My Material Life

Decorating Lessons

IMG_2833aI caught this view of my living room from my kitchen the other day.  I think it was the flowers that caught my eye and made me grab my camera.

Most of my adult life I’ve been frustrated with my attempts at interior design or decoration.  And let me just stop right here and warn you to be careful about those terms with any folks you might know in the industry.  Some designers are mighty touchy about being referred to as “decorators” (except for those million dollar ones on TV I’ll bet!)  But for me, well you know, I love a good decorator just as much or more as a good designer, so it’s all good.  Just don’t ask me to explain the difference.

But back to this room.  I wish I felt as good about every room in my house as I do about this one.  I’m more of a tortoise than a hare, however, when it comes to transforming spaces, so there is still much work to do in this house that we’ve called home for 14 years.  Still, I’ve come a long way in my confidence about what to do with a room.  Coursework in interior design and several years as a design assistant has certainly helped, but so has trial and error and learning to trust my own eye.

In the hope that some (maybe even just one) of you might profit from lessons I’ve learned from my living room, I share them here …

Lesson #1:  Consider your natural light sources.  Lighting is everything.  It impacts the mood of your room, how your colors will look, everything.  The bottom line is, if you don’t have enough natural light in a room, you won’t want to spend time in it.  Period.  Our living room was pretty dark before we added two sun tunnels.  What’s a sun tunnel?  See here.  You might be able to add a window, but that wasn’t a good option for us and we didn’t want the cost or hassle of skylights (we had to remove a leaky one and deal with water damage in another area).  The sun tunnels we’ve added are probably the single most important/noticeable improvement we’ve made to this house.  The home inspector that recommended them was a genius.

Lesson #2:  To warm up a space, one word – grasscloth.  Along with the sun tunnels, one long wall of grasscloth completely transformed this space into an inviting room.  I can’t think of anything else that would have had the same impact.  It’s almost as though the grasscloth adds something architectural in addition to color.  I have another area where I’ve used a darker grasscloth (it complements the cork floor in my kitchen) to transform a barren corner into a cozy nook by running it part way up two adjoining walls and topping it with wood trim and paint on the wall above that.  Magic.

IMG_2844aLesson #3:  Collect what you love and it’s placement will follow.  That’s a play on a book title that was popular during my career development days, Do What You Love And The Money Will Follow.  If you get the bones of your space in a good place (natural light, wall treatments), you can let the furniture and art fill in as resources allow.  You don’t have to purchase everything at once.  You’d be surprised how things work together if you bring them in because you truly love them.  I’ll never forget how excited I was to find this Robert Abbey lamp in the window of a local Z Gallerie shop.  I loved it, and I needed something pretty in my life, but I worried that it was too pretty for the rest of my things.  Yet another lesson is this:  Strive for unity, but allow for a little contrast too.  Unity provides a sense of peace, but too much of it can be boring. Variety really is the spice of life; the floral ceramic lamp provides just the right contrast to the clean lines of my Room & Board bookcases and a round Italian mirror I found on sale at Limn in San Francisco soon after we bought our house.

Here’s an example of unity I wasn’t even aware of until I started to write this post.  I have two kinds of chairs at our 1980s Danish teak dining table (also in the living room).  Two of them are modern-day Thonet chairs purchased from Homeward.  The other two were given to me by a former boss.  Do you see what unifies them?  It’s a material – the cane.  My earliest and least expensive purchase in this living room was my Salvation Army butterfly chair (always adored butterfly chairs) that I picked up in college.  My most expensive is probably my Design Within Reach china cabinet purchased many years later when I had more money.  But they all coexist happily because of unity in either color, shape, material or even spirit.


IMG_2957aLesson #4:  Don’t hesitate to use 2D techniques to help you work out 3D designs.  This was a big deal for me – take photos and draw on them or make your own drawings on paper.  Both plans (overhead views) and elevations (wall views like shown) are useful.  Just remember that first and foremost, your space needs to function properly.  Is there a place for you to set your drink when you sit down?  A light for you to be able to read?  And so on.

Lesson #5:  Find a good upholsterer.  Here’s where a friend in the industry comes in handy; they know where to find them.  I have one who recovered the cushions of my Room & Board sofa in a much more cat friendly and comfortable Knoll Ultrasuede.  I love the look of a different fabric on the cushions of a sofa – so chic!  He also replaced the bright blue vinyl on the seats of those mid-century cane chairs with a fantastic Scalamandre fabric that I bought when I worked as a design assistant.  Your furniture will go so much further with a good upholsterer.

Lesson #6:  Look in-house or close to home for art and accessories.  Some of the best money I ever spent went to having an old painting of my mother cleaned and professionally framed to hang in the living room.  The story goes that it was painted from a snapshot of my mom as a teenager by a POW during WWII.  Her brother Jim brought it back from the war.  That painting spent so many years in Mom’s closet and then in mine.  It felt so good to finally bring it out and let it be a real part of our home.  Then there are books; books make great accessories.  And even postcards.  I’ve saved postcards from friends and relatives over the years, and I just brought some out to clip to one of these mobiles.  I love seeing all the different handwriting again.  Of course paintings add so much to your rooms.  Do you have a nearby school with an art program?  That can be a wonderful place to start a painting collection.  I’m lucky to have a neighbor who is a painter whose work I love.  It’s a wonderful thing to have items in your house that were made by friends.  Keep your eyes open and look close to home; you don’t have to spend a fortune for art and accessories.  The Korean screen shown in the photo at the top of the post came from a warehouse sale at the design shop I used to work for – $50!  Sure it has some water damage, but I don’t care.  One of the benefits of my getting older is that I don’t need everything to be perfect anymore.  And don’t be afraid of those bare spaces before you find the right pieces.  The eye needs a place to rest after all.

And the final lesson (the one that inspired this post) is …

Lesson #7:  Don’t forget the fresh flowers.  You don’t have to spend a lot.  I’m a big fan of a single variety in a clear glass vase (just remember to change the water every day or two).  Trader Joe’s is my usual source, but if you’ve got something in your yard to bring in that’s great; it doesn’t even have to be a flower.  It’s that element of something fresh, something living that does the trick.  Maybe even a bowl of Mandarin oranges.  Whatever you choose, it’s sure to elevate everything else in the room.


  1. Kathie Nowka

    Colleen, your home is stunning because it reflects YOU so beautifully! I also think that the “journey” to the end product is the most interesting part, no matter how long it takes. “Ditto” to Sara’s comments above – as Mom would say, “You should write a book!”

    • And you are a good sister (with a good eye, I might add …) I think I could write a spool knitting with popsicle sticks book, what do you think about that? I also have a postcard of yours on my mobile from Hawaii and one from Dad from France (I’d totally forgotten he went to France!) Thanks for the sweet comment kid. I agree about the journey; I am still on the journey with the yard, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the closets …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s