21 February 2012

it starts with a PLAN... (and some interior design advice)

m21 recently volunteered to help a treasured family member out with some direction for the living room of her new home. she doesn't want m21 to "do" the room, as she wants to have the fun of shopping estate sales and the like to transform the living room into something completely and unique to her and her husband; but like most homeowners, when faced with the prospect of a blank slate she was unsure of where to begin. add in the constraints of dealing with existing architecture like a sunken living room as part of a living/dining/entry "great room", and working with the occasional oddly placed window, and what seems like a simple project can become quite challenging. luckily, she has the the advantage of a decorator in the family, and we offered a few tips so she can start her decorating with a little less trepidation.

and, first, it all begins with a PLAN... 
a floorplan to make the step down, double height "room" within a "great room" feel a bit more intimate, with some requested built-in bookshelves. the thing that makes this plan a bit daring for the avg homeowner is that the sofa, end tables and lamps will be placed directly in front of a bookcase- blocking access, but making for a pretty view. too weird? check out my pinterest "library" board and you tell me!

a good floor plan is the heart and soul of any design project.  before i ever select a swatch of fabric, or a stick of furniture, i ALWAYS start by making a few floor plans. it is the recipe on which the success of a project depends, and the guiding principles by which all future selections will be made.
a slightly more open floor plan, but still retaining a couple of built-ins for the intimate library feel...
an ill-chosen paint color or fabric might not be the most complimentary thing in a room, but not such a big deal in the total scheme of things and can always be worked around; whereas a room with a traffic flow that doesn't work, or a sofa or dining table that is too big or too small, can actually be rendered completely unusable, and a become a huge waste of a lot of money- those are mistakes that NO one wants, and which a good floor plan will always help avoid.

a floor plan to maximize seating. what these 3 plans have in common is they all center on the axis of the window and the axis of the long wall. *always* try to center on a visual axis, your eye will thank you with the finished product.

one of the first lessons i learned right out of design school is that if a floor plan isn't pretty on paper, it won't be in real life either, so it's important that it appeal visually- even an unpracticed eye can read crowded and unappealing when it's drawn out for them! ;-)  when drawing a floor plan, i like to call out essential dimensions but leave off extraneous stuff- i mean who cares if a window is 8 feet long since it's fixed and unchangeable, but it's important that my clients know a sofa can't be larger than 8 feet so in case they are out shopping one day without me (god forbid), and fall in love with a 10 foot sofa, they don't snap that puppy up, only to be disappointed when it is delivered and doesn't fit, even though in their mind's eye, they were *sure* it would. so on my plans, i tend to call out maximum furniture dimensions when needed, but otherwise, let the floor plan speak for itself visually (you can always go smaller than the dimensions listed, but bigger can really screw things up). also, the plans are to scale, so if you really need to know a dimension, pull out a ruler! when possible, i also like to do several variations of a room, even if i don't think they are the best fits, bits and pieces are always transferable if a client likes something from one plan and something else from another. finally, in this case, i also provided a scale floor plan of just the walls of the room in case she would like to play around with things herself:

a blank 1/2" = 1' floor plan to muck about with. this can be placed under a sheet of graph paper to draw your pieces in, or you can cut out furniture shapes to size, place them on the plan and move them around...

besides floor plans, i also passed on a few key bits of advice that i've learned over the years; i think they are pretty universally applicable, so i thought i'd share them with you too:

1- never be in a hurry to furnish a room... that is *always* when bad decisions are made. chances are you are going to be in your home for many years, and you basically get one shot to make things right with the really big purchases, so let things unfold organically.  take your time and be patient. you'll never remember that it took 6 months to get the right sofa once it's in your home and you love it; but if you rush and get the *wrong* sofa, you'll regret that decision every single time you look at it for as long as you own it. so relax; don't rush a decision... you'll be happier, and your room will look better. guaranteed.

2- start with the big things first: determine the size rug you need, or size sofa/dining table, and get those out of the way first. the rest of the ingredients of the room will fall into place naturally once some big, key decisions are made.

3- same with any construction: if you want to add built-ins or sconces, or move a ceiling junction box, etc.,  get it out of the way up front if possible. of course this depends on budget- some things have to wait, but at least you'll know when you do have the funds to make them happen, your plan will still look good!

4- don't sweat the small stuff: generally, the smaller a decorating item, the easier it is to source, so don't buy a pair of lamps first thing and then decorate around them; save them for later.  and in a similar vein, accessories always, always, always, come last.  they are the easiest ingredients to find, and you can decide when you are 99% finished what the room "needs" in order to look complete.   remember, you have to bake the cake before you can frost it and add the candles and the sprinkles...

5- DON'T MATCH! this will go against everything you ever thought you knew about decorating, and feel wrong to the very core of your being, but *don't* make everything matchy-matchy. nothing sucks the soul out of a room faster than everything being one shade of wood, or same material, or worse, everything looking like it was purchased from one vignette at one furniture store.  contrast in scale, materials, color, and maybe most importantly value (shades of light or dark) are *key*, and make a room sing. AND NEVER, EVER, EVER, BUY A FURNITURE SET! ya hear me? no bedroom sets, dining room sets, living room sets, etc. *do not* allow a sales person to talk you into this. ever. walk away if they even suggest it. (the exceptions to this rule are pairs- pairs of things are pretty, so pairs of tables, chairs, lamps, etc., are exempt from this otherwise hard and fast rule :-)

 6- don't be afraid of color!  or whether something "goes" with something else...  if you love it, chances are you will still love it when it's all put together, provided the piece is the right size and proportion; color is secondary to those more important requirements, and again, size and proportion can be room killers, so refer to your floor plan to get these right. but color? go with your heart, and don't let anyone tell you yellow and green don't go together, or you can't use chocolate and lilac; of course you can, provided *you* like the combo- it's *your* room after all, so don't be scared to mix the colors you love. color is your friend, not your enemy, so have fun with it.

7- paint your room LAST. that's right, pick your paint colors AFTER selecting the furniture, fabrics and lighting. the options for paint colors are *infinite*, whereas there are a fixed number of fabrics available, so you can always change your paint color at the last minute, but that sofa you ordered will be arriving in whatever fabric you selected, like it or not.  now, i'm not saying you can't swatch, and select a paint palette at the beginning of your project; i'm just saying it's sometimes best to actually commit to those selections at the very end. paint looks every different in an empty room, as opposed to a room with furniture in place and art on the walls, so it's pretty hard for most to envision the final results. what may seem too dark or too strong in an empty room will feel wildly different in room with everything in place. plus paint is so *easy* to change, or even to resample by painting just one wall. honestly, it's the least scary thing anyone has to commit to in the whole decorating process, so don't let paint turn into an ordeal. it's not- paint is always the easiest thing to fix or remedy. like color, paint is your friend!

8- remember, your floor plan is a *plan* but it's not engraved in stone. allow room for changes and the occasional happy mistake... but when necessary, refer back to your floor plan make sure those changes/happy mistakes will fit. the best rooms *always* evolve a bit over time, so embrace this aspect-  when planning rooms for clients, i purposefully will point to things on the plan and say "i don't know what this is yet, but we'll know it when we see it!" to allow for change and the unexpected, and i think you should too!

9- last, HAVE FUN! remember, decorating is a *luxury*, so if you are lucky enough to be able to do it,  just enjoy the ride!  embrace the process, warts and all, and if you do make a mistake, don't beat yourself up, just figure out if you can live with it, or if you need to change it, and happily fix or move on...

i know lots of my designer friends read this blog, so feel free to chime in with your advice and tips as well- both my readers and myself would enjoy hearing your point of view!

ps- for those of you who are saying "with all this good advice, m21, aren't you just talking yourself out of a job?"; i answer, "au contraire!"  some people want to have fun and DIY, and they ain't gonna hire me anyway, so why not give out a little free advice?  i view designing in some ways like being a chef- anyone who loves to cook has access to the same ingredients as wolfgang puck, or tom colecchio, so if they want to buy those same ingredients at a grocery store and whip up a dish at home, go for it! but when they want the complete experience of fine dining, and the luxury of being served, coupled with the experience and knowledge of wolfgang and tom to turn those same same ingredients into dish truly amazing and sublime, they will happily fork over the money and go to their restaurants; same with a decorator- to have the results be something that you *can't* replicate in your own kitchen, and if the budget is available, then you'll call m21 for the complete experience. simple as that!


Anonymous said...

I love this post - it totally rings true and is a great reminder for me when I am dealing with my first clients.

Halcyon House said...

Amen, Christian.

Erin said...

Perhaps the most important post in the history of the world... Ok, maybe just the decorating world.

There are many things here that I have learned from trial and error over the years, but choose to ignore in the heat of the shopping moment (ahem, craigslist).

Anyway, I'm going to print out a copy and staple it to my face.

anita said...

great post.
i'm with erin -- print out and staple to my face.

TheStagingGuy said...

Christian - while finishing up our fourth bedroom, one of the smartest design decisions that I ever made was waiting on choosing a paint color until I purchased bedding for the 2 twin beds for the room. I was astounded how difficult it was to find twin size bedding that wasn't either Super Hero themed or really, really cheap looking. It would have been even harder if I had to try and match a wall color too!

tula said...

I'm printing this out and making it my Bible. Thank you, Maison! You're a god amongst gods!

Turling said...

I'm bookmarking this page and referring to it in the future. If you don't mind, I'll probably even do a post on it.

Same concept, different vain, we've done the same with a garden, paying a landscape designer to come up with an overall plan that we'll follow. It starts with a PLAN, indeed.

shuzluva said...


Love the post! I have three working floor plans for our living/family room (have graph paper, will sketch!). Of course, we're not touching it until my wild son is a bit older, but there's nothing like taking ideas, putting them on paper and playing with them. Yes, I have a favorite of the three...but I still haven't picked out my paint!

Adi Edlen said...

I love your honesty! So important in design! I also like how you put together 3 different floor plans to give them options (but not too many to overwhelm them!)

David said...

This is wonderful Christian, just good, common-sense advice. I'll be keeping a copy handy as well.

And your analogy is perfect. I love to cook, but if money were no object hot daddy bear Tom Colecchio could absolutely make me dinner.

Lisa said...

Great post! I'm doing a home right now where I'm doing all the finishing touches.
It has already been painted and the bedroom suite of furniture has already been ordered and received.....aakk! The good news is the paint colour is quite lovely and workable. Now to try and not be too tactless when dealing with the bedroom set.