Have you ever wished you could live inside your favorite books? All it takes to transform a basic room into a literary-themed oasis is a few key pieces, and I'm here to show you how! This is part two of my How to Live in a Book series, and today I’ll illustrate the theory behind immersive decorating by showing you exactly how I transformed a very plain room into an elegant, Jane Austen inspired, Regency salon!
If you'd prefer to watch this discussion on YouTube (with lots more photos!) instead of reading through this whole, long post, please click here!
I launched the Storyteller’s Cottage to create immersive events based on my favorite books, and if you’ve watched any of my videos where I explain how to host a literary-themed event, you’ll know that I always start with evocative decor!
Just a quick review if you missed Part One … The commercial property I bought to house The Storyteller's Cottage was built in 1891, and I redecorated it so each room had its own distinct theme that could serve as a backdrop for a variety of bookish activities.
The living room became the Victorian-themed Jules Verne Steampunk Library.
The dining room was transformed into the Regency-era Jane Austen Salon.
The sun room became the whimsical Alice in Wonderland Tea Room.
Two bedrooms were transformed into escape rooms that were themed to time travel and Agatha Christie.
And within months, the whole house was filled with delighted book nerds enjoying enchanted activities like Harry Potter parties, Great Gatsby jazz supper clubs, masquerade balls, Jane Austen tea parties and even live murder mysteries!
Today I’m going to explain how I used the same strategies that I used to create literary-themed spaces for parties … to transform an entire house. I’ll share all of my secrets so YOU can also create magical, otherworldly spaces, inspired by your favorite books, on a very tiny budget.
Now let’s see how I transformed this empty green room into a cool and elegant vintage dining room, inspired by Jane Austen and Regency style.
This room became the backdrop for all sorts of literary-themed events, from midnight dinners, to themed tea parties, and even writing & art classes led by local authors and artists. Be sure to check the links at the end of this post to watch the rest of the series to see how I transformed each of the other rooms at The Storyteller’s Cottage.
This room is located directly off the front hall of the house, just to the right of the staircase. It had fantastic bones, with a glass French door, gothic window arches, and a beautiful original fireplace surrounded by this vibrant green tile, but you can see that when I arrived, it wasn’t being used to its full potential.
You can tell why the previous owners chose this green paint for the walls, thinking it would match the fireplace surround, but their choice of decor was a little chaotic, and too busy for my taste.
For my purposes, I needed the space to be more neutral and flexible, so we could temporarily decorate over and over for our events in any theme or color, and not feel like we were fighting against the wall color.
As I’ve mentioned previously, decorating a “blank canvas” of a room happens in five layers:
1. The Background
So the first thing I did to begin the transformation of this room was to paint it a cool blue with grey tones in it. Blue and green complement each other really nicely, so the fireplace blended right in, and the light blue shade contrasted well against the dark brown woodwork and helped to highlight the windows.
I knew I wanted to build this room around blues, specifically because I was inspired by Regency era artwork like this. I love how delicate the light colors are, and I wanted to make good use of silver and white lace to create the kind of gentle, graceful space that Jane Austen would recognize.
This very light and feminine room is a direct and purposeful contrast to the very dark red, more masculine Library across the hall. These two spaces on opposite ends of the spectrum gave me the variety of backgrounds that I needed as foils for the range of different types of events I wanted to host.
So with the walls settled, I moved on to rugs, and added this very large vintage oriental rug with blue and green tones in it. As I mentioned in my last post, I know a guy, so I was able to get a hold of this massive rug very affordably, and I understand that I’m very lucky to be able to do that. Rugs make a huge difference in a room, softening it up and making it so much more welcoming, and a vintage room like this really needed an actual vintage rug to anchor it.
I completed the background layer with these pairs of traditional drapes at each window, hung on rods capped by silver mercury glass balls, and tied back with some classic tassels made of blue and silver cord with some crystal beads. The fabric I chose is simple but luxurious at the same time, with this blue on blue jacquard pattern. The effect says “this is an elegant room” but it doesn’t interfere with any themed accessories that I might want to add for a specific party. I can still add a whole array of - let’s say - pink tea party dishes and flowers for an Alice in Wonderland tea party, without feeling like everything is clashing in the background.
I felt strongly that this room needed actual vintage items to create the Regency atmosphere, rather than things that were perfectly nice and elegant, but not old. Decorating is all about the details, and sometimes the effect of a certain item is subconscious to the viewer, but it all adds up to create a feeling that people respond to. Imagine what this room would have felt like with a plain rug, or more modern curtains. You wouldn’t have been able to imagine Jane Austen visiting, and guests wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the fun of losing themselves in an immersive environment. It is so fun to dress up for tea and pretend you’re in the Austen family home!
2. Large furniture
So, with the background sorted, it was time for the large furnishings. As with the Steampunk Library across the hall, I knew I’d want to rearrange the room in various different ways to accommodate different types of events, so I looked for smaller pieces that could serve more than one function.
As I mentioned in my last post, I couldn’t afford to buy real Regency era antiques, nor did I want to because they’d be too fragile to use every day. But, as I was scrolling through Craigslist, I got lucky. I happened to find two separate sets of the exact same vintage mahogany dining furniture in a reproduction Regency style, and I was able to use them together to fill the room.
This style is known as Hepplewhite, and it was originally produced between 1780 and 1810 in London by cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite. This furniture was everywhere during the Regency era (1811 - 1820), then it fell out of fashion ... then it fell back into fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s those reproductions that caught my eye. My great grandmother had a dining set that looked just like this, and I had always loved it. Regency style features flat surfaces without carvings on the table-type pieces, contrasted with voluptuous curves on the smaller pieces like chairs. Between the two sets I was able to buy two pedestal tables that could be expanded with extra leaves, two identical sideboards, two glass front hutches, and seven of these traditional lyre or harp back chairs.
By placing the tables end to end, I could seat 12 people around one large table, that could be square or rectangular, depending on how I oriented the tables. Or I could separate the tables and use them to seat two smaller groups, or even push them against the walls and leave the center of the room open.
I dug up a few more of the same lyre back chairs on Craigslist for a total of 16 matching chairs, and I replaced all the seat upholstery with a new blue and brown print fabric so they all appeared to be from the same set.
I love symmetry, and it’s really a cornerstone of Regency style, so I placed the two sideboards exactly opposite each other on either side of the room, then the two hutches went into opposite corners.
What’s amazing about Craigslist, is that it’s the go-to spot for people who just want to get rid of things, and care more about someone taking them off their hands than selling them at top value. I mean, these are all antiques in good condition and they were a spectacular bargain. I’ve found listings on online antique sites for these exact same pieces for upwards of $3500 per piece. Now guess what I paid for the whole thing? $700. For the whole thing. That’s two tables, two sideboards, two hutches, and 16 chairs. At an antique shop, that would have run me over $15,000! And I paid $700. Wow.
3. Accent furniture
Ok, back to our five layers of decor. The third layer is normally accent furniture, but in this room I really didn’t need anything else. Someone donated a beautiful old sewing machine that lived under the window for a while, but otherwise, this room was all about the tables and chairs.
Luckily, accent furniture was a pretty light phase of the project, because lighting was actually much more of a hassle than it was in our first room, the Library.
This room had been rented out as an office for many years, and it had gigantic fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. We had an electrician take that out and re-drywall the ceiling, and I replaced it with a “new-made-to-look-old” glass chandelier that I found on eBay for just $50. This is another one of those details that don’t necessarily stand out when you first look at the room, but your subconscious registers it as “fancy” and it really makes the room feel like “high-class things happen here!”
Finally, it was time to accessorize. I pulled the whole blue/green color scheme together with these lovely blue and greenish artificial hydrangeas distributed around the room in vases and pitchers. This really cemented the connection between the blue walls and the green fireplace.
To fill in the walls, I started with a lovely lady over the fireplace. Now, this is the Jane Austen Salon, so you’d be right to assume that this was a portrait of Jane herself, but it’s not. Unfortunately, the only surviving portrait of Jane is this sketch done in 1810 by her sister. Not really striking enough to hang over the mantel. There are a number of paintings based on this sketch, but none of the colorized ones were available in poster size when I was decorating this room. So instead, I decided to hang this damsel, who is actually one of Napoleon's mistresses, but I loved her dress and the shades of the picture, so here she sits, like a fashionable Regency noblewoman.
I found this pair of Regency ladies in perfect 1800s gowns at my local thrift shop, and they further set the Jane Austen mood, then I hung a beautiful round silvery gilded mirror on the feature wall, centered over one sideboard.
To really highlight this statement piece, I framed it with symmetrical silver champagne buckets from Ebay, filled with more hydrangeas and some beautiful shimmery silvery-grey florals, and also some silver candelabras from the Amazon warehouse (where you can get items that people have returned for a deep discount), and an array of real silver serving pieces.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the impact that real silver has on a room. Again - this is one of those items that no one wants any more, so you can get them almost FREE, and they really do some heavy lifting to tell the story of this room. Jane Austen would have had real silver at her house, and so do we.
I spread a lot of silver all over the room, on the sideboards and in the hutches, and it stands out so beautifully against the dark wood. I added an elaborate fireplace screen, which was originally a gold-tone and I spray painted it silver. I sprinkled a few vintage silver trophies around - I love to decorate with things that have words on them in a literary setting - and I found a home for my aunt Sal’s beautiful silver tea set in this room as well.
I also collected a whole bunch of mismatched blue and white china decorations for literally pennies at the thrift shop, and set up a nice eclectic collection on the mantel, looking as if it had been handed down through the family for generations. I filled in a few empty spaces with antique books in shades of dark blue, and then it was time to set the table!
Most of the time, this room was set up for writing classes during the day, so the table just had these light blue linen-y looking tablecloths (not real linen because I hate to iron), then a couple of crystal candelabras, also from Aunt Sal’s house, and some books and flowers. This left plenty of workspace on the table for students to write in their notebooks, or sometimes local authors would stop in and use the Salon to work on their manuscripts in a beautiful bright and quiet space.
Often, we would host luncheons in the Salon, sometimes featuring live harp music, or tea parties for book clubs or our American Girl Doll Club.
When we needed to set the table to serve food, we used this beautiful set of blue and white china dishes that I found - guess where - on Craigslist. A very charming young couple had collected a service for 100 people to use at their outdoor wedding, then when the wedding was over, they were selling it off in small sets. When I arrived to look at the dishes, they heard what I was using them for and brought out a whole pile of real silver silverware (forks, knives, spoons), and a whole bunch of these beautiful white tiered serving plates as well. So I picked up a few of those and they really made our teatime table settings look fantastic.
In the evenings, the Jane Austen Salon was the site of many grand literary dinner parties, including an Alice in Wonderland dinner, a Midnight in Paris dinner, a Last Night on the Titanic dinner, a Midnight Dinner inspired by the Night Circus, dinner with an author, several haunted dinners and masquerade parties, among many others.
A salon can be a reception room in a large house, or it can mean a gathering of people held by an inspiring host. During that gathering the guests amuse one another and increase their knowledge through conversation.
So in our salon, many interesting and enriching activities took place for the local fans of literature and storytelling! We hosted literary crafting socials where we made art journals and things from old book pages, we held board game nights, we hosted a culturally enriching Armenian Brandy Tasting … before the pandemic the Jane Austen Salon was busy around the clock! We often held large whole-house parties for up to 50 people, so on those nights the Salon held a grand buffet for the guests. And of course, the Salon was at the heart of our regular, live murder mystery parties.
It was a lot of fun to put together such an elegant room - much more aristocratic than I would have ever decorated my own house! If you ever visited the Storyteller’s Cottage and spent time in the Jane Austen Regency Salon, tell us about it in the comments or email a photo to info at storytellerscottage.com!
Remember, you can see all kind of additional photos of the Jane Austen Regency Salon transformation on our YouTube channel!
Check back for Part 3 of the How to Live in a Book series, featuring the renovation of this catchall office storage space into a fantastically immersive Magical Common Room, inspired by none other than the Gryffindor Common Room.