Perhaps you’ve had to relocate after your divorce, and your ex-spouse got most or all of the furniture and appliances. Or maybe you ended up with most of the home furnishings, but they reflect your ex’s taste — not yours. Or the pieces you did get don’t work well together. Or you’re getting married again and you’re not sure that your furniture is going to blend well with your new spouse’s. Whatever the case, it’s time to take a look at your decor — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Start from the inside out,” recommends Greg Ernst, interior designer and communication manager for IKEA North York (Canada). “Make sure you’re settled on the inside first, and that will translate into what you choose in your design.” Divorce is a time of transition, so you may be tempted to try to change your own instinctual taste — but you must stay true to yourself. “If you’re a traditional person, for example, you might feel like you suddenly want to shake things up completely,” says Ernst. “But if you radically change everything and go modern, you may be satisfied in the short run, but it won’t suit you. I wouldn’t recommend running out and revamping your whole life. Take your time and make sure the pieces you collect are things that you really like and that reflect who you are.”
Regardless of how much you know about interior design, your goal should be to make your room or home as comfortable and attractive to your taste as you can. Here’s a guide to the do’s and don’ts of decorating (or redecorating) your home.
1. Plan everything first. Before you start, make sure you know exactly what you want to do with the room or house. Visualize a theme or a look. Set your priorities; set apart areas in which you expect to spend a lot of time or areas that bother you the most. Take into consideration what you’re going to use the spaces for and plan your design with respect to that. For example, will this room have a lot of traffic? Do you want a romantic or casual atmosphere in here? A conversational, friendly feel, or something to help you rest in solitude?
“Think about what your lifestyle is,” says Peni Wilson, who works with A Designer’s Influence in San Diego. “How do you live? Try to stay neutral, not to get too trendy. Consider the things that remain permanent. For example, floors and walls are expensive and harder to change.”
Of course, check in advance that your plan is compatible with your budget. If you can’t afford your ideal setting, simplify your design. Be realistic, but be consistent with what you want.
2. Maintain a balance between beauty and accessibility. Choose pieces that are practical and beautiful — except in the case of artwork, which needs only be beautiful. Make sure you don’t have to sacrifice all the attractiveness of the room to make it practical, or vice-versa.
Keep everything accessible. Think about where you place things: is the arrangement practical in addition to looking good? If you have children, will they be tripping over the furniture? Will the room be difficult to get around? “Common accidents include falls or trips because of awkwardly placed furniture, poor lighting, or badly-fitting carpets,” writes Jill Blake in Healthy Home (Key Porter Books, 1998). Don’t set up a room so that you are squeezing past or reaching over obstacles to get things you need.
There’s never enough storage, so create storage for items near where you use them. For example, place china, flatware, and glasses close to the kitchen or table. Be creative with storage: use furniture, walls, ceilings, or the floor — always remembering to blend it in with the rest of the room. Keep the accessories of daily life within easy reach.
No matter how good your place looks, if it isn’t functional, practical, or comfortable, you won’t be happy there for long.
3. Make full use of your preferences in style and decor. Use family treasures — photos, paintings, and craft projects — to make your home unique. The pros at Sherwin Williams Paints suggest that this will be “sure to create a personalized room, not a reproduction of someone else’s house or of a museum’s period room. Do this by considering your family’s style of living, hobbies, and entertaining needs.” (For more advice and tips about decorating, visit www.sherwin-williams.com.)
Use shapes and patterns to increase or decrease the size of a room. Plaids, stripes, and florals all can make a room appear to be smaller or larger than it is. In New Decorator: How to Combine Well Being and Style in Your Home, author Julia Barnard notes that “stripes can create a variety of optical illusions. Long, narrow ones give height to a low-ceilinged room; broad horizontal ones hug it in an intimate embrace.”
Mix sizes, scales, and textures. Depending on your style, your decor will vary, but selecting decor that’s all the same size and scale diminishes the focal point of a room. Create balance when furnishing your space. Textures, like scale, can also add interest to a room and create interesting focal points.
Balance fabrics and colors. Fabric is wonderful: you can hide things behind curtains, dampen noise, or use the texture to add warmth or freshness into a room. By selecting a color, you can add mood and accents throughout the house or a particular room. When selecting fabrics, choose wisely and think about where the fabric will be placed. Will it fade because of sunlight? Will the dog or children track mud all over it because it’s too close to the front door? Is a white sofa really a good choice for someone with small children and/or pets?
4. Ask for advice if you need or want it. If you have friends or family whose taste you really like, don’t be afraid to let them help you come up with solutions. If you hire a professional decorator, be sure to find one who understands — and is willing to work with — your tastes and lifestyle. “I’d look for a designer I feel comfortable working with,” says Carolyn Lasser, a decorator with Chicago’s Design Studio. “I’d also want one who would work with my ideas.” A suitable designer might even understand what you want better than you do. Remember, though, that you’re the one who will be living there and inviting people over, so your decision is final. “Interview at least three designers,” says Karen Fischer, president of Designer Previews in New York. “And every designer has a contract: look it over thoroughly and see if you can commit to it.”
“Find out if the designer has a portfolio for you to review,” says Helen Slevin, another San Diego interior decorator. “While looking at these photographs, have an open, honest discussion with the designer regarding budget, time line, likes and dislikes, and general lifestyle.”
5. Update your design now and again. Every once in a while, change a minor detail in your home or room. Add or remove an accessory, move a piece of furniture, or make a subtle switch. This way, your space will always look fresh.
“Updating a design can be nothing more than changing a few toss pillows, a lamp, or a vase,” says Slevin. “Or it can mean a complete replacement of furnishings with a whole new style.”
1. Don’t rush in. Take your time. Instead of dealing with the whole home at once, plan from room to room. Be sure to prepare for special or unusual architectural features in your home that need to be worked around. And remember — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “How married are you to what you got stuck with?” says Geri C. Musser, a designer with Interiors by Design in California. “Is it worth recovering or refinishing what you already have?” If you like something in the original design, and it doesn’t clash with your new plan, then keep it; redesign doesn’t have to mean changing everything.
Don’t create a final plan before you check whether it fits your budget. “Avoid impulse buys,” adds Musser.
2. Don’t over-accessorize, under-light, or over-color. Light equals life. If your room has only one small window, place a sheer curtain or simply a heavy curtain that you can push to the side during the day. Use artificial light to brighten your way. Task lights can be hidden above or beneath cupboards or shelves, and an attractive reading lamp can be both beautiful and practical. The right lighting for the space — and for the activities that will be taking place there — can make all the difference. Consider placing mirrors to reflect light, making the room look larger at the same time as making it shine.
Take the minimalist approach to accessories. If a piece is neither functional nor beautiful, ditch it. Accessories can show off your personality effectively, but cluttering your house with them may make you look obsessive. A perfect example is Sara, who has been receiving dolphin figurines, paintings, and posters from well-meaning friends and family for years. “I love dolphins, and the first four or five pieces were great,” she remembers. “But now I have over 30 pieces! I have to rotate them in and out of storage depending on who’s coming over.”
A wide variety of colors and textures can work, but don’t overdo it; you don’t want the room to come off too loud or busy, or to clash. On the other hand, if you go for too much unity, your decor will wind up boring and plain. Again, try to use textures, size, and scale to create interesting focal points.
3. Don’t ignore the background of the room. Walls, floors, ceilings, and windows are just as important as the more obviously visible parts of your design: furniture choices and placement and accessories. You need to create harmony between the backgrounds of your living spaces and the foreground.
4. Don’t let people tell you what you want. Advice and suggestions can be useful to a degree, but don’t let anybody talk you into something you know won’t work for you. Space planning is individual in nature. “Follow your heart,” says Fischer.
Don’t choose a certain look just because it’s hip. Fads come and go as quickly as seasons. According to Wilson, a design should last as long as “the life span of a carpet or sofa — about five to ten years, depending on the trend or color plan.”
5. Don’t stick with the exact same design for too long. Not only will certain aspects of your current decor go out of style, but you and your visitors will get bored with the same look. (Imagine somebody who has kept the same wallpaper since the ’70s, for example.) Instead, keep your home looking fresh by rearranging your treasured possessions, choosing a new color for the walls, or giving the place a complete overhaul if you’ve never liked it.
“Our parents assumed that the furniture they bought should last for their entire lifetime,” says Fischer. “But furniture has become fashion; our styles change, our jobs change, and our lives change. You’ll know when it’s time to change your design. You’ll feel it; it simply won’t feel or look like you anymore.”
“You should redecorate at least once every 10 years,” says Lasser, “although it depends on the furniture. People tend to have bedroom and dining-room sets for a really long time. However, changing certain pieces in a room would give it a totally new look.”
Geoffrey Bonnycastle has been collecting art for 25 years and has a lifelong interest in interior design and decorating with art. He is president of Alius Fine Arts, exclusive publishers of artist Jia Lu.