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3-Step Decorating: Dining Room

Do you have a blank room to decorate and not a clue how to start? Follow this three-step plan that invests in furnishings slowly and looks ahead for design flexibility and growth.

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You moved into a larger house with your first real dining room (bye-bye, eat-in kitchen), but you don't have the bona fide furniture -- or the budget -- to fill it right away. Still, you want to entertain friends with a modicum of style while you settle into the house and think about what furnishings and feeling you'd like to have in the room.

Tactic: Evoke a French bistro style. Utilize basic dinnerware from your bridal registry, pieces of furniture you already have, and a bevy of affordable accessories.

They're not pretty, but when a dining room is empty, a folding table and chairs are quick and cheap. When you buy real furniture, the folding table and chairs can be used for parties on the deck and holiday gatherings, so money is not wasted.

Square white tablecloths are inexpensive and versatile for the future, especially since you don't know the size of your "dream table." Place a square at each end, then angle a third square in the middle to cover the gap and voila -- bistro style in a bare room.

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Compose compelling place settings so guests focus on food and conversation, not on the empty room. Put your wedding registry dishes and basic stemware alongside Grandma's love-it-forever flatware. Classics commingle with margarita-glass votive holders and $2 curtain ring clips used as napkin/place card holders.

Use a half dozen empty soda bottles to spread one bunch of blooms into a big arrangement for just a few bucks.

White wood blinds are definite keepers; they suffice solo for now, but leave room for dressing up in the future once you've settled on a color and style plan.

Photography is affordable art, especially when outlined with wide white mats and black frames. Choose meaningful subjects to personalize the space -- travel photos, nature images, still lifes. Later, you can move the art to a powder room or guest room.

Use that wooden wine rack you bought for your first apartment in the 1990s as a buffet or bar. Make it part of a wall composition with artwork, a platter on a stand, and an ice bucket for chilling wine.

Resources: Like what you see in this story? As of 2005, the items featured in this story were available from these manufacturers. Wall color #SW6137 Burlap -- The Sherwin-Williams Co.; 800-474-3794; www.sherwin-williams.com. Table and chairs -- Cosco Home & Office Products; 888-818-5110; www.coscoproducts.com. Hotel napkins, tablecoverings -- Sam's Club; 800-881-9180; www.samsclub.com. Bottle vases -- Jones Soda Co., 800-656-6050; www.jonessoda.com. Kitchen towels -- IKEA; in the United States: 800-434-4532; in Canada: 800-661-9807; www.ikea.com. Margarita glasses -- Pier 1 Imports; 800-245-4595; www.pier1.com.

You've settled into the house and desperately need to ditch the folding table and chairs. Budget-wise you're not ready for a total makeover, but you'd like to gradually purchase core furnishings and accessories that add substance, color, and comfort to the room. Your final decorating style, however, is still undecided.

Tactic: Evolve from French bistro to crisp botanical style. Buy furniture and build on the basic white and black accessories, adding color, texture, and substance.

If you're not yet ready to commit to a new color scheme, pick up on the soft green walls with botanical motifs in special napkins and fresh-cut or potted plants and flowers. Keep the look clean with simple white cotton window panels.

The strong bones of this black furniture are classic yet crisply current. The pieces will look great if you elaborate on this clean green scheme -- or go formal in the future.

The long, bare back wall needed attention. A round black mirror ($200) chimes in perfectly with the classic table and creates a much-needed focal point. A pair of affordable glass wall vases ($40 per pair) widens the arrangement and allows you to add fresh-cut blooms in seasonal colors.

Keep the interior airy with clear glass vases, candle hurricanes, and water carafes. Strong curves add shape and interest to the table, yet the glass lets light shine through. Plus, glass pieces are ultimately versatile.

Set a more sophisticated table by layering new square plates on woven chargers atop linen runners. Grandma's silver flatware and your original glasses still work great. Potted-fern place cards are special and inexpensive.

As you begin to invest in tableware and accessories, this cabinet stores your wares. It also serves as a bar and a buffet server. Tall vases, crystal barware, and the same framed photo keep this area a focal point until you invest in new art.

Resources: Like what you see in this story? As of 2005, the items featured in this story were available from these manufacturers. Table -- Francisco in Black, chairs Stefano in Black, wall vases Simple Wall Vase, available only online or in catalog, table runners, curtains -- Pottery Barn; 800-922-5507; www.potterybarn.com (product line varies). Mirror #WM463 Tourner -- Ballard Designs; 800-367-2775; www.ballarddesigns.com (product line varies). Fern napkins #76-6491567, fern plates #76-6491773, water bottle #76-6456735 Bottle Carafe -- Williams-Sonoma; 800-541-2233; www.williams-sonoma.com. Glass hurricane -- Crate & Barrel; 800-996-9960; www.crateandbarrel.com (product line varies). Glass botanical jars and cloches, glass vase botanical jar without lid -- Two's Company; 800-896-7266; www.twoscompany.com. Square plates, square place mats -- Cost Plus World Market; 800-267-8758; www.costplusworldmarket.com

After a few years you finally find it -- a dreamy fabric for draperies that works perfectly with the transferware dishes you now collect. It sets the elegant tone you've come to admire as your tastes and budget have matured. It's time to go for it!

Tactic: Finish out the room, taking color and formality cues from the fabric for a brave new wall paint, a rug, dinnerware, and wall elements. Use pieces you've carefully gleaned along the way and enjoy with pride the look you've built comfortably over time.

Enough of safe colors, you're ready to take a leap! Plucked from the floral fabric, coral becomes banding on the curtains, the color on the wall, and fresh flowers for centerpieces.

Melding a color-themed collection into this decor jump-started the final phase. Start with one serving piece, then ease into place settings as your collection grows. Amber glass chargers, bowls, wineglasses, and curtain rod finials tie to those tones in draperies, slipcovers, and rug. Grandma's silver? Still there, tied in a new faux-suede napkin.

This rich floral drapery fabric stands strong with the black table and introduces accent hues of amber, coral, and brown. With table and draperies in place, it's finally rug time. A subtle grid of sand, brown, and black ties into the room hues (and the nylon fibers are easy-care).

Leaves elongate the table to a formal scale. The addition of two slipcovered, upholstered chairs adds seating stature and the striped fabric reverses to solid brown for a change of look.

That mirror is still going strong, but now plates and platters join it. The beauty? The wall arrangement can expand and reconfigure as the collection grows. Atop the bar, a lamp adds height and ambient lighting to the composition.

The same linen runners from stage two grace the table and bar with the addition of matching square napkins as place mats. Decanters also remain.

Resources: Like what you see in this story? As of 2005, the items featured in this story were available from these manufacturers. Wall color #SW6600 Enticing Red -- The Sherwin-Williams Co.; 800-474-3794; www.sherwin-williams.com. Floor covering #9365-687 Maroc in Mosaic -- Masland Carpets, Inc.; 800-633-0468; www.maslandcarpets.com. Slipcovered chairs slipcovered in Jazzy in Sand -- Lee Industries; 800-892-7150; www.leeindustries.com. Wall plates -- Two's Company; 800-896-7266; www.twoscompany.com. Linen runners, napkins (used as place mats) -- Pottery Barn; 800-922-5507; www.potterybarn.com (product line varies). Fabric for curtain panels #REC21016F Sommerset Brown, Tradewins collection, panel trim #REC20207F in Coral, Black, White and Bright collection by Kristiina Ratia -- Motif Designs, Inc.; 800-431-2424. Sheers -- Target Stores; 800-800-8800; www.target.com (product line varies). Curtain rod -- Croscill Home Fashions; 800-791-3322; www.croscill.com. Amberware bowls, stemware, and chargers Colin Cowie -- JCPenney Home collection; 800-222-6161; www.jcpenney.com. Brown-and-white dinner plates, soup bowls, and transferware Johnson Brothers Historic America II -- Replacements.com; 800-737-5223; www.replacements.com. Golden faux-suede napkins, fruit bowl, lamp on buffet -- Pier 1 Imports; 800-245-4595; www.pier1.com.

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