Decor Goes Underground in Recession

Design-conscious executives and homeowners are trying to be chic without seeming oblivious to the faltering economy.
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Days before Barack Obama's inauguration, many in the design world were focused on one key issue: who the First Family would choose to redecorate the White House.

The Obamas picked Los Angeles designer

Michael Smith

, who's known for working on the homes of celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford and Steven Spielberg. While he landed perhaps the most high-profile clients in the world, his budget would be less than A-list. The country is battling an economic crisis, after all.

Décor is meant to be noticed and appreciated. But as the recession saps budgets, many people are trying to figure out how to be stylish without overspending or, worse, seeming ostentatious. Decorators say clients are demanding more for their money and the utmost in discretion.

"Today's design clients want more and more to ensure they are getting value for their investment, whether out of trend or simple necessity," said Beverly Hills, California-based designer

Kathleen Clements

. "People want to make sure they are putting their money into the right things."

Smith stretched his $100,000 budget to revamp the presidential living quarters by mixing items from past administrations with the Obamas' personal belongings. His approach reflects today's pragmatic attitude toward design. That's why many affluent homeowners are having furniture delivered at dusk to avoid scrutiny, and former auction junkies are shopping for antiques online through companies like

1st Dibs

instead of in boutiques.

It's a valid concern. More than a few reputations have been taken down by overpriced design projects. Take former

Merrill Lynch

Chief Executive Officer John Thain, who left

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

last month after he was to become head of global banking at the combined company. He's now the new symbol of corporate excess after he spent more than a $1 million to redecorate his office when he was hired to lead Merrill Lynch a year ago.

Decorators say their services shouldn't necessarily be considered a luxury. Sometimes it's part of an investment strategy. Large corporations often bring in the best art and décor for their offices to woo big clients and accounts. Many people hire decorators to renovate their homes to maximize their dollar potential and help them compete in a buyer's market.

"A lot of people don't have the ability to envision what a house can be," said Clements, who often mixes rustic items with a few polished new pieces. "But if a house is already decorated, then (potential buyers) don't need to have the vision because all they know is they want it."

While many consider themselves efficient decorators, sometimes it's cheaper to use a professional. Do-it-yourself decorating can result in costly mistakes, cheap-looking fabrics and bad furniture purchases.

Still, there are ways to save. Many designers, including Clements and Smith, have started furniture lines that offer lower prices than people would find at an auction or antiques shop. Inexpensive art and accessories can also boost the look of a home or office for less.

"You don't have to have Warhol and precious objects on display," Clements said. "I've actually found some of my favorite accessories at flea markets."

Michael Martin is the managing editor of -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.