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 one 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, Jules Verne inspired, Victorian library!
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!
Surrounding yourself with carefully curated items that suggest certain times and places can really make you feel like you’re in another world, whether you’re decorating temporarily for an event, or decorating the space where you live.
Today I’m going to show you how I used the same strategies that I normally use to create literary-themed spaces for parties … to transform an entire house -- the Storyteller’s Cottage, to be exact! And I’ll share my secrets so YOU can also create magical, otherworldly spaces, inspired by your favorite books, on a very tiny budget.
Back in 2016, I bought a commercial property that was once a Victorian home, right on the main street of my small Connecticut town. This house was built in 1891, and had bounced back and forth between being a residence and being a series of offices. When I took over, it was currently in use as a house, but I wanted to use it as a space for my literary-themed event business.
I spent the better part of 2017 redecorating the entire house, 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!
The prospect of decorating an entire house in a highly themed way might sound daunting, but it was actually really fun, and because I ended up having to wait nine months for an unusually-long zoning approval process, there was no pressure to rush. I spent a very pleasant year building the essential background settings for all of these literary events, by sourcing used furniture and decorations on Craigslist and at the local thrift shop. I was able to furnish the entire 8-room house for less than it cost me to buy two new couches for my actual house. Never again will I buy furniture full price at the store!
Now let’s see how I transformed this empty, strangely-cantaloupe-colored room into a warm and elegant Victorian library that became the backdrop for all sorts of turn-of-the-century themed events. Be sure to check the links at the end of this post to view the rest of the series to see how I transformed each of the other rooms at The Storyteller’s Cottage.
This space is the first room you encounter upon entering the front door of the house. When we first saw it, it was being used as a staging area for the previous owners as they sorted out their possessions before packing them up to move, which made it a bit difficult to imagine what could be done with the room.
Once it was empty, however, it was much easier to appreciate the charming historic character that luckily was still intact, namely, this gorgeous fireplace, and beautiful windows with gothic arched muntins. We were very lucky that everything was in very good condition, including the wood floors, and the previous owners also left behind an ornate chandelier that would do very nicely for our purposes.
Attacking an empty room can be a bit daunting, but the secret is to approach the process of filling it up very methodically. Think of your room as a canvas, and think of yourself as the artist who will be filling this canvas with five layers of items - just five - that’s manageable! These layers are:
You can also think of your empty room as a mood board, where everything in it works together to say “I am in Victorian London,” or “I am at Hogwarts,” or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.
To determine what types of things I would need to give my room a Victorian mood, I started by thinking about what items always appear in the Victorian adventurer stories that I love -- things like curved and tufted furniture, elaborate clocks, huge portraits, globes, and even palms and fern plants on stands. As I brainstormed, I realized that I was really drawn toward the Steampunk version of Victorian decor, so I made a point to add some gears and gadgets to my “things to find” list.
1. The Background
I knew I wanted this room to be dark red to complement the beautiful warm wood of the fireplace surround, and I also knew that a Victorian room would never have had painted walls but would be wallpapered, so my first step to build the first layer of this room, was to find a gorgeous vintage looking wallpaper with a beautiful gold pattern -- and it happened to be 50% off since very large-print, vibrant wallpaper really isn’t popular with anyone but me!
To round out the background layer, I needed a nice, vintage, red rug. I’m very lucky to have a friend who’s an oriental rug dealer, so I was able to get a hold of a whole house full of vintage, used rugs at a very reasonable price.
In the library, I choose a gorgeous 1950s Herez style rug, and I just love how it warms up the space immediately. You can see I grabbed this beautiful gold peacock fan fire screen early on too -- as soon as I saw that on Craigslist I knew it would be exactly right. Silky burgundy curtains with gorgeous long gold fringe - also a Craigslist find - set off the windows perfectly.
2. Large furniture
Next, it was time for the large furnishings. I knew I couldn’t afford to fill the entire house with period antiques, and I also knew that because this would be a business that would have a lot of people in and out every day, my furniture needed to be durable. So I decided to spring for one, eye-catching statement piece to set the tone for the room, then build around that with complementary, but more modern pieces.
I found this fantastic red Victorian sofa on Craigslist for just $150, and it’s my favorite piece in the room. There is no mistaking the theme of this space when you see this sofa! Having said that, it was not particularly comfortable to sit on, so I went and found two soft easy chairs in a brown floral print, also on Craigslist, and two red and gold striped accent chairs, actually on Amazon. These were the only brand new items I bought for this room, specifically because I needed the chairs to be sturdy, and couldn’t find any used chairs that didn’t wobble.
Since I wanted this room to look more like a library than a living room, I added two matching wooden bookshelves on each side of the front window. Later on, I ended up having someone come build in some larger bookshelves with a nice window seat between them, but in the beginning, I went with these freestanding shelves because … wait for it ... they were only $60.
As I was scrolling through Craigslist, I happened to see this amazing cabinet with glass doors that match the window arches exactly! So of course, I had to have it. This piece ended up being the home of the time machine that we built for the escape room game that eventually took place in this room, but that’s a story for another day!
3. Accent furniture
So now that I had all the furniture I needed to satisfy the purpose of the room, I moved on to fill in the gaps with some smaller, accent furniture. I started with these cute leather-topped end tables with a lyre design in the base -- and actually found them accidentally when I went to pick up some chairs that I wanted for the dining room -- the seller asked what I was buying them for, and when he heard what I was up to he brought out these tables too and offered to throw them into the bargain for a few extra dollars. That actually happened a lot to me as I drove all over Connecticut picking up Craigslist furniture for the business. When people heard that I was planning to celebrate these vintage pieces and restore them to their former glory, they went back into their basements and garages and brought out more items that they thought I’d like. A lot of these people were selling things that had belonged to their grandparents or had been in their families for years, and it made them happy to know that they would be going to a good home!
I knew that I would be rearranging the furniture to accommodate different types of events, so I bought a bunch more small pedestal tables in various sizes and set them here and there around the room, and they worked perfectly for a number of different arrangements. And you can see the library is starting to look like a place where things happen now!
At this point I could see that I needed a little more Victorian style to balance out the newer chairs and warm up the room, so I found some fun pieces like a cool globe that opens up to hold wine bottles, and a cute artificial palm plant to soften up the corner between the angular wood cabinet and the angular wood fireplace surround. I filled in some of the extra wall space with some beautiful Victorian parlor chairs, and then I moved on to the fourth layer - lighting.
As I mentioned, the previous owners left a gold chandelier, which matched well with everything else, so I didn’t need to worry about replacing that. And I was able to find some really cute table lamps that added some flair to the space with the beaded accents and the scrolled design. I just changed out the shades and went all in on the red vibe, and the fourth layer was done.
Finally, I added a handful of themed accessories. This is the most fun part, but it’s also where you’ll need to exercise the most restraint. Too many doodads can make your room look cluttered, so when you start to find yourself bringing home bags and bags of cute little things from yard sales and thrift shops, repeat the designer’s mantra -- subtlety is more important than volume. Let a few evocative items speak for themselves, not get lost among piles of junk.
I filled in the rest of the spaces with all kinds of old books, a few more plants, some reproduction vintage cameras, a few small steampunk boxes and mirrors, this reproduction vintage phone that really works, a statement floral arrangement, and some great artwork.
And the Jules Verne Steampunk Library was ready for business! This room came together really well, and became the backdrop for a wide range of literary events, including, among many many other things, a Great Gatsby night, a costume ball, a series of parlor concerts, a Jane Austen tea party, a literary cafe, a night of scary stories by candlelight, and even several live murder mystery parties.
Remember, you can see all kind of additional photos of the Victorian Library transformation on our YouTube channel!
Check back for Part 2 of the How to Live in a Book series, featuring the renovation of a colonial-themed room into the elegant Jane Austen Regency Salon: