Open home – pro tips for renovating living spaces on a shoestring and being your own interior decorator with Shelley Ferguson

It’s just days after Auckland’s devastating floods when I catch up with Shelley Ferguson for our pre-booked interview.

The sun is shining, sky brilliant blue and knowing she lives in a leaky home I’m almost expecting the house to be crying tears.

Aside from a minor hallway leak it’s fine, though a neighbour’s house down the road almost flooded to the ceiling. “I feel quite sombre,” she admits, as she lets me into her home. “I’m usually an upbeat person but I see people’s connections to their homes, and it just breaks my heart what people must be going through.”

Two years ago the respected interior designer, author, editor and judge on TV Three’s The Block, bought a leaky home in Westmere, Auckland with her husband – Olympic athlete Steve Ferguson – and during the unprecedented weather event they were understandably worried about how the house would hold up.

Fortunately, the week prior, Steve had done some routine maintenance including waterproofing work on the outside of the house and clearing the guttering. Shelley admits being in disbelief at how well it had fared as the family had been away for the weekend and feared what they might find.

Now, as thousands of people are faced with rebuilding or refurbishing their homes over the coming months and possibly years, the release of her new book, Live Luxe – a practical step-by-step guide to being your own interior designer – is coincidental but timely.

“It’s not a coffee table book, it’s more of a guide with lots of easy tips and tricks of the trade to elevate your style and save money,” Shelley explains. “It’s looking at the principles of the design process so that you can take your home from being something that you just exist in, to being a bit more luxe – and not in terms of glamour, but in terms of the way you enjoy it and live in it.”

The girl from South Auckland who grew up in Papakura has her feet firmly on the ground. In fact, she’s pictured barefoot on the cover of her book! She enjoyed a simple childhood, running free on her grandparents’ farm, spending holidays at the family bach in Coromandel and learning how to op shop with her Mum when times were financially tight.

Fast forward 20-plus years and Shelley has enjoyed a stellar career in media including as editor of Your Home & Garden, helping launch Nadia magazine, and most recently editorial director of Your Home & Garden, Simply You Living, HOME and Fashion Quarterly.

The girl from South Auckland who grew up in Papakura has her feet firmly on the ground.

Taking the plunge

Three years ago, age 40, she made the brave move to leave her high-powered job to follow her passion for interior design with the goal to begin renovating homes in real life.

“I always loved my magazine career and didn’t ever think I’d leave but in my role I ended up talking to architects, getting the plans and making them into floor plans for the magazine, talking to different suppliers in the industry, creating trend and mood board pages, talking to homeowners about their homes, briefing stylists about how to set up a room and there was this real urge to actually create the home,” she says.

“It was an organic process, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into because it’s really hard, but it’s taught me a lot about myself. It was also part naivety. I didn’t realise how much that it would entail, but I’m glad I did.”

With glowing testimonials about her work and a new book out, Shelley is pleased that she backed herself.

Don’t push it

Shelley’s advice to anyone looking to refresh their home on a tight budget is “don’t push it” or think ‘we’ll stretch ourselves and be fine’.

Really think why you are doing it and what you actually need, she advises. And is that really the answer? If you decide to not renovate and instead do a refresh on a budget, her biggest tip would be to go through the same process as an interior designer first.

“That’s where the book is great because it goes through everything I do,” she explains. “Rather than thinking paint is great on a budget, buying some paint and then wondering why that didn’t work, really do your homework and find out more about your style. Play detective in your house. Look at the era and architecture of your home. Look at the good things about it, and the bad.

In my book I say, ‘do an open home where you visit your own home’. Take notes, take photos and then list what your deal breakers are. What makes you really unhappy about the house, what are your pain points? And what are some of the great things about the house? It might be a beautiful tree you can see or the natural light coming through somewhere. Notice the good selling points of your house, and then work on your style.”

Three years ago, age 40, she made the brave move to leave her high-powered job to follow her passion for interior design with the goal to begin renovating homes in real life.

Identify your style

Creating a mood board is a great way to understand your style for your home.

“You don’t have to go with the architecture of your home to inspire your style, it can be completely promiscuous,” says Shelley.

If you have a mid-century home with lots of clean lines you may want to mirror that but also have some sculptural items to mix it up.

Shelley does a mood boarding exercise for each room as well as a colour palette, pulling pictures and fabrics of things she likes and then identifying the factors that tie these together.

“I like to give that style some keywords. My old place was very mid-century, so white breeze blocks, natural oak, brushed brass and palm trees. Once you have a vision and some key words you can make decisions and buy a couple of things,” she says. “Go to second-hand shops and look for the profiles of things that suit.”

She also recommends pulling out all of your objects and looking for opportunities to style them and tell a story because it does bring spaces to life: “It gives it personality and adds that lived-in lifestyle layer.”

And don’t feel the pressure to get rid of sentimental pieces. Shelley admits she never wants to get rid of things that are very personal to her or that she loves. “If it’s not quite the right style but you love it, keep it because it’ll work if you put it in a little vignette or grouping with other things in the style of your house,” she explains. “Never think, ‘oh that doesn’t go but it’s an heirloom and I need to get rid of it’. You can always make it work.”

Practising gratitude

Shelley admits it may sound silly, but she recommends practising gratitude around your home and what you love about it, as well as identifying friction points and getting rid of as much friction as you can.

For example, it’s a small room and you hate it. Do you have a giant sofa in it? Probably.

A second-hand bench seat with some cushions on it could be great under a sunny window. A cost-effective pendant light can also transform a space and help create a zone within a bigger space.

Lay the foundation

Changing the foundation of your home, which in interior designer speak means the colour of the walls and floor, makes the biggest impact.

“They’re the biggest visual things in a room and because they are, they often take over. If the floor is off, it’s really hard to marry anything else,” says Shelley. “Making them tie into your style really does change the entire appearance of your home.”

Sanding and painting the walls yourself will definitely save some dollars and changing the floor doesn’t have to mean ripping it out. It can be a stain, or if you can’t afford that, rugs are a quick and easy way to transform a space.

When the Fergusons moved into their leaky home, they decided not to reclad immediately and go with a more affordable refresh.

With a budget of $15,000 to do the walls and floors they did a lot of the work themselves, painting the walls white and ripping up the plush black carpet which they replaced with a more practical and lighter, blonde wood-like finish.

The only thing they added was a second-hand glass top table because their existing table didn’t work.

Buying a leaky home

Shelley and Steve make a great partnership, and since starting her business, Shelley Ferguson Studio, Steve plays a big part (when he’s not swimming and rowing).

As a pair they love working on projects together and have moved up the property ladder by doing up their homes and selling them.

“We don’t flip, we buy something with good bones – though this house has terrible bones,” she laughs. “We renovate and do a lot of it ourselves over a few years because we also want a home and after doing up four houses it has allowed us to have this location.”

Shelley had her eye on the Westmere home and when it was passed in at auction, she realised it was probably a leaky home and booked in to see it the following day.

“It had got to the point where we couldn’t really afford to buy the do-ups anymore as the market is just ridiculous, so this allowed us a good entry point. Financially it made sense if we could get it for a certain price, which we did.”

Buying a leaky home, however, is not for the fainted-hearted and if you are considering it, do your due diligence.

“I always look at what I’d be able to sell it for before I buy, so it’s really doing the numbers. Firstly, what is your reason for buying? Do you want to stay there or is it a flip? We wanted somewhere where we could stay. With a leaky home you should not come into it lightly. You need to really expect to be looking at a rebuild and you’ve got to think worst case scenario because nothing’s to code.

“You need to truly understand what you are getting into. Understand the area and don’t over capitalise, and it may be unhealthy. And you may need to do work on it very quickly because you won’t want to live somewhere with black mould.”

Because of her line of work Shelley had a good idea of what it would cost to redo the home, but she also got in experts for a second opinion and to make sure it was a healthy home.

There are plugs in the skirting boards to monitor moisture levels, and they have also been advised that they can live in the house for 25 years as it is, as long as they maintain it.

The couple and their boys, Flynn, 11 and Jett, 9, have been living in the house for two years and they are in no rush to renovate in the current climate, preferring not to put pressure on themselves.

They asked themselves the question, ‘why did they need to do it?’ and the answer was they didn’t need to do it right now.

“When we moved in, I was like, ‘right, let’s sketch it all out and do it in 3D. I know exactly what I want.’ But that’s not going to happen until we have the money. Don’t get me wrong, I can see exactly what I’m going to do with it, and I will do it,” Shelley laughs. “Because I don’t know if I could cope letting this house go without doing it, but who knows when that will be.

“I think we’ve just all got to be super gentle on ourselves this year. It just feels like too much. I’m just really enjoying working on my business which has gotten busier and I’m really grateful for that. I want to keep it manageable.

I think over the last few years it’s been quite intense in so many ways for so many people and it’s different for everybody.”

There are also a lot of great plaster houses out there, adds Shelley, who feels for people with these homes as the value is challenged so much.

Shelley admits it may sound silly, but she recommends practising gratitude around your home and what you love about it, as well as identifying friction points and getting rid of as much friction as you can.

The Block

After judging 10 seasons of The Block, Shelley is sad that it is not happening this year. A self-confessed property and real estate nerd, she loves seeing how the homes are transformed and the courage of the contestants.

“Kiwis love a bit of DIY and it’s such a challenging 12 weeks – I think they are incredible results they achieve and there’s just that auction buzz because no one knows what’s going to happen.”

When Shelley first started on The Block she was secretly quite terrified. Half introvert/extrovert she was used to being behind the camera, not in front of it. But what made the difference for her was that she was doing something she’s passionate about – that got her excited.

“At first it was quite scary but now I really love it and feel super comfortable doing it. I’m really glad that I pushed myself,” she says. “I think it’s really healthy to get out of your comfort zone, even with a house. We’ve had a few years of having the same habits during lockdowns. I’ve been thinking about pushing your house – for example, how can you have different experiences in your home and mix it up? Perhaps it’s an outdoor fire and paving area for toasting marshmallows; a yoga or creative area.”

She believes pushing oneself within your comfortable limits is a healthy thing to do, and in 2023 Shelley’s taking this approach with her business by expanding into furniture design. So far, she’s launched four pieces and a new brand, Interior Edit, for which she has created palettes of product to renovate with – eight different looks with a benchtop, hard flooring colour, carpet and paint. It’s a pre-prepared package that’s more accessible for those on a tight budget.

“I know everyone can’t afford an interior designer and so I’ve developed this and I’m really excited about it,” she says. “The products are good quality and extremely well priced and I’ve done the work, honestly for months, going through hundreds of different carpets, floors and undertones to match these looks. I’m just excited to hopefully help more people in a more accessible way with their homes.”

Helping people is one of the things she loves most about being an interior designer. She observes that while we are the closest people to ourselves, we’re also the furtherest away and often find it hard to pinpoint our style if interiors are not your strong point. We might know how to do it with an outfit but it’s trickier to pull through into a home.

“I think home really is the ultimate statement of who we are, just like fashion. I love the process with people and getting into the nitty gritty of what makes them tick and what it’s going to take for them to wake up and look around and feel at peace with a space that is truly them,” she says. “I love getting homes working better because I think there is so much joy and I really do think it improves your life if your house works properly.”

That includes function, storage, traffic flow, spaces being together and apart.

“I like that psychological aspect. People don’t really think about how they walk through a house but the way you place everything completely influences their actions.”

Over the years she has learned to visualise a space, though in the past, before deciding on a design plan at home, she would empty a room which entailed Steve lugging out the sofa. This was because everything in the room used to throw out her instincts on the design possibilities. When it was empty, she could get a true sense of the space.

These days, of course, she doesn’t need to ask clients to clear out their homes for her to start the creative process.

Finding calm

Despite the pressure of running her own business, life after working in publishing and being on deadline for 20 years straight is definitely more balanced.

A tool that she has been using recently is the Calm app, recommended by a friend, which she really enjoys.

“I’m not very good at meditating but the check-ins on the Calm app every day are great. There’s a lot of breath work which I really enjoy, even if you only have one minute. It has lots of lovely learnings that help you look inwards with great little practices every day. Just yesterday when I was listening to Calm, it talked about comparison and how if you get hung up on looking at everyone else and what they’re doing, you can’t put yourself out there in your unique way, which is your gift. Your unique traits are your strengths so if you’re putting yourself out there, let those rip.”

Questions to ask yourself

  • Who lives here and what are their functional needs?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • How do you want the home to look?
  • How would you like it to feel?
  • Describe your style…
  • What are the problem areas?
  • What areas do you love?
  • Who uses the spaces and what for?
  • What would you like to do more of in your home?
  • How do you want the spaces to relate to each other?
  • Are there any site-specific challenges to keep in mind?
  • Do you have a budget?
  • What is your ideal timeframe for this project?

How to choose and test paints

  • Start by selecting a few colours you like. Pick up A2 cards, test-pots and testpot paintbrushes from your local paint shop.
  • Paint each colour on a different card, leaving a white border to create visual separation from any other colours when you hold it up to the wall.
  • Place the cards in different rooms at different times of the day and night to see how the colours vary.
  • Notice how the colours look with the scheme you’ve chosen and any existing elements you are keeping – are the undertones off?
  • Understand sheen levels. Matt creates a flat finish, semi-gloss a satin finish, and high-gloss a lacquered effect.

Tip: If you’re opting for a white interior, painting everything (ceilings, skirtings, architraves and doors) in the same white creates a high-end, modern look. Vary the sheen levels for practicality: semi-gloss for frames and doors; ceiling paint tinted to your chosen white for ceilings. Alternatively, for subtle variation, use different strengths of the same white.

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