Designer tricks for making your house stylish

Posted: May 18, 2007

Good design isn't brain surgery. And, despite what some folks say, it doesn't have to cost a fortune.

But sometimes figuring out how to decorate a room can be downright baffling. Ever walk into the home of one of your friends and wonder why everything feels right and looks perfectly coordinated? You know she didn't hire a decorator, but somehow the decorating looks like the pictures in the glossy magazines. And yours looks like ... we won't go there.

What does she know that you don't?

Learning how to decorate well takes exposure to the principles of scale, balance and color coordination. And you can succeed if you do your homework. The best way to start is to study the rooms in shelter magazines, designer show houses, and museums. Decorating also takes patience. That means a lot of shopping - in local stores, especially some of the small boutiques, as well as in catalogs and online.

We're going to show you some simple tricks to transform your home into a comfortable, stylish haven. Our demo house may not be your decorating style, but it doesn't have to be. Check out the lessons and translate them into your own decor.

Proper scale makes rooms cozy. Some of us live in homes with soaring ceilings, 10 feet or higher. They often make us feel uncomfortable because we don't know how to furnish the rooms.

One of the elements that brings our demonstration great room into proper scale is an Indonesian wooden artifact that is hung in the 2-foot space between the top of the sliding glass doors and the ceiling.

Another trick is using a skirted table with a large dominant accessory. You can use a tall vase or, as we did, a 19-inch-tall decorative umbrella stand. This one is filled with 47-inch and 40-inch bamboo poles in two different textures.

Make it yours. A leopard bench from Ballard Designs was almost right, but something was missing. All it took was a little creativity - hot-gluing a 6-inch black bullion fringe to the edge - to make it a classic. Five small throw pillows help provide the backdrop. (Odd numbers are typically more pleasing to the eye than even numbers unless you're going for a very traditional, balanced look.) Bartholomew, a faux pug that won't shed, completed the design.

Don't forget the end of the hall. Do you look down the hall into a dead end with nothing to catch your eye? Some of us add a piece of art, but that's often not enough. Too many times, the art looks like it's floating in space and needs an anchor.

Our homeowner didn't want to add a large table because the two doors on either side of the hall are used often. A small round table or a small demilune (half-table) does the trick. We used a photograph, Solitude by David Lorenz Winston, to lead the viewer off into the distance.

Link the design elements. Sometimes, you need to expand the look of a piece of furniture on a wall. We used a chest, custom-ordered from Hong Kong about 25 years ago, to create a larger presence, with the help of old black-and-white sketches of Asian people in gardens that were discovered when a relative died.

The sketches didn't need matting because of the white space around them. They are double-framed to pick up the gold detail on the chest and the black matte paint. The small gold inner frame with Greek key design is 1 inch thick, and the surrounding black frame is 2 inches thick.

What helps make this work is a trio of small, framed sketches above the lamp and a pair of bamboo chairs that ground the scene.

Learn the magic of combining high and low looks. This setting began with an antique English chest (circa 1840) and a green onyx clock (circa late 1800s) - what designers call the "high" (expensive) elements. The inexpensive "low" looks - the pair of lamps (about $120 each) that match the faded ormolu on the clock and the horsewoman portrait (about $150) - were found several years ago at Bombay Co.

The blue-and-white Spode plates ($9.99 each) were assembled after searching for them at three Marshalls stores. The plates are three patterns that match horizontally.

The clock, the portrait and the lamps are all linked together, and the plates expand the presence on the wall.

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