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With a good assessment and smart decorating choices you can have a family room whose high design tricks people into thinking you've spent more money than you have. It's a strategy we recently deployed, decorating a new home in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

The challenge was the small furnishing and decorating budget. We weren't furnishing the entire 2600-square-foot home, only the six rooms of the main floor and the master suite upstairs. For this the client was laying out $18,000. I'd have liked that much for the family room alone.

But a $100,000 decorating budget isn't the mother of invention. Necessity is. And it's possible to be pleasantly surprised by intelligent frugality. The Mount Pleasant home reminded me of three keys to pulling off a complete look with a less-than-complete budget.

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Make a clear-eyed assessment

Before you start running around looking for great deals, it's important that you take a hard look at what you're working with: the room (and the budget).

We had an easy start, with ten-foot ceilings, beautiful mouldings, herringbone floors, and white millwork surrounding a statement fireplace.

Every space has traits to emphasize and traits to diminish. Take stock of the basic ingredients, your ceiling, floors, walls, and features. What's the room's greatest asset? And greatest liability?

If the ceiling is low, avoid combining dark walls and a white ceiling. It emphasizes the room's squatness. Instead, create the sensation of space by keeping the walls very light - in the same chromatic neighbourhood as the ceiling's white.

If you have high ceilings and ugly flooring, consider painting the room a rich hue to draw the eyes up. Two caveats: Don't paint the walls the opposite colour of the floor; the latter will pop. And avoid rich greens or blues if your floors are old fir, the wood will show up an unpleasant shade of orange.

If your family room fireplace is an eyesore and you haven't budgeted for an overhaul, take the simplest solution. Paint it white. With light walls, it will be well disguised.

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Learn how to push and pull the eye

I once heard a magician on Robson Street say that misdirection - the ability to confuse the eye - is the secret of all magic tricks. That's the spirit in which we furnished and decorated our living room. Sleight of hand is necessary when you've got just $5,000 to cover a sofa, a rug, two chairs, a coffee table, art, and accessories.

Usually, I advise homeowners to spend the bulk of their cash on the largest living-room piece, the sofa. But a high-end model would have blown our budget. Instead, we needed the sofa to slip by, unnoticed and inexpensive, so we could make our impact elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, we found ourselves at Ikea. The sofa I always recommend to friends furnishing on the cheap is the Karstand. Its virtues? Boxy proportions that make it an easy companion for more commanding pieces, quality construction, and a price of $699. (The only drawback is the Karstand's pine legs - they scream cheap - so I simply spray-paint them grey.)

It was now important to fill the remaining space with some star power. The diva we chose is a Louie Style chair in a designer print. At $2,200, it made us think twice, but after scouring Vancouver for a better option we found ourselves back at the Cross, handing over the credit card. The Louie's power isn't just in its curvy form; it's in the pattern and deep blue of the upholstery. That's the lesson: Make sure your bold piece has sufficient character to draw the eye.

After the Louie, everything had to be cheap. The coffee table is traditional in form and doesn't demand attention. It was $400. The other accent chair is a design classic by Eames. I sold it from my own mismatched collection for $150, and paired it with an Ikea reading light.

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We lucked out with the rug; our clients already had it. A beautiful weave of silk and wool, this white beauty was the perfect canvas for our eclectic collection.

Get creative with accessories

Furniture will fill a room but it's the artwork and decorative elements that give it personality. Fortunately, these are the easiest places to get creative.

With less than $1000 to spend we filled our big holes first: the mirror, the artwork, and the cushions for the sofa. For the first two we hit Homesense and picked through cheesy paintings and mirrors until we found a distressed Restoration Hardware knock-off for $69.95 and canvas poster for $99.95. It's critical when looking for inexpensive wall art to stay away from fake paintings. They'll make your home look like an unlovely show suite in a suburban condominium complex. A better choice is to take images from a book of photography and mount them in crisp frames on large white mats.

We splurged on the cushions. People interact with them as part of the furnishing scheme, so it's nice if they're beautiful. We had a couple made up in affordable designer fabrics (for $150 each) and we splurged on one designer cushion in bold blue and white, drawing a connection with the Louie.

Filling the shelves required industry and patience. We started by collecting the most inexpensive store-bought frames we could find and painstakingly filling them with postcards, excerpts from old books, and art prints we bought on Etsy.

After artwork, books are the best styling trick you can use to fill open shelving. But not any books will do. A mix of randomly coloured books looks messy and distracting - they're better in a library or reading nook away from the home's main focal points. We used one of our old standbys - buying boxes of hardcovers from thrift stores, and wrapping them in brown paper. It never fails.

Looking back at the photos now, I have to shake my head. We squeezed an admirable amount of design into a room for not very much money. I hope some of our tricks come in handy for you.

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