Style on a shoestring: A new breed of thrifty stylists is on hand to help you perfect the retro look

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The Independent Online

The biggest problem with design trends – and this is a big one – is that if you want to slavishly follow them, you need the sort of budget that would bring tears to the eyes of Kelly Hoppen. Never mind plaster, paint and re-wiring, just stocking the kitchen and buying a few soft furnishings can run into hundreds if not thousands of pounds. If you want some expert guidance on top, well, you can kiss goodbye to that summer holiday.

Bubbling under though, as trends tend to, is a push towards a retro, organic, slightly kitsch and, overall, thrifty school of interiors, a world away from impractical minimalism and exorbitantly priced statement sofas.

Vintage has of course been major news in the fashion world for some years. Searching out one off items in boutiques and at markets guarantees original style for a fraction of the high street price, and well-made older pieces usually last longer than anything brand new and hurriedly sewn by nimble Chinese fingers.

The same is true of decorating. Unfortunately the drawbacks of dressing in vintage translates directly to interiors as well: it takes time, patience and a trained eye to spot the best stuff, and if your sense of style is lacking your home will end up more Nora Batty than Chloë Sevigny.

So it's just as well a new breed of experts is emerging to ease these issues. Take Emily Chalmers, for example, the owner of interiors temple Caravan in London's East End and the author of a clutch of design books including Flea Market Style and Cheap Chic. Her shop is a collection of the treasures which have caught her beady eye at trade fares, jumble sales and markets: retro French lamps, vintage glassware, hand-painted pottery, cushions covered in vintage floral fabric and porcelain dogs.

Smug, in Islington, is a family business run by architecture and design graduate Lizzie Evans who mixes original Fifties kitchen furniture and glassware with other retro finds such as Pyrex dishes and vintage woollen throws, alongside popular contemporary designers such as Lisa Stickley and Donna Wilson.

"It's all about styling with what you've got," says Chalmers. "Making the most of what you have and incorporating new with old. I find the idea of gutting a place and buying everything new quite scary. But I really enjoy going into people's houses and tidying up and organising things."

Chalmers' customers might set her the challenge of finding the ideal mirror for their bathroom or measuring up for some exclusive Deborah Bowness wallpaper hand-printed with wry trompe l'oeil designs of books or clothes. Or they'll come in with photos and she'll get out her paint swatches and match the colours with her products, such as the Jieldé steel lamps, a 1950s style similar to Anglepoise of which Caravan is the main British stockist.

Evans opened her beautiful shop last summer after renovating the space to create a place which feels just like home: in the light basement of the three storey shop there's a working sink and space for parties, and each shelf and surface shows off her carefully chosen homewares. "It's about creating a balance between the vintage and the new," she says. "I originally sourced the furniture as display but everyone wanted it, so I've been finding more to sell since week one. People come in and say they'd like to live here, and I tell them I can make their home look like this."

Evans trained as an interior designer and is taking on more jobs for customers after a bigger slice of the Smug style. That includes finding items for an entire Fifties-style kitchen and curating sets of vintage glassware as alternatives to the typical John Lewis wedding lists – "it's so boring when everything looks the same".

That said, the magpie approach of both Caravan and Smug, which share the ethos of blending quality retro furniture with chintzy vintage fabrics and an unusually generous sprinkling of animal motifs, isn't for everyone. Evans says older customers would never entertain the idea of shelling out for an old kitchen maid server or Pyrex dishes, but love the contemporary designers. Chalmers has customers as diverse as the guy looking for a present for his partner "who loves everything in the shop," to local companies furnishing their offices and a hotel in Japan. A Korean girl once came in clutching one of her books, which turned out to be her university course book.

The real star turn of both businesses, and the reason you'd be happy to return again and again, is that there are so many genuinely affordable items for sale. Many retailers claim to have something for everyone and for every price point, but the numbers rarely add up. In Caravan there are coloured wall hooks – copies of the Charles Eames classic – for £5.50, and a popular deer antler hook for £17.50. A best-selling pineapple-shaped metal wall sconce is £79. Smug has brightly coloured melamine tumblers for £2.50 and cutesy owl-shaped ceramic candlesticks for £12.

Caravan and Smug are lessons in transforming your home on the cheap without a single trip to Ikea: buy a set of vintage glasses here, an unusual second-hand floor lamp there, a hand-painted teapot and a ream of old fabric to transform cushions and chairs in need of some care and attention.

Chalmers insists you don't need to dismiss the DIY approach if you're no good at sewing. "It's true that I'm happy to mend things we've found for Caravan that other people might not be, such as an old tapestry which was sellotaped to some board. But making a few changes is really simple." She points out the curtains dividing her bedroom from the living space in her own home, a few minutes' stroll from the shop. Instead of spending time hemming and hanging the fabric, which has a vivid leafy print that brings the outdoors into the indoor city space, she just hung it up on a string with clothes pegs. One of the brick walls is decorated with a selection of vintage postcards.

Over the front door hangs a piece of fabric she picked up in New York, the spiritual home of the flea market. And the concept seems to have come full circle: while Caravan has been going in London for almost a decade, taking inspiration from the thrifty bohemian tastes of Greenwich Village, a little enterprise called Scout Designs has just opened in New York, offering the vintage look via their interiors service.

For those confident enough to go in search of their own unique finds, some advice from the experts: go to everything you can; you're just as likely to stumble upon a pair of Danish kitchen chairs at the church jumble sale as anywhere else. If you don't have the energy, give Caravan or Smug a call – you can order most items through their websites and they'll help you with specific requests for products and styling ideas. But don't plough your hopes, decorating budget and countless hours into eBay. Apparently its moment is long past and neither Chalmers nor Evans has found anything of interest there. You'd be better off raiding your grandparents' home.

Useful contacts

Smug: 13 Camden Passage, Islington, London, N1 8EA (; 020 7354 0253)

Caravan Style: 3 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London, E2 7DJ (Caravanstyle; 020 7033 3522)

Scout Designs: New York (