I like reading Apartment Therapy‘s ‘how to’ posts. Today AT Chicago has a post that’s particularly close to my heart – ‘how to avoid the catalog look at home’.

When we moved to the US seven years ago, we first lived in San Diego. We had visited a couple of months prior to scout out rentals and had managed to line up a nice townhouse in UTC, near La Jolla. But it was unfurnished. We were renting out our London house as a furnished property so shipped nothing more than a few clothes and books. Everything else stayed behind or went into storage. When we got to SD, we had just one weekend to furnish the entire place with the basics.

Knowing nothing about the city, or where to look for furniture stores, we went to IKEA. We bought beds, tables, chairs, sofas, kitchen equipment – just about everything – there. Then we had to personalize the place. Seven years on, we still have most of it and, although I love all the pieces we still have, I am constantly looking for ways to create an ‘un-IKEA look’. The fact is, though, as my experience shows, sometimes there is no option but to kit out your entire place from a catalog store. So, if you have to do it, here are my own tips for making it work.

Bring out the family photos

Luckily, shortly after we moved to the US, we got married so had tons of great photos to display. We bought multi-photo frames from Pottery Barn and created combinations of our favorites. One evening and a bottle of wine later, we had simple, but truly personal, art for our walls!

Stock up on books

When we moved, we had five books. Now we have three huge floor-to-ceiling shelves of them, plus three boxes in the garage (I’m intending to get more shelving for them). You can pick up dozens of secondhand paperbacks cheaply (or even new ones on special offer). They instantly make a place more personal and ‘lived in’. Now we feel like we have a history of our last seven years sitting on our book shelves.

Choose the catalog store carefully

I buy at all the usual favorites: IKEA, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Crate and Barrel. But, to me, two stores really excel at offering unusual, eclectic products at a decent price: West Elm and Anthropologie. Here’s why:

Bridge coffee table

This is West Elm’s Bridge coffee table. It doesn’t exactly scream catalog to me.

Sheesham objects

These ‘Sheesham Objects’ are also from West Elm and would make a really personal touch to an office.

Jacoby bench

This is the Jacoby bench form Anthropologie. It looks like something picked up from your travels, not at all catalog.

Pillows as gifts

Whenever people asked what I wanted for Christmas or a birthday, I would tell them a pillow cover. It’s the easiest thing to mail overseas (you just buy the pillow itself locally) and you can always find a home for a gorgeous pillow. Even though we had limited time to travel beyond the London/San Diego (or London/San Francisco) route, it still looks as though we have been around the world because of the eclectic range of pillows we have.

Deck the walls with art

This isn’t an easy, or cheap, approach. But there is no doubt that, with a few personally-chosen pieces of art on the walls, you could furnish an entire home in IKEA and it wouldn’t matter. In fact, it would be the perfect backdrop. Instead of registering at a store when we were planning our wedding, we registered at Wills Art Warehouse in London. After the wedding we chose four spectacular paintings that we absolutely love and which have guided every design decision we’ve made since. Here are two of them.

The Wave painting

Pomegranates painting

My sister and her husband recently also moved from London to the US – they are in NYC. They had to fill an entire apartment from scratch in four weeks – in time for their first baby to arrive! Needless to say, IKEA played a starring role, but they also have a great collection of paintings, etchings and photos collected from their travels around the world. It makes their apartment look effortlessly stylish and really welcoming.

Apartment Therapy has more great tips here. At the end of the day, though, once you have the basics in place, it’s more about patience and being willing to let a home evolve around you over time. And there’s no quick-win solution to replace time.