Sorli mirror tiles from Ikea ($4.99) to create a glamorous high-end look. The organic cotton pin tuck duvet cover ($99 queen) and Euro shams in Sea Spray ($24) are from West Elm. Shun labels “I love mixing time periods and styles so they work together,” says Sheridan. The combination makes the vintage seem current and the contemporary pieces less stark. In her dining room, she’s mixed mass-market bargains with a few design treasures. “Adding one element can change a whole look,” she says.A midcentury Saarinen table and chair combine with a new chair from West Elm (similar-style chair $99). Pillar candles from Pottery Barn fill the fireplace; the mantel is home to several balls of string, saved by Sheridan’s grandmother, plus 19th-century candelabra. Hanging over it all is a vintage George Nelson saucer lamp (new ones from $300 at Design Within Reach). Mix the old with the new Accent a set of basic white dishware from a chain store with a few beautiful vintage pieces. “The white makes the other pieces pop ― like a white frame around a beautiful piece of art,” Sheridan says. Vintage Waterford china tops Cuisine dinnerware from Crate and Barrel ($4.95–$50). Try creative combinations A simple modern white table gets a more sophisticated look when paired with a reupholstered Hollywood regency chair and a feminine tea set. City Slicker table is from CB2 ($199); Mongolian lamb pillow is from Krimsa ($110; 415/441-4321). Accent with pricier items Choose low-cost solid-color pillows, such as this Tempo velvet pillow in fuchsia from Crate and Barrel ($33), then accent them with designer pillows such as the lavender Flock pillow by Thomas Paul, available at Swallowtail ($98).SELECTIVE SHOPPING From malls to big box, where to get whatCrate and Barrel Great for: basic upholstered furniture Ikea ikea.com Great for: draperies, flowerpots, bath mats, flokati rugs, candles, kitchen-ware, mirrors, frames, teak garden furniture Pottery Barn Great for: shelves, accessories like jewelry armoires, candles Restoration Hardware Great for: towels, hardware, cleaning supplies with design-friendly packagingTarget Great for: designer specialty lines, bed linens (Fieldcrest Luxury), towels, bath accessories, chair cushions West Elm Great for: dining chairs, side tables, Parsons desks, specialty designer items, and quirky ephemera Z Gallerie Great for: mirrored furniture, trays, barware, decantersFor one-of-a-kind pieces and quirky treasures, check out Swallowtail, Sheridan’s San Francisco design store (415/567-1555).