This is the time of the year when you’re just about settled in, but something is still not quite right. You look around at your room, and it seems … just a little lacking in personality. The coffee table you made out of a piece of plywood and an upside-down recycling bin isn’t looking quite as chic as you first envisioned it; your dresser is covered with coffee-cup stains; that bookshelf you salvaged from York Street is looking a little more dingy than you remembered.

I didn’t salvage my bookshelf from the street (rather, I got it at IKEA, where they forgot to scan its barcode, and it didn’t trip off any security alarms — can we say moral dilemma?). Nonetheless, Swedish-designed and all, it quickly began to rankle me. Its bare, 13″x75″ side seemed to taunt me with its blindingly white nakedness. Decorate me, it seemed to plead.

But I didn’t want to go the old tapestry or taped-up-postcard route. No, I knew I had greater reserves of arts and craftiness left in me from back in the days when I got E’s for Excellent in mandatory art class. And that’s where decoupage came in.

I first learned about decoupage from one of my best friends, a very heterosexual and virile young chap who had recently embarked on a project to decoupage his coffee table with a massive collection of beer labels. You can decide for yourself, but I say that no matter your gender or sexual orientation, there is never any shame in pursuing a little home improvement, especially when it is this simple.

So what is decoupage? Well, according to the National League of Decoupeurs, it means “the creative art of assembling, pasting and varnishing paper cutouts for decorating objects.” From the French “decouper” (to cut out), a decoupage is basically a glorified collage. I don’t actually really know what the difference is between them, and you needn’t either. All you need to know is that decoupage sounds a little fancier, making you sound a little more talented if you decide to follow these few easy steps to decorating glory.

I decided to cover my bookshelf with photos of flowers, cut out from various gardening magazines I bought at the Yale bookstore. Largely, I just went at it — playing The Shins at top volume as I decoupaged away in my bra and jeans. But I have a few tips that may help you avoid some of the frustrations I experienced. To avoid frantically searching for photos of flowers in Tennis Magazine while covered in glue, try to cut out or collect as many pieces as you can before beginning the project. Cover the whole surface with larger pieces cut at 90-degree angles first, then fill in the cracks with more interesting shapes. Make each piece distinctive from its neighbors, both in terms of color (sunflower next to lilacs) and busy-ness (photo of a full garden next to photo of a full garden does not look good).

In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter what you do. One of the beauties of decoupage is that you can always paste right on over your mistakes. Bet they never taught you that in third grade art.


One container matte Mod-Podge ($7.63 plus tax at Hull’s Art Supply)

The cheapest paintbrush you can find (I got one for $1.99 at Hull’s)

Magazine cutouts, beer labels, whatever your inner interior decorator’s little heart desires

A non-Yale issued surface to decoupage (it’s permanent)

1. Working in small areas, paint a thin coat of Mod-Podge on the object’s surface.

2. Place cutout on the Mod-Podged surface, smooth as best you can (though it’s pretty much impossible to get it wrinkle-free)

3. Paint Mod-Podge over the cutout liberally. It will be a gluey mess and you will think you did something terribly wrong, but don’t worry, it will dry clear.

4. Optional: If you are working on a horizontal surface (coffee-table, TV stand), you can buy a cheap piece of glass to put on top of your masterpiece. This protection is less necessary — and is pretty much impossible anyway — for vertical surfaces.