Renovating and Decorating a School English Corner

The Room: Renovating and Decorating the English Corner

In 2006, I opened an English Corner in the secondary school in where I teach (the school is located in Hong Kong). The room proved to be quite popular, but that meant that after 12 years, it had suffered from a lot of wear and tear. This article focuses on its renovation and decoration.

1. The Role of the English Corner

Normally, the English Corner is open every school day at lunch and after school. Students can come to play games, chat, watch videos on TV, listen to music or draw and write in our activity books. There is also a selection of movies, books and music CDs that they can borrow. In the past, the lending service was very popular, with several thousand items being lent out every school year. Now, however, most students watch movies and listen to music online, so this service has been scaled back and instead we are focusing on things like board games. We also introduced a snack service and a widescreen TV. The latest addition is a Nintendo Switch, and the next thing we plan to add is a Kindle lending service. I normally supervise the English Corner and am assisted by another native-speaking teacher and a team of student executives and helpers. The actual operations are discussed in this article: Running a School English Corner; and the English Corner webpage is here: English Corner.

2. Budget

For these kinds of projects, the school usually gives me an overall budget for ‘furniture, equipment and decorations’ to work with, and then I use the budget as I see fit. This allows me to cut costs in some areas while spending more in other areas. I then purchase everything using cash and get reimbursed by the school at the end of the school year. For this project, I was working with around HKD 18,000 (c. USD 2,300). The flooring and wall panels, however, were paid for by the school separately and are not included in this budget.


3.Design Idea

I wanted the room to have the same colorful, bright and friendly feel as the old English Corner—some students said that just entering that room would lift their spirits—but with a more natural look, with more wood and metal elements. As the school had a limited budget, the result is a kind of compromise. Though the room is quite small, I wanted to fill it with interesting things so that students would often find something new and interesting. For colors, I went with a palette of orange, light blue (bordering on turquoise) and lilac.

4. Flooring

I decided on bamboo flooring. The previous English Corner had a carpet, but there were hygiene problems with that. The school has almost no other carpeted areas, so that meant there wasn’t any regular carpet-washing, and the floor—which students often sit on—was often dirty. A wooden floor is, of course expensive, but it is easy to keep clean and, more importantly, it creates a warmer, more natural environment. I chose bamboo (from Verdee Bamboo Living) because it is durable and environmentally-friendly.

Selecting bamboo flooring

Here is the empty room with the flooring installed:

Bamboo flooring

To keep the floor clean and avoid scuff marks, we now have the students remove their shoes before they enter the room. In Hong Kong, students usually take off their shoes before entering their home and many of the students are familiar with the Japanese custom of taking of shoes when entering certain kinds of restaurants and public areas.

For these kinds of projects, there are always budget concerns. In this case, we made the choice to splurge on the flooring as it would greatly affect the overall feel of the room. That meant that we had to cut costs on other aspects of the room. For example, rather than replace the school/office-style florescent lights, with a less institutional style of lighting, we just kept those there.

5. Wall panels

Originally, I had wanted to repaint the walls, but the school considered that option too expensive. Instead they wanted to go with faux-brick foam wall panels (I found them a little too plastic looking). We used these panels (bought on Taobao) on three of the walls, while I touched up the paint on the other wall with primer (which was fortunately the same shade as the original paint).

Foam wall panels

A group of parents helped mount most of the wall panels. Unfortunately, the lovely red vinyl stickers that we had on one of the walls had to be covered up.

The team of parents

6. Cleaning

To prepare for painting, we did a lot of cleaning. Hard-to-reach places like the electrical conduits were incredibly dusty and grimy. A team of students also helped with the cleaning.


7. Painting

Cleaning and painting would normally be the first step, but as Hong Kong is quite humid, I didn’t paint during the summer (before the flooring was laid). Painting when it is very humid (e.g., with the humidity above 85%) can lead to problems with paint peeling off later on.

Too add more color to the room, I painted things like the electrical conduit, the window sill, window frames and walls around the windows using turquoise and lilac paint. I used two coats of primer and three coats of paint. The staff at the Nippon Paint Center in Wanchai were extremely helpful and provided a lot of advice.

Lilac (for the electrical conduit) and light blue (for the wall around the windows)
Light blue wall and white foam wall panels (and wooden zebra toy)

I used stencil patterns to add a bird to a window sill and butterflies to one wall.

Butterfly stencil art

8. Ikea Shelving & other Ikea Furniture (DIY Hacks)

Quite a lot of our shelving units had to get replaced. Some were just too old and bent out shape (and could no longer support books), and some had suffered water damage when the school was partially flooded during a typhoon. I wanted to avoid the generic Ikea look and get sturdier wooden shelves, but with the budget I was working with, Ikea furniture turned out to be the only affordable option.

Some of the flatpack furniture has arrived (the students also helped assemble some of the furniture)

I purchased several IKEA bookshelves and DVD shelves, To make them more attractive, I painted some of the the back panels orange and light blue (I used two coats of primer and three coats of paint for that). This had an interesting effect as light would come in through the windows and reflect off the orange and blue panels back panels, creating a subtle glow.

Painting Ikea shelves

One problem with Ikea’s wide Billy bookshelves is that they tend to sag in the middle. I had all our wide bookshelves reinforced. Our school’s handyman added a wooden plank down the middle of the back of each shelf (from the top to the floor) and then used L-shaped brackets to support the middle of each shelf. The brackets were screwed into the shelves and also through the back panels and into the wooden plank attached to the back of each shelving unit. Of course, this means the shelves are not easily moveable, but the bookshelves are much sturdier and will last a lot longer.

Bookshelf L-bracket

I painted the sides of two shelving units blue and lilac (using multiple coats of primer and paint) with a stencil pattern of letters and numbers. This proved to be much more difficult than I had anticipated. When using this kind of stencil, you tap the surface of the furniture lightly with a small paintbrush that only has a small amount of paint on it. This is to ensure that the paint does drip beneath the stencil and mess up the pattern (even though the pattern is affixed with a spray-on adhesive). To add two coats, I would just leave the stencil in place while the first coat dried. Originally, the students tried to help with this painting work, but they didn’t have the patience to gently tap out the patterns.

Bookshelf stencils
Bookshelf stencils
Bookshelves & kitchen table (here being used as a kind of cleaning supplies cart)
Bears (from Ikea) & painted bookshelves
Book and DVD shelves

I also purchased the following things from Ikea:

  • A couple of sturdier large white shelving units. One was used to hold books and games and the other was used for to hold students’ schoolbags.
  • A few cube-shaped storage pieces (see below) in different colors that I used like display units. These were standalone units that could be attached to the wall. These were used to add color to the room and, because they could be arranged in any way, to break up the monotony of the storage unit shapes.
  • A blue metal storage unit and an orange metal cube to store food supplies and art, supplies respectively.

The following photo shows the wall mounted cubes (after they had been filled with objects).

Wall units and and decorations
Cat-shaped piggy bank (kitty bank?) and art supplies box

9. Things that were kept

A lot of things were from the old English Corner or were brought down from the Creative Media Studio (another project of mine). These were still in reasonably good shape, so we kept them. They included:

  • The furniture and equipment for the lending service: the computer, office table desk and under-desk cabinet (for the lending service)
  • Two bulletin boards
  • A TV and TV shelf
  • Two tables and several plastic stools
  • A few shelving units
  • A small wooden shelf (from the studio)
  • A magazine rack.
  • A sofa (from the studio). It is a neutral grey color, so it doesn’t dominate the room (and it is amazingly comfortable). I had found the sofa several years ago. Because it was a display model (in a small interior design company), I could get it at a reasonable price.
Our school staff members helped wash the fabric sofa.
Plush bear & sofa (English Corner, May 2019)

10. Wooden stools & bench

This was another area where I decided to splurge. As lot of the furniture was white particle board, I wanted to introduce more natural material into the room. I got these three lovely pieces: a bench made of recycled wood, a stool made from a stump of driftwood, and a stool made from wooden cubes. These three pieces are very useful as they add visual interest and can also be used as mini-tables. As the pieces were small, they were not overly expensive (though they definitely were not cheap).

Bench and stool (from Tree)
Wood cube stool (from Carft) and two fabric cubes (from Francfranc)
Sofa, bench, stool with (from Ikea) bears an cushions)

11. Artwork & puzzles

I decided on decorating the walls with a lot of small works that can be changed periodically to freshen up the room. For example, the art shown below is from books by Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao and Hong Kong artist B. Wing and from a book of artwork by Hong Kong illustrators (entitled Desire of Comic Artist).

TV, storage unit and artwork

All the artwork is by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese artists. An alternative choice would have been to focus on decorations that would be more ‘English’ (e.g., Union Jacks, Keep Calm and Carry On posters, models of red double-decker buses, etc,) and/or ‘American’. However, I didn’t want to present the English Corner as something ‘foreign’. Rather I wanted it to feel culturally familiar. After all, English doesn’t just belong to the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It is now a true world language—more commonly spoken as a second language than it is as a first language.

I also added jigsaw puzzles. Students helped assemble those. The photos below show a group of students assembling a puzzle (from Puzzle Angel) of a scene from the hit Japanese anime Your Name.

Students working on a jigsaw puzzle to put on the wall (the bulleting board (at right) features posters of Taylor Swift and K-pop band BTS)
Students working on a jigsaw puzzle
The completed jigsaw puzzle. The wooden figures are Cubebots (a kind of puzzle where you try to work out how to fold the robot into its cube form)

One the opposite wall are two black and white paintings done by a former student. They were donated by the school’s art teacher.

Student artwork
Student artwork: Imperial Walkers from Star Wars

12. Mini-storage units and boxes

Many of the games I had bought for the old English Corner were in their original boxes. And after several years, many of these boxes were broken torn and/or moldy. Therefore, we had to get a variety of boxes to contain the game pieces:

  • Acrylic cases from Muji (for games with small pieces, like Blokus or Monopoly)
  • Wooden mini-storage units from Muji (for games with slight larger pieces)
  • Cardboard boxes from Ikea (for scrabble)
  • A metal box from Muji (for Jenga)
  • Wooden mini-crates from Pricerite
Storage (from Muji) for game pieces, hippo and game boards. The fabric hippo is from a visit to our school by Watoto Children’s Choir (a group set up to aid disadvantaged children in Uganda)

Storage for game pieces
Acrylic box for Blokus pieces

13. Suggestion Box

This is an metal industrial looking letter box I bought from a store specializing in vintage items (Life History). I thought it looked eye-catching and it matched the orange highlights in the room. A former student helped me cut out the stencil pattern and I then spray-painted the words ‘Suggestion Box’ on the front.

Suggestion box (the toolbox and spray bottles were for the cleaning and renovation work)

Not only can students give their suggestions, but they can also write mini book, movie and album reviews and drop them in the suggestion box. They can also seek advice anonymously.

For submitting reviews and suggestions

14. Figurines, Plants and Plush Toys

To add some more interest to the DVD shelves, I bought a few figurines of famous characters.

Hermione figurine
Elsa Figurine
Wonder Woman figurine

To create a more natural feel, I also purchased some plants. Muji had some wall-mounted plant holders that fit nicely on top of the shelves.

Plush Totoro and Plants (from Muji)

Here are two of our plush toys. They were donated (or abandoned) by a student several years ago. The sketch behind them is by Maggie Lai.

Teddy Bears

15. Sketchbooks and Art Supplies

One thing students like to do when visiting the English Corner is to write, draw and/or paint in our sketchbooks. Therefore, we have a wide assortment of supplies for that.

Sketchbooks and diaries
Sketchbooks and diaries (I varnished the plain wooden box to prevent mold and I added a small wooden postcard showing the Blue House, a local landmark in Wanchai)

Calligraphy supplies
Wooden art model and colored pencils
Fabric giraffe (from the Watoto Children’s Choir’s visit) and wooden art model
Paints and games
Cute pencil sharpener

16. Games

We have a wide assortment of over seventy games. The entire list is here: English Corner Games. To complement the natural look of the English Corner, I got wooden versions of many of the games (chess, Chinese chess, quarto, Pylos, Quixo, Quoridor, Katamino etc).

Some of the games
A kind of balancing toy: Renovating and Decorating the English Corner

17. Displays

Here are various ways in which we display items for borrowing.

Books and movies by Makoto Shinkai
DVD shelf
Books on display

18. Snack Service

Once every two weeks, we offer a snack service. If students have taken part in a certain number of activities, they are entitled to free snacks and drinks.

Opening day snack service

19. Finally open!

This is what the English Corner looks like in use.

Lan & Kieran (English Corner, May 2019)
TV show activity with Andrew (English Corner, September 2019)
TV show activity (English Corner, September 2019)
English Corner 2019
Painting in a sketchbook & Chinese chess: English Corner 2019
Painting in a sketchbook: English Corner 2019
Remove your shoes: English Corner 2019

Visit our photo galleries for more images:

For more information, you can visit these links

21. Thanks

Here I would like to thank the school management for its support, the students for helping to clean the room, assemble the furniture and finish the puzzles, the staff members who helped order the cabinet and flooring and who helped clean the sofa and the parents who helped order and mount the foam wall panels.

~ by longzijun


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