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After Robert and Cortney Novogratz bought a rundown 1917 farmhouse in rural western Massachusetts seven years ago, they couldn't wait to knock down the walls between the dark, cramped first-floor rooms. "People just don't live with separate living and dining areas anymore," says Cortney. "We wanted our family to be together in one space and to give the house a light, loft-like feel." Once the walls were history, they splashed the areas, including the floors, with white paint. "The goal was to create a blank canvas for colorful art and furniture," Cortney says. "And kids are going to scuff up floors either way, so it's easy to add more paint."
The scheme was all in keeping with the philosophy behind Six Design, the couple's Manhattan-based firm, which specializes in buying and updating neglected properties. (The company was named in honor of their six children—they now have seven but no plans to rename the business.)
From the exterior, with its rain slicker-yellow shutters, to the five upstairs bedrooms, each painted a different punchy shade, the house takes a bow toward tradition but exudes an edgy playfulness. Robert and Cortney are fearless about furniture and art, assembling a hodgepodge from all over—flea markets and thrift shops as well as discount chains and the closeout section at high-end stores. "If you budget right you can mix high and low," Cortney says, "which gives you the freedom to splurge on one item as a focal point."
Guided by passion, not fashion, the two buy what they love regardless of condition or cachet. "Imperfections give furniture character," Cortney says. And a little chipped paint or a scratch often makes a piece more likely to be affordable. Plus, with seven children running around, Cortney and her husband want the look to have an element of fun. "Home should be a sanctuary," she says, "but it should also have a sense of humor."
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Wall-to-wall white unites the living area with the kitchen, where the whole clan hangs out. The couple keeps furnishings to a minimum so there's less upkeep and more space for the kids to do their own thing. Robert and Cortney's wallet-friendly finds include cabinets from Home Depot and an Ikea kitchen table.
Tip: Put your money into the door pulls and knobs to dress up inexpensive drawers and cupboards.
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A few accessories in the twin boys' room add whimsy to vivid cobalt walls. Inexpensive, durable roller blinds are a functional touch.
Tip: Keep furnishings simple and sparse to let the art and adventurous pieces speak for themselves.
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In the living area four timeworn stools found at a flea market act as a counterpoint to a contemporary painting by Graham Gilmore.
—Old or new travel maps are graphic and colorful—children can attach souvenirs with pushpins.
—Blow up favorite photos to poster size and place in unfussy frames.
—When you're at a flea market, give kids a theme and let them shop around. "The girls once put together a big collection of portraits of women for their room," Cortney says.
—Group multiples of anything on a wall—try cheap art that has a similar theme, such as comic book covers. Keep one element consistent, whether size, color or subject.
—Basic furniture and neutral bedding mellow a space painted in a very strong shade.
—Whether it's streamlined and modern or vintage ornate crystal, a unique light fixture makes a big difference.
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Room in Bloom
The twin girls share an upstairs bedroom painted in a favorite lilac shade. "We wanted happy, vibrant colors for all the kids' rooms," Cortney says.
Big Ideas for Kids' Rooms
—Bring everything within reach by putting hooks and bins low.
—Use sophisticated fabrics and furniture that won't be outgrown too quickly.
—Go with patterns to hide stains and fingerprints.
—Get children involved in their room and they'll take care of it.
—To cut costs, use metal bed frames. Pillows or a large piece of art like a poster are graphic substitutes for a headboard.
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An Inviting Entrance
With its striped Sunbrella fabric curtains and vintage chandelier, the Novogratzes' porch makes a bold statement. Cortney and Robert kick back with (from left) Bellamy, 10; Holleder and Five, both 4; Wolfgang, 12; Tallulah, 10; and Breaker, 8 (baby Major not pictured).
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Massed together, both old and new family pictures in inexpensive dark frames from discount stores turn the stairwell into a gallery. "It's a great way to show off your family tree, and kids love to hear stories about their relatives," Cortney explains.
Tip: Convert color photos to black and white on the computer before printing to create an artistic look.
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Robert and Cortney see no need to have matching chairs around the table, a designer floor model purchased on the cheap. "It's more fun to mix them up," Cortney adds. Faux snakeskin chairs cohabit with Louis XV-style clear plastic ones from a closeout sale.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.