For style-conscious folk on a tight budget, furnishing a home can be a tormenting experience. Furniture, artwork, antiques - they're all big-ticket items, even at the lower end of the scale. And people with taste rarely set their sights on budget options. Even for a fledgling home decorator, it only takes a look at a few interior design websites such as ApartmentTherapy.com or the newly launched MyDeco.com to ignite a desire for the good stuff.
Whether your taste tends towards tradition or modernity, the proliferation of interior decor information available means it's now all too easy to find yourself coveting items for the home with the knowledge of a connoisseur.
Fans of classic modern design, for instance, will always be drawn to iconic mid-20th century modern furniture. Designed by forward-thinking architects in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and characterised by functional forms and sleek lines, such pieces are at home in modern surroundings and are considered by many to be works of art. Perennial favourites in the offices of image-conscious companies, modern iconic furniture pieces have become increasingly popular in recent years.
But aesthetic perfection comes at a price. In Hong Kong, a licensed Charles and Ray Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman will set you back at least HK$36,000. By comparison, you can pick up the pared-down elegance of a Barcelona chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for only HK$17,000. Even a stackable plastic chair such as the glossy one designed by Verner Panton retails for HK$7,000. How much can you afford to spend on lighting? Because an Arco lamp, the definitive choice for aficionados of modern design, costs HK$18,000 and you will probably have to wait three months for delivery.
For those who prefer their furniture to show signs of age, the outlook is even worse. For the price of just one top-quality antique chest with a certificate authenticating its origin, you could furnish an entire living room with iconic classics.
As for art, anyone who participated in this year's ArtWalk last month would have noticed the steep price tags of original artworks by Chinese artists, even for relative newcomers to the scene.
The solution should be obvious to skint stylistas: acknowledge that the good stuff doesn't necessarily have to be the real stuff. The city is teeming with fake luxury goods, some of which are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. Many shops supply furniture inspired by classics that are similar in design but with key differences. Others offer exact replicas of varying quality.
Kai Ngai Furniture reproduces a huge range of iconic chairs, including a Barcelona-type one for HK$2,500 and a matt Panton chair for HK$750. The Barcelona reproduction in Tint Living is about HK$7,000. It also offers an Arco-style lamp for HK$11,400 and a child's version of the Panton chair for as little as HK$99.
But you still get what you pay for. 'I've seen some awful copies,' says Marc James, whose eponymous company supplies licensed and reproduction examples of many modern classics. Take, for instance, the Barcelona chair, possibly the most widely copied of them all.
'On the cushion, you should have individual squares of leather sewn together. But [makers of inferior copies] just stitch lines across the top to look like the squares and there isn't the proper piping,' he says. 'The sponge inside feels unpleasant and the dimensions are totally off.'
In contrast, a high-quality reproduction Eames Lounge Chair is 'dimensionally accurate' and apparently offers a very similar 'seating experience' to the real thing. It's important because the technology behind the design is not easily reproduced. One of the pleasures of the Eames Lounge Chair, for those in the know, is its flexible structure, the result of an interplay among the three moulded-plywood sections. A poor quality knock-off may look the part but without the bounciness, much of the attraction is lost.
'Fans of a particular piece who know they will never have the funds to buy a licensed one appreciate alternative options,' says James. 'And people are not really bothered about whether or not a piece is licensed - they tend to be more focused on quality.'
Similar attitudes prevail among Hongkongers when it comes to antiques hunting. Mandy Wu, a shop owner in Zhongshan's Guhe Antique Furniture Market, says that although she fields many overseas customers, more than half her clients are referrals from Hong Kong.
First-time visitors to Zhongshan are often shocked at the bargains on offer. The pre-negotiation price for a Tibetan box in Wu's shop is 300 yuan (HK$334). A similar item from a medium-priced boutique on Hollywood Road would cost more than HK$2,000. A quick browse through the furniture stock reveals antiques of varying quality alongside handsome reproductions, all ranging from 30 per cent to as little as 10 per cent of Hong Kong prices.
Caveats abound, of course: they're not the glossily finished near-perfect specimens found in Hong Kong's luxury shops; all payments must be made in cash and, where offered, letters of authenticity do not provide quite the same level of reassurance. But if you are willing to trust your own judgment after a thorough inspection, it's one place you can unearth the perfect pieces to complement your domestic aesthetic.
A favourite trick of interior designers on a budget is to use software such as Rasterbator, an online tool that splits up a large image into many smaller ones. Printed and framed individually, they can be mounted at intervals for an installation effect, inexpensively covering a wide expanse of wall.
But large-scale artwork can be had with just a short trip across the border. In the oil-painting village of Dafen, in Shenzhen, an army of painters in more than 600 'galleries' churned out about US$120 million worth of paintings last year. Full-size copies of Van Gogh's Sunflowers sell for as little as 21 yuan and you can buy from stock or commission original artwork based on, say, a favourite photograph. Depending on the difficulty of technique required, a 75cm x 100cm canvas will cost you between 70 yuan and 900 yuan.
Or if your conscience will allow it, buy a copy of the painting by that illustrious Chinese painter you have long admired for 500 yuan and take comfort in the knowledge that the owner of the original probably paid 100 times as much. Either way, decorating your walls with considerable style is within the reach of any Hong Kong dweller willing to head north.
One fan of Shenzhen shopping is interior designer Christine Pace, whose home in Clear Water Bay is filled with handsome, low-cost items, among them an Arco lookalike lamp, which she bought for just HK$800 from a shop called Xin Te Li.
James says the availability of affordable reproductions can benefit licensed suppliers of original furniture.
'Designer handbags are a good analogy,' he says. 'Buying a knock-off handbag is a kind of education in itself: the woman who buys it enjoys the experience so much that she starts to want the real thing and, next time round, she might upgrade to it.'
For the style-savvy home decorator, such on-the-job training offers a chance to create a dream interior before they have the means to live it for real.