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Design on a Budget

photography by Tyllie Barbosa
styling by Kelly McKaig

Reality television peddles the belief that with a couple hundred bucks and sheer determination, in a weekend you can turn any room from a dump into a delight.

While it may be true in a very few cases, you might find yourself cursing the design geniuses on TV after experiencing a do-it-yourself go at renovation.

If only life mirrored the seamless ease of the amazing room transformations broadcast on HGTV and the like. Truth is, there’s a staff of paid designers, carpenters and production staff tucked in the background who are responsible for making it all happen. Of course, if you could afford that kind of help, budget wouldn’t be an issue. That doesn’t mean you don’t have options when creating a space for your massage therapy practice. There are tons of them. With dedication, planning and a little cash to spare, you can transform your massage therapy practice into a place you can be proud of and your clients will love—all without sending yourself to the poorhouse.

“I choose my massage therapists for who they are and not because of their environment,” says Mark A. Miller, owner of Mark A. Miller Architects/ Builders, a Chicago architecture firm that has been specializing in the spiritual side of life since 1998. "That said, a little enhancement to your practice space can go a long way to adding to your clients’ overall experience."

Stretching Your Dollar

"The most important thing is making sure that the space is safe and finished out," says Chicago-based designer Clair S. Molony, meaning, if you have exposed air ducts in your ceiling, drywall is cheap and easy to install. Your space also needs to be clean and free of leaks. If your space has ‘good bones,’ it will be easier (and less expensive) to complete.

You also need to look at the physical structure. Architecture is a reflection of the therapist and the therapist’s efforts, says Miller. “Your design space should complement your goal of treatment,” he says. “Your space is telling your client what kind of treatment he or she will receive.”

Other things worth considering include where the space is located---within your house or commercial space---how it is divided and the noise level associated with it. Is it near a washer and dryer in the basement or next to a bathroom where you’ll hear flushing? If so, you’ll need thicker insulation—which is relatively inexpensive. If you lease a commercial space, you’ll also need to check with the building’s owner before you make any major changes to ensure you are not violating any terms of your agreement.

"You should also have a clear strategy of how you bring people in", says Miller, "whether it’s a separate entrance, or strategically placed folding screens throughout the area to limit should a client open his or her eyes  during the session."

Bright white is clean, but it can sometimes be too intense, says Miller. Olson agrees and promotes the use of warm tones. “There is a lot of psychology behind it. There are 1,000 shades of white, but linen is one of the best whites ever made. It is warm and inviting,” he says. “It literally hugs you.”

Try painting the walls, trim and detailing in different shades of one color, such as linen and beige. You can get paint for $25 a gallon and do it yourself. If you’re not sure of your color selection, there are some paint stores that let you buy inexpensive, sample-sized containers of paint to try on the wall and see if you like it. All lighting will change the color, so be sure that you select a shade in natural lighting.


The easiest and quickest way to turn around a room is paint, and not necessarily only on the walls, says Molony. If the floor is cement, paint it white and cover it with pretty rugs and runners that you can collect at bargain stores.

The principle of using a monochromatic scheme with your paint selections to make a room look more open also applies to the floor. Create harmony in a room by using a similar wall and carpet color. This creates flowing and unbroken lines that will make your room appear larger.

You'll want to select a commercial grade carpet, or take a shot at customizing your own flooring with carpet tiles that come in a variety of sizes, patterns and textures. On sale, they can run as cheap as $4.99 per square. "The best part about using tiles is, if one gets stained or ruined you can replace it," says Molony, who recommends FLOR (www.florcatalog.com). The carpet tiles are 19.7 x 19.7 inches square, and the site has a tile calculator to help you determine how many squares you'll need.

If noise is an issue, carpet also helps to soundproof your space. Since your clients may be barefoot, carpet makes perfect sense as a flooring option.


Ceiling treatments are sometimes overlooked, but when you’re on your back looking up, the last thing you want to do is see fluorescent lighting—and you never want to stare directly into a bare light bulb, says Miller. Try adding some texture or go a step further and add some depth. One way to do that is through lighting.

Natural lighting is critical, says Miller. Skylights or “light tubes” can aid with that indoors. There is no rule that says ceilings have to go all the way up, which is why Miller likes to construct walls that are 12 inches from the ceiling finished off at the top with a panel of glass to let in light. It is also a trick for making smaller spaces appear larger, he says.

For a massage therapy setting, privacy is extremely important. If you are working out of your house, you may be dealing with how to best conceal windows in a room. "This is where you may want to splurge on window treatments with blackout or semi-opaque shades," says Molony. “There are great silhouette shades available that give you total light control and privacy with a thick layer of fabric between each blind that allows light to filter in and soften images."

Recessed canned lighting is a cost-effective way to throw more shadows and make your space more visually appealing, Molony says, and it can be done with your budget in mind. “Try four-inch cans, flush with the ceiling and make sure that they’re on a dimmer,” he encourages.


Lack of balance in a room comes off looking and feeling very spontaneous, which can be distracting to clients. You can create balance in a room, says Miller, by correctly using a single element like color, or with the combination of several elements such as pattern, texture, layout and what you put on the walls.


If done correctly, wall-to-wall mirrors are a stylish way of opening up a small (or large) space. In feng shui, mirrors are good because they maximize the flow of energy, says Miller. New ones are pricey, so try looking for deals at flea markets and garage sales. To brighten up and enlarge your space, place mirrors on a wall opposite the windows to increase light, as well as reflecting the outdoors, inside. You could also try mirroring the top half of a wall, says Molony. Take a mirror from ceiling to 42 inches high; where the mirror hits on the wall, hang a simple shelf and then line it with four vases, each with a flower.


Images are nice. No matter how small, every item in a room has to fall under a main goal. For a massage therapy practice that goal is relaxation, as well as sending the message that the client is in good hands.

Choose artwork that has some depth to it, like rolling meadows or vast stretches of ocean and beach—and absolutely no photos of traffic or corporate logos, says Olson. Stay clear of abstract art deco pieces, cartoons or personal photographs, too, says Molony.

If you have the confidence and creativity, try making your own artwork. It’s easy to buy some acrylic paints and a pre-treated, ready-to-hang framed canvas in any art supply store.

Olson agrees that pre-made art is a definite no-no. “Buy a canvas and paint it a solid color and it will look more fabulous—very surreal, very simple—than something you could buy,” he explains. You can also make high-end looking collages by getting a nice framed matte at someplace inexpensive, such as IKEA, he says, then downloading images online and printing them out on photo paper. “Park photographs work really, really well,” he says.


One of the biggest problems people have is using scale and proportion when putting pieces in a room. You want to make sure that you have a comfortable distance with room to move. Three feet is the minimum space to leave to walk comfortably around pieces. Of course, more is better, says Molony. A client doesn’t want to feel confined to a room. Shoving everything against the wall doesn’t help make a small space look larger, either. Paying close attention to doors and entryways is key. Create some drama around the entrance to your treatment room so it’s clear to clients that they are leaving the “world” behind…for the next hour, at least.

Containing Your Clutter

Before adding anything to a space, think about what you can remove or hide . Organization is the key to running any business, and clutter is not appealing. That doesn’t mean you have to toss everything, provided you can disguise it, says Molony. Use pretty boxes or cubbies available to store clients’ shoes and clothing, and then hide the cubby storage unit with a simple curtain. For the advanced crafters, decorate storage containers with fabric for a clean, cohesive look to your space.

Clean lines are also important. Molony says this can be easily done by embedding things like your stereo system in a closet and then running small speakers throughout the space.

Too many things in a room sends a bad message and can be overwhelming to clients, says Rodika Tchi, BA, MSc, CFSC, a feng shui specialist. Simplicity goes a long way. You need to be aware of the message that your space is sending out. Miller says clients will pick up a sense of your space way before ever entering it, so the signals you send have to be the right ones.

Getting Back to Nature

Feng shui is a focus on design that brings outside beauty indoors. This can be achieved by adding some nice, lush plants, big river rocks, crystals and images of the ocean or healthy bodies, says Tchi.

Having worked on numerous projects, including several international projects as a communications consultant for the United Nations in New York and the Information Agency in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, Tchi believes that health is deeply connected to the environment in which you live. She now calls Vancouver, Canada home, where she consults and collaborates internationally with furniture designers, architects, artists and building contractors.

Tchi advises her clients to use the five elements in normal, balanced proportions when designing their space: earth, metal, water, wood and fire. However, for a massage therapy practice, she says, not too much fire or metal should be used.

Anytime you can bring the outside in is a good thing, Miller says. “My designs often include opening walls to views of the garden, touches of direct sunlight and flowing shapes and spaces that feel good.” Plants are a great way of incorporating nature—working planters into your design would be a great addition, says Miller.

Typically, in Western design you start with a bulldozed plot of land and build, and once the structure is completed there is very clear sense of being indoors and being outdoors. With Eastern architecture, the indoor/outdoor elements have some overlap—a design element such as a tile may start on an outside patio and be continued inside.

There has been an increase in Eastern philosophy being embraced in the Western world. There are studies in health care showing that hospitals that adopt an Eastern sense of design actually have a faster recovery in their patients and happier staffs, says Miller.

Finding Your Sense of Style

The less visually stimulating a room is, the more calm it will be for your clients. Keep things neutral in every sense of the word. “Eat in moderation for your figure; buy in moderation for financial safety and decorate in moderation for a more pleasing space,” says Molony.

You can still incorporate your personality into a space without overdoing it. If you have a flair for antiques, then mix in a treasured piece with a more modern setting, says Molony. Not everything has to look like it was purchased at the same store. A great place for a signature piece may be in the waiting area.

At the end of the day what it comes down to is loving your profession and taking pride enough to invest in it—whether that means saving up to take continuing education courses, or spending some serious time getting your space to look its absolute best. If you’re passionate about your practice and profession it will show in your repeat clientele and continuous referrals.

Those Extra Touches (that won’t break the bank)

1. Keep everything clean!
Cleaning may not be your idea of a good time, but if you make a habit of making sure that nothing gets too dirty in the first place, you’ll save yourself from only needing a serious cleaning session every couple of weeks. To stay on top of it, keep everything current. Magazines in a reception area should be current and free of dust, says feng shui expert Rodika Tchi, BA, MSc, CFSC. “It’s constant work, but it really pays off.”

2. Display a simple arrangement of fresh cut flowers.
Fresh flowers can get pricey if you’re replacing them every few days. It would be wise to create a relationship with a local florist to find out the seasonal flowers that will last longer than a week or two, or you can spring for a potted plant.

3. Use an energy element like water to add a tranquil ambiance.
So long as it’s not too loud and overpowering, water can be very soothing, says Tchi. Hydrotherapy desktop water fountains come in many shapes, sizes and prices, but if you do a simple search online you’ll find that there are several to choose from that are under $300.

4. Instill confidence in your clients.
Treat your clients respectfully by sending the message that you are there to heal. Clients want to see the name of the therapist who will be massaging them, so have certification and credentials clearly displayed in the reception area.

5. Infuse a little luxury.
Where the treatment room typically has a more clinical atmosphere, I like the lushness that a changing room can offer—richer designs, high-end robes, says Olson. Since you are dealing with a smaller space, you can do things like cover one wall with a glazed river rock tile. You can also add some decadent texture to the space with locally made textiles or elements such as textured glass, and metals such as copper and bronze. Elements with interesting surfaces engage the sense of touch, which contributes to your clients’ overall experience.

Making it work: One massage therapist, $500, and a whole new treatment area

Milford Massage Therapy is like the “Floyd’s Barber Shop” of Milford, Ohio, says Debbie Phenix, LMT, who runs the practice with two other massage therapists.

Phenix has been a bargain hunter for a long time, out of necessity, she says. So naturally, her business was no exception. “I went to thrift stores and yard sales to find sheets,” she says, where Phenix was able to mix and match sets, while paying $1–3 for brand new ones.

When Phenix gets a massage CD she doesn’t like, she recoups some of the cost by reselling them as “gently used.” However, stores like Target offer a great selection of massage CDs for $10 apiece and give customers the chance to listen before buying at in-store kiosks. To play the music, Phenix went to a discount electronic store and bought a three-changer CD player for $39 on closeout.

“I can spot a good deal pretty easily, but there are so many ways to save that are easy for someone who isn’t looking that hard,” says Phenix. When she took a hot stone class and saw a $395 price tag attached to the heaters being offered in the catalogs at the time, Phenix knew she could do better.

“I went to Wal-Mart, bought a roaster for $39, headed to a local stone depot and hand picked a whole bucket of rocks for $11.21.”

Phenix also has an antique buffet that she added new handles to and asked a friend to cut new glass, which now serves as her display case for products that she sells to help make money out of the space. Why pay for shipping if you don’t have to? That is something Phenix lives by, which helps if you are not married to any specific type or brand of product.

“Call the vendor you usually use and see what is being discontinued, then stock up on it,” she says. There are some things that Phenix doesn’t scrimp on, like massage oil and cream, but she says you can always try other things. “Always be on the lookout for a deal. I once found essential oils on sale at a hospital gift shop for 75 percent off.”

Inside Milford Massage, the door to Phenix’s treatment room is adorned with a strand of blue lights. “My favorite color is blue,” she says, which is why the treatment room has an ocean theme. Phenix bartered massages with a friend who is an artist to paint a mural on the wall, adding a white cabinet with a light oak top for her massage creams and essential oils, a fountain, candles from a factory direct closeout store and low lighting.

“Blue is calming,” she says, adding that her clients love it. “Although I’m the one who has my eyes open during the massage, so I have to love it, too!”

Tips from the Pros

Clair S. Molony, designer

1. Make a bed that you can lie in—meaning make sure the space is comfortable to you.

2. Go back to the basics. If you don’t overthink you can come up with some really brilliant ideas.

3. Bedding can be expensive. Don’t get caught up in thread counts. You can get nice, soft sheets at a reasonable price.

4. Bargain shop! Hit neighborhood garage sales for side tables, artwork or neat lamps where you can easily replace the shade.

5. While new car smell may be appealing to some, it’s not to everyone. Same goes with your practice. Skip the plug-ins and opt for something more neutral, just so long as it doesn’t smell “commercial.”

Bryan Olson, interior designer (www.olsonleavydesign.com)

1. Limestone is a good, cheap alternative to ceramic tiling.

2. Try checking out hotel outfitters resale where you can sometimes luck out and find higher-end pieces at severe discounts.

3. Pick up a book on feng shui, such as Practical Feng Shui: Arrange, Decorate and Accessorize Your Home to Promote Health, Wealth and Happiness by Simon Brown. Rodika Tchi, BA, MSc, CFSC, feng shui specialist.

Rodika Tchi, BA, MSC, CFSC, Feng Shui specialist (www.tchiconsulting.com)

1. The head of the massage table should be the farthest thing away from the door. This creates a feeling of safety and security.

2. Make sure that there are no sharp angles pointing at the table. This will cause restless energy and your clientele may not return.

3. It is bad energy in your reception area to have your back facing your clients.

Mark Miller, architect (www.zenplusarchitecture.com)

1. Temperature is very important, especially since your clients will either be naked or in very little clothing. Pay close attention to your thermostat.

2. People feel differently about music. Personally, I do not prefer it during a massage treatment. It never hurts to find out your client’s preference so you can customize each client’s visit.

3. If your practice is in your home, be careful about what your clients see on their way to the massage therapy room. You don’t want to lessen a client’s confidence in you before the massage has even occurred.

Amanda Nevels is a Chicago based writer and creative director for Girls Advancing Business (g.a.b.), a marketing communications company dedicated to helping small businesses on a budget succeed. Visit her website at (www.gabbiz.com).

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