I remember being four years old, standing in my grandmother’s garden in Greece. Vivid blue sky. White walls. Lush plants and bright flowers. It was postcard beautiful. But, in my opinion, the plants and flowers needed rearranging. The rosemary plant would have looked so much better beside the lavender. I decided to redo the garden and began pulling flowers and plants out by the roots. In my four-year-old mind, I knew how it should look. Thankfully, my grandmother caught me before I did too much damage.
Just a few short years later, at the age of six, living in a suburban Chicago apartment with my parents, I would lean up against the walls of our home, pushing as hard as I could. If I could just move the wall a few inches this way or that, I knew the room would look better.
I wasn’t your regular kid. I was already looking at the world in terms of design, wanting to take it apart and put it back together again in new ways. Somehow I had this innate sense that space should feel balanced, that it should be malleable. After all, it is the details of a room (furniture placement, accessories, books, artwork, etc.) that give it personality and tell a story. My grandmother’s story. My parents’ story. My story. Your story.
When I was growing up, Saturday was cleaning day in our house. For some reason, I liked cleaning day. Especially if it meant dusting. My mom, being a perfectionist, required that all accessories—the vintage wooden horse, Oriental vases, Greek urns—be removed from each surface before that surface was dusted. This allowed me to rearrange things, to put everything the way I thought it should be, in an arrangement I thought worked better than the original. Mom learned quickly that there was no stopping me. Even when she tried to put things back in their previous places, I got up in the middle of the night—when everyone else was sleeping—and moved them back the way I wanted them.
For about a day—maybe two—I would love the new placement, then I was back to rearranging, always trying to get the room to “feel right.” I realized, many years later, that what I was trying to do was to make every room balanced and to make every room reflect us—turning it into a tangible representation of who we were and how we lived our lives.
Since life itself and the people living in any home are constantly changing, the space they live in should change accordingly. When I walk into the home of friends I’ve known for years, I find it odd that while they may have changed, their home hasn’t. How is that possible? Why aren’t their rooms telling the current story of their lives?
Nothing speaks more to the personality of any room than the details. You have your own treasures—childhood mementoes, familial artifacts, the personal touches from trips you’ve taken. Arranging objects that have a special meaning can help to bring your unique personal story to life in your home.
One of the most important things you can do when trying to understand how to choose and arrange objects for a specific room is to ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish in that room. For instance, let’s say you are working in a very contemporary living room that you have painted in neutral tones. You have used clean-lined furnishings and minimal adornment, and you want to keep that “clean & uncluttered” feel, yet you want to give the room an interesting and distinctive sense of character as well. Look for objects that help to tell the story. In other words, choose an attractive vase that’s in keeping with your original color palette. For a punch of color, look for cues in pieces that are already in that space and find a color within them that can be made more substantial by “punching it up” a few tones. See if there are small color cues in existing fabric or furnishings (i.e. pale blue specks in the beige sofa fabric, a butter cream yellow stripe in a vase). Use these cues and add pillows, vases, lampshades, or artwork that bring out those hidden colors. Accessories are a great way to make color and texture statements without too much commitment. It’s easier to change out an accessory than a couch.
It’s also a great idea to look outside your windows. Sometimes the best design ideas are right in front of us. The view your window frames can become part of the interior space. If you like what you see, let it guide you into making some design decisions by bringing the outside in. Maybe most of your view is of old, gray-looking buildings, but maybe there is also a structure that has some predominant gold leafing detail or even an interesting sculptural element that can be a jumping-off point. You can use the gold leafing detail for inspiration—how about a large leaning mirror that has a gold leaf frame? That would look dramatic and striking in your contemporary living room, adding character to your neutral, clean-lined space without feeling fussy. Through the mirror’s reflection, you also get to reflect your contemporary design back into the room.
A sculptural element can add character to your space. Look for thrift store finds or architectural salvage yard finds. Items like pillars, molding pieces, and building adornments—all found at salvage yards—can bring instant story to your room. Discover the unexpected details that give your rooms a look that is unique just to them.
Someone else can admire these particular details, but what works in one space won’t necessarily work in another because every space—and every person—will have a different context.
Another way to approach choosing the details, or objects, of a room is to think of it as story telling. You’ve set the foundation for the story you want to tell through the color and furnishings, but you’re really not going to be able to tell the whole story without the details. It’s like reading a good mystery. Once you have the overall idea of the setting, the magic of the journey is in the details the author puts before you. Your involvement becomes more personal and the stakes are raised, and that’s a great thing. You want the design stakes in your room raised. It makes for a much more interesting story. You’re not dull— so why should your room be?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Use various heights of similar objects to create interest on a mantel or table. Move items around. Stand back and see what feels right. Your intuition and creative eye will continue to grow and refine. Try grouping similar objects together instead of scattering them around the room. They will make more of an impact that way and feel like a “collection,” even if you are grouping nothing more than some inexpensive flea market pottery. Just the mere fact that the pieces are together gives them more importance in a space. While you’re moving your “collection” around take into account the balance of the grouping. What I mean by that is, check to see if your objects feel like they are complementing each other as opposed to vying for attention. Sometimes it’s best to take the most ornate object and showcase it on it’s own or have it grouped with less detailed pieces so that thee can balance each other out.
The power of grouping in color is huge. Ordinary objects take on a powerful new meaning in a room when they are grouped together by color. For example, I love pottery, and trying to indulge my pottery fix isn’t always cost effective, so I will often buy inexpensive pieces found at yard/garage sales and flea markets. The most inexpensive pieces, when grouped together, make a priceless statement.
The collection of all-white vases I have above my living room mantel is always a topic of conversation for any new guest in my home. They often ask why the collection isn’t in a more secure place. Monetarily it’s worth almost nothing, but the impact it makes is tremendous. I have painted the mantel and old brick fireplace white as well, and the wall behind it is a very pale gray-blue, which acts as a great accent.
Remember that there can be too much of a good thing. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you have to overdo it. There is no need to display everything you have all at once. I’ve chosen to keep any and all white pottery only in my living room, confining it to that particular corner of my house so that it doesn’t compete with itself. Every once in a while I’ll take a piece out and put in a new purchase, kind of like a museum curator would do, but with far less fuss or scrutiny. Act as if you’re the curator of your home and rotate accessories and art from room to room to give it a fresh new feel. It helps to keep your space—and your details—fresh and interesting. Be daring, go bold. Moving existing objects around is the easiest way to redefine space and, best of all, it’s free!
A great way to add color and texture to a room is to bring in plants and flowers. They give any space a sense of energy and you can keep changing them out to create different moods. It’s an easy, quick fix for any room. Even if your room seems finished, a vase of fresh flowers will add so much more vitality and, by the same sense, an unfinished, work-in-progress space can benefit greatly from the organic punch of color and texture provided by flowers and plants.
You can continue to add color and texture with pillows. Pillows are a fast, inexpensive, simple way to transform the look of a room, and if you don’t like them, they’re easy to change out so you don’t have to feel the pressure of a huge commitment. They can also provide you with a quick style change for a new season. Don’t be afraid to layer a room with different fabrics and textures with rugs, upholstered furniture, bamboo platters, and anything else that might add instant character. You layer your clothing, why not your home. Find colors in the room that are used in small touches, say the burnt orange of the platter propped on the fireplace mantel or the blue of the Murano wine glasses displayed on your wet bar. Pull that color out in a few decorative pillows and the room starts to feel vibrant and dramatic.
The use of natural elements like stones, shells, and sticks can really add some much needed texture in a more neutral room. Since most of those items tend to be neutral themselves, they will work nicely, but at the same time their textural surfaces will give your space a sense of warmth. Play around with your surroundings and see what you can accomplish just by moving things and seeing them in a whole new light. Fill a clear vase with seashells. Collect interesting rocks on your hikes, pile them into an interesting bowl, and use it as a paperweight.
Don’t be afraid to explore all kinds of options for where to find your details—from flea market finds, to major budget retailers like Target, to local antique stores. You never know where inspiration will come from. Price is never the reason behind good design. Look everywhere, even in stores or catalogues you might feel are out of your reach. Ideas don’t cost a thing, so look around you—use other people’s ideas to help you jumpstart yours—for example, pay attention to your friend’s living room that has always felt comfortable and stylish to you. See it with new eyes. Examine furniture placement, color(s), lighting, and figure out what is it about the overall aesthetic that appeals to you. You don’t want to copy it—you just want to understand the designs that push your buttons, and then you want to add your own personal touch to them. I always hear clients saying, “I don’t have a style,” or, “I don’t know what my style is.” I say, “YOU DO!” You just have to do the homework to find that style and know that “mistakes” will happen and choices will occur that you might not be happy with at first, but that’s how you discover your style and literally train your eye to understand what will work (and what won’t) for you.
Once your room is filled with your personal details, it will become a more inviting place, not only for you but for your guests. Don’t be afraid to let it evolve as well. Remember—you continue to grow and change. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said, “When we look around we find that everything is growing, evolving, progressing. Progress, evolution, growth are the nature of life.” Let your space reflect that.