The Bottom Line


A young couple proves you can have a stylish home on a budget. 

You have a lot of style but not a lot of money—and you have a house to furnish. What do you do?

That was the situation interior designer Curtis Popp found himself in when he and his wife, Susan, bought their Land Park house four years ago. With a new business and a young child (and another soon to follow), money was definitely in short supply.

Unlike some young couples, they weren’t prepared to live with family hand-me-downs and friends’ castoffs. “I love luxury,” admits the 35-year-old Popp, owner of Shelter Design Studio. “I’m a sucker for all that.”

So they came up with a plan: Buy the best—but scour the Internet for bargains, aggressively shop the sales and haggle for the lowest prices.

In his work, Popp favors modern, 20th century design. So that’s where he started with his own home, a 1,400-square-foot ranch built in 1941. First, he gave it a very modern paint scheme of cool neutrals—mainly varying shades of gray—for the “public” rooms and bright colors that pop for the bedrooms. (He saved money by doing his own painting, enlisting friends to help in exchange for pizza and beer.)

In the kitchen, he kept costs down by retaining the original cabinets and cleaning up the old door pulls and handles. For a touch of luxury, he replaced the countertops with Carrara marble. “It’s appropriate to the era of the house, yet it’s modern and clean looking,” Popp explains.
He furnished the kitchen with a “superdurable” round table from Crate & Barrel and midcentury-modern Bertoia side chairs made of metal mesh. (Easy to keep clean, they’re a kid-friendly choice.) Appliances are a mix of new and old: a slim, 18-inch stainless-steel dishwasher by Miele and a vintage O’Keefe & Merritt stove from the 1930s, purchased from Buckeye Appliance in Stockton. The room’s big splurge: a cartoonish canary-yellow refrigerator on casters that looks like an old-fashioned icebox. Popp had long lusted after the $4,000 appliance, made by German company Möbel Müller. He was in luck: The Magazine, a modern furniture store in Berkeley, had two in stock. One, in white, had come from the set of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The other, in yellow—a floor model that ran on European current and needed to be converted—was a steal at only $2,000. “Sold,” said Popp. To match, he ordered bright-yellow hand-blown light fixtures from Resolute, a Seattle lighting store.


For the living room, Popp assembled a mix of iconic modern pieces, including a chaise by Le Corbusier, a Barcelona chair, an Eames compact sofa and a contemporary coffee table from B&B Italia. “Everything in here I either haggled for or got at a discount,” he says. Susan did her part, buying a pair of Eames shell chairs at a garage sale for only $50. 

Popp knew exactly what he wanted and waited patiently until things went on sale. On his wish list: a Sussex credenza from Design Within Reach, which he snapped up when the price was slashed in half. (The dining room’s pickled-oak table and nonmatching chairs also came from a DWR sale.)

To save money, it’s important to have a plan, Popp says. He came up with the idea for a ceiling-mounted movie-projection system for the living room long before he could afford to do it. Then he pounced when he found a good buy on eBay: a projector and screen for less than $2,000. (The screen disappears into the ceiling at the push of a button.)

The Internet was also crucial to Popp’s plans for a spalike bathroom. “I bought everything online and saved a ton of money,” he says, pointing to the Duravit tub, sink and wall-hung toilet, all designed by Philippe Starck; the wall-mounted Hansgrohe faucet; and the chic, $3,000 Louis Poulsen light fixture over the tub, which Popp found on eBay for just $800
The bathroom has a custom-built cantilevered vanity made of wenge, a dark African wood, with a backsplash of Carrara marble. Popp had a curtain made of sheer Verner Panton fabric to encircle the tub. In the tub at night, with the curtain closed and only the overhead fixture for light, he says, “you feel transported.” A wall-mounted plasma TV adds to the retreatlike ambiance. “It’s our sanctuary,” says Susan. “Even though we only have one bathroom, it feels huge to us.”

In fact, she notes, the house’s small size was a plus. “With only 1,400 square feet,” she says, “we could manage to make it really interesting and beautiful.”