I often gaze longingly at the pages of magazines and wish that my home looked as perfect. So what is it that makes a room look like it was designed by a professional interior decorator? What is that perfect finishing touch that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary?
When I was researching this piece I found that I kept coming back to one of my favourite vintage DIY books: The Complete Home Handywoman by Dawn Marsden and Alan Morgan (1977). I’ve included a couple of diagrams from the book to help you. Old vintage guides like this are a great resource for decorating ideas and techniques and can be picked up for pennies in secondhand book shops.
Note: I say decorator rather than designer because an interior designer works during the planning stage, often in conjunction with an architect, while an interior decorator approaches the already constructed room to decorate it in a pleasing way.
Step 1. Observe the Building
Step back for a moment and look at you home as a piece of architecture. Is its interior in keeping with the building? The three interiors above are of very different styles. The first is a country cottage with original beams, the second a Victorian townhouse with original floor and doors, and the third is a twentieth century build with feature steps and ceiling. These buildings are beautiful in their own way but are treated differently. If you have a modern open plan house but are striving for a Victorian replica then you face an uphill struggle. Yes, it is certainly possible to follow any style in any building, however the result is better if you work with the building on its own terms.
Observe the time period, size, ceiling height, original features and finishes of your home and consider how to incorporate them into your plans. By starting with what is already there as an intrinsic part of the building you can begin to create a harmonious design that feels natural and authentic to itself. You will also make the most of any original features saving yourself time and money.
Step 2. Analyse Function
Once you have listened to the building, it is time to listen to those who live in it. I once lived in a rented flat where the toilet was in a room so narrow that you had to sit sideways on it because you couldn’t fit yours knees in the gap between the bowl and the wall. This utter lack of interest in how the room would function resulted in it being both a constant annoyance and an eye sore.
These two diagrams are from The Complete Home Handywoman (1977). Here function is
paramount. The authors understand that the most beautiful kitchen in the world that is difficult to use is of no good to anyone. You can use similar thought processes to think through how you use your bathroom, bedroom/ dressing space or living room and design the room accordingly.
Step 3. Think of Creative Solutions
Having done a lot of thinking about what is already there and what you need from the space it is time to come up with some ideas. If you’ve ever watched any of those decorator programs on TV you know that the best rooms are those created specifically for the people who live in them. They work fluidly around their users. Brainstorm how you want to use the room by listing needs in one column and solutions in the other.
For example, if you are designing a bedroom for a 10-year-old girl you want a space that can adapt and grow as she does. The desk below from The Container Store fits together with runners and brackets so that the height and layout can be adjusted as her needs change. In this picture the desk has been accessorised to make it look bright and colourful for a child, though it could just as easily be changed in line with more grownup teenage tastes. Rather than the three drawers on the left, a double height bin for keeping a school bag in may be more practical.
Step 4. Map it Out
Now that you have a tonne of ideas about what you can do, get some construction paper (or an app) and start planning. You may want to go back and forth between steps 4 and 5 as you assemble your room. Don’t be afraid to have light fixtures and plug sockets moved by an electrician as it can really make a room work, though good planning is essential. In lieu of an electrician, try using lamps or dimmer smart-bulbs to adjust the lighting and zones of a room. The diagram below shows a living room with multiple zones marked out by different lighting. The grid helps create balance in the room by allowing easy alignment and planning.
Step 5. Style, Colour and Texture
Now that we have a rough sketch of the room it is time to fill in the details. Look at interiors magazines, blogs, Pinterest and Polyvore for ideas. If there are any items of furniture or artwork that you know will be in the room then use them as the starting point. Remember that furniture can be repainted, recovered or upcycled to give it a fresh look. Avoid using more than three colours in your colour palette to keep the room from getting too busy. One bold colour with two neutral tends to work well.
Step 6. Home Cohesion
Having focused on an individual home we now go back to looking at the house as a whole. Good design should flow through the house. Try opening all of the doors and looking at the view that you get from one room into another. Ideally the rooms should invite you from one to another. Revisit your ideas board and see how it fits into the home. If it works off your observations of the house from step 1 then this itself will be a subtle theme running through the house. You can create this sense by repeating subtle features such as flooring or cornice throughout the building.
Step 7. Dressing (and Staging)
Every magazine or blog post image you see has been staged. What that means is that someone looked at it and tweaked it until it became the perfect shot. There is no reason why you can’t follow the same idea with your home. The trick is not to over clutter. Also grids. Grids underpin all design to one degree or another. The eye picks up on these small elements of alignment so they are worth the effort. In the image below grids are used to plan the arrangement of pictures on a wall and in the one below it furniture and lighting is planned using a grid.
Try looking at the advertising shots from your favourite stores for further inspiration. The image below is from Anthropology and though everything in it is fabulously expensive we can learn a lot. The large framed image leaning against the wall on top of a piece of furniture is very trendy right now. The bottle vase (thrift shops have these by the dozen) with two flowers is also easy to recreate. The stylist has repeated the gold touches from the furniture in the gold frame hanging on the wall to the left. The scene avoids looking cluttered by keeping the floor clear – there is no waste paper bin though this is a desk cabinet. Equally the colours in the decorations – gold, white, green and blue/ grey are taken directly from the palette of the walls, floor and furniture.
When you see an image like this that catches you eye analyse it. What are the shapes? The colours? The textures? How are objects arranged? These scenes can be recreated with a little inventiveness and attention to detail.
Conclusion: Get Creative!
Pick a direction that you want to take a room and go for it. If you can’t find what you need to finish your room then make it yourself. Whether it be fuzzy cushion covers from thrift shop jumpers, or some home made wall art those personal touches make all the difference.
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