“Mirrors in a room, water in a landscape, eyes in a face — those are what give character.”
— Brooke Astor
For some people, creating a beautiful room is as easy as putting together a child’s jigsaw puzzle. Blessed with an inherent sense of color, balance and artistry, these are the lucky few who can scan the shelves of any home store and choose an interesting accessory; the ones whose homes radiate warmth, personality … and character.
Then there’s nearly everyone else, who sheepishly stow furniture mistakes in the guest room, hide bad artwork behind a bathroom door and wonder why they can’t get their rooms to shine.
Four local designers were asked to weigh in on the most common decorating mistakes they see. Here’s what they said.
The scale of the furnishings doesn’t match the room.
When Karen Menge, partner and designer with Pulliam Morris Interiors, walks into a problem room, she often finds that the biggest issue is scale. “People sometimes have a problem with the appropriate scale and proportion of their furnishings relative to their house,” she says. “What may look good in a catalog or showroom doesn’t always work in your space.”
Scale isn’t just determined by room size. Ceiling height can play a huge role as well, as can other pieces in the room. “Furniture stores tend to have really high ceilings, which hide the size of the furniture,” says Eveleigh Hughey, a designer with Brandon Davidson Interiors. “The oversized, super comfy sofa that you fell in love with at the store will look like a spaceship in your Shandon bungalow.” Brandon Shives, owner of Brandon Davidson Interiors, also suggests considering scale with regard to nearby pieces. “An over-scaled sofa with two petite chairs just doesn’t look right,” she says.
Ford Boyd Bailey, owner of Verve Interiors, says that proportion affects all areas of a room, from the rugs on the floor to light fixtures and accessories. “Rugs make a room warmer and are one of the building blocks of a finished space,” she explains. “But a rug needs to be large enough so that the front legs of each piece of furniture are on it. In the dining room, all four legs of each chair should stay off of the floor, even when the chairs are pulled away from the table.” For clients who can’t afford a large antique rug, or who will be placing the rug in high-traffic areas, Ford suggests seagrass, which works in most décors and is inexpensive, even in large sizes. Other scale tips from Ford include making sure chandeliers are no wider than the table they light and choosing substantial lamps for chests. “Think of a lamp as functional art,” she says.
If you aren’t sure if a piece will fit you should ask for help, either from an interior designer or through the furniture store. Terri Veitinger, design manager at Ethan Allen, often travels to clients’ homes for that very reason. “If you purchase an item and it turns out to be too large or too small, you can really have an issue; especially if there is nowhere else it will fit,” she says.
The design budget is spread out in several rooms instead of concentrated in one room.
Even if a client’s entire house needs a breath of fresh air, professionals know that the best way to decorate is room-by-room. “Even if it’s just a small space, focus on it and get the whole thing right,” says Ford. “Not only will you feel good every time you glance into the finished room, but you’ll get a great sense of accomplishment.”
Karen agrees. “People have a tendency to spread their budget too thin. They often try to do too many things instead of concentrating their efforts in one area. If they will focus on one area, their money spent will have a bigger impact. Then move on to another area.”
Lack of editing
Eveleigh understands the importance of holding on to family heirlooms and sentimental mementos, but also tries to help clients understand that keeping a piece they don’t love in a prominent position can hijack their efforts to have a room they adore. “Why decorate around a piece that you just don’t like?” she asks. “Whether it’s a hand-me-down that has great sentimental value or an impulse buy that you’re regretting, it can really throw off a room. If it’s something you cannot part with, try to re-purpose it within your home or update it with paint or new fabric.”
Terri suggests “shopping your home” before initiating a project. “We tend to think of using things only in the rooms they were purchased for,” she says. “Think about where you might be able to repurpose something.”
Another designer trick to pull together a room is to cluster similar items — like photos in silver picture frames; collections, like white porcelain or decorative salt cellars; or crystal candlesticks. “Pulling together a collection creates an impact and makes a bit of a statement,” says Ford. “A piece here and a piece there often doesn’t get noticed and can look like clutter.”
Not hiring a designer
It may seem counterintuitive, but investing in the skills of a professional designer or decorator can actually save homeowners money by helping them avoid costly mistakes that range from furniture that doesn’t fit the room to paint that changes into a funky shade when the light hits it just right. That’s because in addition to training, designers bring experience –– knowing, for instance, which shade of beige paint will stay true to color and which one will change, even though they look almost identical at the store. That knowledge often means creative solutions to sticky problems like oddly-shaped rooms, weird window placements, empty corners and husbands who won’t give up their recliners.
Designers can also help clients prioritize, helping them get the best bang for their buck and creating a framework of walls, rugs and window treatments that can be expanded over time into a lovely and elegant room. They’ll help clients refine their style, too, by translating likes and dislikes into a mix of tones, textures and patterns that’s harmonious but not boring. “A designer knows how to take what you like and turn it into a room that you’ll love,” says Ford.
Avoid purchasing furniture over the Internet.
What could be easier? Spend a few hours online, find some great furniture and, presto, 10 days later the den is redone. Except the color doesn’t exactly work with the walls. And, whoops, the wood grain on the new coffee table doesn’t really look like it did online.
“Navigating through all of the information that’s available on Houzz, Pinterest, social media and online stores is overwhelming,” says Karen. “I often have people come with reams of photos and information, but they do not know how to choose what is appropriate for their home. They see things online that are cool and attractive, but do they work for their space or budget? Do they really need them? This is when you need to hire a professional to help you pare down to the best choices for you and the space you are working in.”
For Terri, it boils down to having patience. “People want their room done now, so they’re often unwilling to wait for the perfect piece,” she says. “It’s hard to tell exactly what something will look like — there are so many details that you just can’t take in shopping online or without professional guidance.”
Nothing enhances a mood like proper lighting. Brandon suggests installing rheostats on hanging fixtures and recessed lights and minimizing the use of harsh overhead lighting. “It can cast shadows that make work difficult and highlight unnecessary spaces,” she says. “Instead, consider lamp light which adds ambience to any type of room.”
When choosing chandeliers and other installed fixtures, Ford says that the larger the piece, the higher it should be hung. “If you need to cover a long space, like a bar or a farm table, consider two or three smaller fixtures instead of one,” she says. “You’ll get the light you need and the space will look finished.”
What’s worse than buyer’s remorse? Passing up what might be a perfect piece of art, antique chandelier or side table because you don’t have room measurements on hand. Designers suggest keeping the following measurements with you at all times so you can make smart decisions when the opportunity to purchase a one-of-a-kind piece presents itself:
• Room dimensions
• Arm height of sofas
• Height and width of mantle and the space above it
• Ceiling height
• Any spaces where you’ll eventually hang art
• Vanity height and width (for mirrors)
How to Work with a Designer
Considering hiring a professional designer or decorator? These tips may help you find the right one.
• Get insight into a designer’s style by taking the time to really look through the photo galleries on their websites. If you see a lot of design elements you don’t like, continue looking until you find a designer whose work makes you comfortable.
• Collect photographs of looks you like — and looks you don’t — and take them to your first meeting. If you can explain what you do and don’t like, all the better. A good designer will be able to spot a consistent thread — like curvy shapes or warm tones — in your likes.
• Be honest about how your room will be used. If you let your kids eat in the den, tell the designer. He or she won’t judge — but instead will find fabric and rugs that resist stains.
• Do your homework and research the cost of lamps, furniture and accessories so you can set a realistic budget.
• Once you’ve shared your preferences and asked the designer for ideas, don’t expect him or her to come back with a million choices. You’ve hired the designer for his or her expertise. Trust your designer to weed out what you might not like.