For this month’s installment of Do as a Designer Does, we chatted with designer Tiffany Thompson (you might know her on Instagram as @theplantmami). Or maybe you’ve saved images from her neutral, layered home, featured on Architectural Digest. The Portland, Oregon-based designer is one to watch and we’re thrilled to share her advice below.
What are your tips for making a new build lacking character feel special and unique?
I think about this so often! I bought a townhouse that looked like every other home on the block, and immediately wanted to put my own finishing touches on it outside of furniture.
My best advice is to look at it as a creative opportunity instead of a limitation. With a brand-new home or apartment, you’re most likely dealing with builder-grade materials from the hardware to the trim, doors, and windows. While that can feel overwhelming, you’re essentially dealing with a blank canvas — there are so many creative and budget-conscious ways to add character and personality.
Of course, paint is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to transform a home or apartment. Color therapy is a real thing, and paint can really help evoke certain emotions throughout a space. Ask yourself, What do I want each space to feel like? and select your paint colors from there. For example, blues are really calming and great for bedrooms and bathrooms, whereas yellows, oranges, and reds are vibrant and upbeat and can help spark creativity in a home office.
Wallpaper is another great accent. Temporary or traditional wallpaper can add texture and interest to your home — especially when used strategically. For example, wallpapered statement walls, ceilings, and even a small powder bath can help create those standout focal points in your home.
Next, I always recommend switching out or adding millwork. From trim and crown moulding to wainscotting and wall paneling, these details add architectural interest and character to a home without breaking the bank. Even something as simple as switching out the lightweight, builder-grade doors for a nice paneled option can make a huge difference.
Upgrading your hardware and light fixtures is another quick fix. New builds typically have the most basic cabinet pulls, door handles, and light fixtures, so upgrading them to something more eye-catching will make your space feel unique. Even opting for brass or acrylic hardware instead of your standard polished nickel or stainless steel can make an impact. Of course, statement ceiling lighting, wall sconces, and lamps add an element of sculpture to a space and can make it feel like a custom build.
Window treatments are another opportunity to infuse quality into a space. I always switch out the standard Home Depot white blinds and basic curtain rods; they just feel very “new build.” Faux-wood blinds are still cost-effective but can create a nice contrast against white walls. I also love Roman shades; they feel more structured and intentional but still have a relaxed feel. If space allows, consider widening your window treatments through your curtain placement to create the illusion of a larger, more dramatic window.
As far as furniture and decor go, I always mix in some vintage items to add character to a new build. These storied pieces will distract from the more basic structure of a space and really make a statement in your home! I also think it’s important to mix and match textures and decor styles. For example, I’ll use soft textures, like linen and bouclé, and harder textures, like stone and leather, in the same space to create balance. The same goes for furniture — I always soften more heavy, angular pieces like a large rectangular couch with soft, rounded pieces, like an oval coffee table or statement swivel chair. Finally, textiles and artwork are your friend — layered pillows and rugs will make your space feel warm and inviting, while meaningful artwork will make a house feel like a home.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to break the design rules — these unexpected moments or surprising elements are what make a home memorable!
I hope this helps, and best of luck to you!