When it comes to decorating our homes, there’s a dizzying array of choices. Whether we’re mid-century modern fans or devotees of traditional design, we all want our homes to be warm, comfortable, inviting, beautiful. But how do you find furniture you’ll love? Create good flow? Get the details just right? Even in a place like Greenwich, where many people have style in spades and lovely historic homes as canvases, the process is—let’s admit it—a bit daunting. We all suffer from paint-chip paralysis and couch-commitment phobia from time to time. Yes, we get tripped up by room layouts and find ourselves puzzling over lighting fixtures. Don’t lose sleep over that chandelier…there’s help! Living in a town that’s synonymous with good taste, we’re also surrounded by design pros. (Hint: The best time to hire one is before you’ve splurged on 1stdibs and had the goods delivered, only to realize that the room just isn’t working or worse, the sofa doesn’t fit and you swear you measured.) To help remedy common decorating dilemmas, we talked to some of our area’s top designers and asked them to share tricks of the trade and shed light on basic design rules. It’s time to demystify decorating.
1. I love the idea of color, but I gravitate toward neutrals because they’re safe. How can I pick new hues?
“Color is a main concern of most clients and they often feel like they should paint every room a light color or white,” says Dinyar Wadia of Wadia Associates. “Actually, darker color in a room can make it seem large. It’s good to have a family of shades.” Wadia, whose firm handles architecture and interior design, and also collaborates with other top designers, has a staff with color expertise and often brings in the gold-standard color pro Donald Kaufman for on-site consultations.
How do you begin selecting colors? Designer Carey Karlan of Last Detail Interior Design suggests choosing shades that also look good on you. What are your most flattering colors? Which colors are you drawn to? A color that plays a supporting role in one room, say a chair upholstered in plum, can become a more dominant hue in the next, says Carey. This way, there’s a thread tying the rooms together. To unify spaces, try similar colors in different textures, such as painted walls in one room and grass cloth in the next.
If you prefer neutral walls, you can layer in tones of color with accent pieces. “Throw pillows, accessories, and books bring in color while giving the room longevity,” says Richard Cerrone, a designer at Lillian August Greenwich.
Designer Amy Aidinis Hirsch steers clients away from a matchy-matchy look. “You can mix different shades of blue, for instance, to make the story more interesting,” says Amy, who just finished a client’s Boca Raton house in crisp white and a sea of turquoise. She adds that some people indulge in more vibrant color in their second homes. “Your choices can be a little bolder or ‘out there’ because you don’t spend all your time there.”
2. Any rules for sizing up a carpet or area rug?
One standard size certainly doesn’t fit all: That eight-by-ten won’t work as well in a square-shaped room or one that has bay windows or other out-of-the-box architectural features. That’s why people can end up with random results or a bath-mat effect when they order stock sizes from a catalog or store. “Everybody has rugs that are too small,” says Amy. “I like when a carpet covers a majority of space. My rule of thumb is a consistent six-inch or twelve-inch wood margin all around.” The exception to this is when a rug is placed near a fireplace, where you can go even closer to the hearth, within an inch or two, she says. If you love a smaller area rug but find it’s looking out of proportion with the room, try layering it, she suggests, by putting a sisal underneath it.
3. Where should I hang mirrors? Can I have more than one in a room?
With decorative mirrors, scale is key to where you place them. Multiples within a room are definitely OK, says designer Cindy Rinfret of Rinfret Ltd. She likes to bring in different shapes, such as a rectangular mirror in one spot and a starburst or a bull’s-eye in another, and she employs mirrors in creative ways. “Put antiqued mirrors in cabinets and French doors, and it gives you privacy and has that open, airy feeling,” she says. This works especially well in a spot like a sunroom-turned-playroom where you don’t want to see all the kids’ toys, but you still want to maintain that open feeling. Just mirror the panels of the French doors, and you’ll have plenty of light but will conceal the clutter.
“People need more mirrors in their lives; they’re a tool of illusion,” says Kenleigh Larock of Larock Studios and owner of The Drawing Room. “They make a room feel four times larger.” She suggests assessing where the natural light is coming in and placing the mirror to reflect it. “A mirror across from a window creates another window,” she notes. When there’s a smaller room that opens into a larger space, hang the mirror so that it reflects the larger space.
4. Designers seem to mix patterns effortlessly. What’s the secret?
In many homes today, larger pieces of furniture are covered in solid fabric, with pattern appearing on pillows, smaller pieces such as ottomans and side chairs, and in the art. But accessorizing with just one pair of identical pillows, for instance, is like hitting the style snooze button. A better bet, says designer Lauren Muse, is to pair something graphic with something subtle. “When you’re mixing shapes in patterns, put a geometric with one that is softer, more organic,” says Lauren. “Two geometrics together can get very clashy.” So, for instance, a bold trellis pattern might work well with an ethereal leaf motif. Likewise, a blend of textures can add interest, such as linen fabric with silk or velvet.
5. Any guidelines for creating comfortable seating areas and living spaces that work?
In certain rooms, you feel a sense of ease, typically because the furniture is scaled appropriately and placed in the right spot. In a living room or family room, allow about eighteen inches between the edge of the sofa and the coffee table, so you can easily grab a drink or a book while still affording enough leg room. If the coffee table’s length is about 65 to 70 percent of the sofa’s length, this will also allow anyone seated to have a comfortable reach, says Kenleigh LaRock. End tables that sit roughly the same height as the sofa arm create comfort and a cohesive look.
“Pleasing layouts are created by paying close attention to functionality and understanding how a given space can be best utilized,” says Ray Forehand of Forehand + Lake. “Generally we find that by floating the furniture in groupings the perimeter is kept open, which promotes a smoother flow.”
When Dinyar Wadia designs a house, the furniture layouts are figured into the plans, so everyone knows up front what the setup will be. He says that having flexibility to the arrangement is key to comfort, especially when entertaining. “You always have chairs you can pull up for a football game,” he says, “or ottomans you can pull out from underneath a table for added seating.”
6. To reupholster or not to reupholster? When is it worth it?
That’s the question we face when that vintage lounge chair is looking tired and we find ourselves ogling a new Holly Hunt number. Do they really “not make furniture the way they used to”? Older furniture that’s in good condition may be worth holding onto, even if it’s not a true antique. Well-made pieces with classic silhouettes, such as Lawson or Bridgewater sofas, will never go out of style and can benefit from a fabric update, says designer Cindy Rinfret. However, she notes, “if it’s a sofa you bought from Crate & Barrel five years ago or you picked up in college, you’re better off starting from scratch.” But the decision of whether to give a chair a fabric face-lift or to ditch it isn’t only about the cost. Sentimental value comes into play, says Cindy. “It may be part of the family and you don’t want to get rid of it.” That was the case for one of her clients who was attached to a pair of wing chairs. She covered them in a clean Greek key pattern and placed them in the client’s new bathroom. In the sleek new surroundings, the old chairs were revived.
Even an antique desk can get an update, says Amy Hirsch. “You can upholster the top, put some nailheads on it and it becomes something totally new.”
7. They say that lighting can make or break a room. What’s essential?
To layer lighting, you first have to consider the ambient light in a room. “Balanced ambient light is the foundation and can be achieved by employing recessed lights, wall sconces and decorative ceiling fixtures,” says Ray Forehand. “Task lighting should be incorporated in the form of lamps or decorative fixtures.”
Dimmers are a must throughout the house, not just in the bedroom and dining room, which is one place where designer Lynne Scalo says you can “have a good time” with lighting: “Make a bold statement. Go a little bit larger; forget the small, skimpy lights,” she advises. “Let it be like a piece of jewelry, one statement piece.” Lynne also encourages people not to hang the fixture too high, a sentiment that other designers echoed.
“If you hang the chandelier too high, you don’t enjoy it when you’re seated,” says Catherine Cleare. Her rule of thumb: thirty to thirty-six inches above the table.
8. Where should I put my TV? Should it be hidden?
People often struggle to find an arrangement that’s practical and works with the furniture layout, says Ray Forehand. “As trends have developed with flat-screen TVs, the traditionalist has issues with placing the TV over the fireplace,” says Forehand. “This is not our first choice. Ideally the TV would be hung on an adjoining wall, preserving a clean focal point in the room.” Another great option, he says, is to conceal the TV behind cabinet doors. “If it’s done seamlessly, you may not even notice the TV until it’s revealed.”
Design guru Mitchell Gold of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams agrees. “We prefer the TV over a great-looking console, where you can put the other elements of your media system,” he says. “And we like augmenting that with bookshelves on either side. It gives you great display space.”
9. Any tricks for choosing paint and wallpaper?
Let the light guide you, says designer Catherine Cleare: “Consider which side of the house the sun is coming from.” If it’s the north side of the house, she may choose warmer tones. But if a room is small and dark, she doesn’t try to fight it and embraces darker hues for the space. “I call it a womb room. It’s cozy. Every house should have one,” says Catherine. “Upholster the walls in gray flannel or plaid flannel and make it a dark, cuddly, room.” On the flip side, she says, “I love seeing brighter colors in the sunnier rooms. I view those as happy rooms.”
Though one of Lynne Scalo’s go-to wall colors is white, she also likes dark for drama. “The first place to try and experiment with dark colors is in a powder room,” she says. “It can create a little jewel box. I’ll do it in a guest room too.” Lynne recently created a beautiful black lacquered space with the highest sheen emulsion of a Farrow & Ball paint (a cost savings over having a room professionally lacquered, she notes). “Make a graphic statement by using lighter upholstery, a beautiful white chair, a little bit of green or nature, a touch of gold, and mirrors are very important,” she says, adding, “everything needs to be very edited in a dark room.”
Lauren Muse turns to wallpaper to energize rooms where people spend less time, such as powder rooms and dining rooms. “I like to use more bold, patterned paper,” she says. “If you’re going to go for the expensive wallpaper, go for the pop.”
10. How much art do I need?
More than you might imagine. “People don’t appreciate how valuable artwork is to balancing the room,” says Catherine Cleare, who doesn’t like clients to see a room before the art is up. Because art can be intimidating, people get stuck and don’t buy anything. “People will spend $10,000 on a sofa, but then they’re afraid to spend $1,200 on artwork,” she says. She tells clients not to worry about the pedigree but to purchase art that makes them happy, adding that it’s OK if your tastes change over time.
Art is personal and it doesn’t have to be expensive or museum-quality, notes Dinyar Wadia, who suggests sourcing art in unexpected places. For instance, Wadia
is drawn to the striking surfing images captured by photographer Chris Burkard.
For affordable pieces, Catherine Cleare suggests scoping out local art fairs, such as the Bruce Museum and Westport shows as well as the numerous galleries in town. At Lillian August, which carries pieces by local artists and photographers, you can also commission custom art. “If the client loves the feel of an artist’s work, but wants a different color or texture in the piece, we can work with the artist,” says Richard Cerrone.
While you’re searching, look for multiples. “Many people don’t have enough groupings and series,” says Carey Karlan, who also recommends collecting a mixture of oils, photographs and prints.
11. Any advice for hanging art? How do I decide which piece goes where?
“Art relates to what is underneath it,” says Carey Karlan. “You don’t want it to feel like it’s floating off in space. Have it relate to the furniture underneath.” The way you arrange art in groups can add to the impact. If you’re stacking two pictures, consider hanging the larger one on top. Or, with a group of four, she says, try hanging them with one on top of the other in the center and the other two at the sides, creating a cross shape instead of a typical square or rectangle.
Groupings can create big visual interest on a wall, says Kenleigh, whose gallery has five or six shows per year with rotating collections of original works. “When you’re hanging a group of artwork, the greater the mixture of frames you have, the more collected it will feel,” says Kenleigh. If you stick to one-color frame, she recommends opting for different styles or thicknesses. To create a wall gallery, Kenleigh has a method for mapping things out on the floor first. Use blue painter’s tape to mark on the floor the amount of wall space you want to fill, say 80 inches by 45 inches above the sofa. Arrange your artwork within the tape rectangle, starting with key pieces in the center, until you find a grouping you like. You can measure distances between the tape perimeter and the pieces, so you know exactly where they go. Then take a picture. Apply the same dimensions of painter’s tape to the wall and use the photo as your guide to place the artwork.
12. Our fireplace has seen better days. How can we upgrade?
“The mantel is such a focal point,” says Dinyar Wadia, so it’s important to choose an elegant surrounding and accessories. He says he prefers to see a nice piece of glass in front of the fireplace for screening, and you won’t need any screen if it’s a gas fireplace, which is becoming much more common. With fireplaces, it’s all about options, whether you want a salvaged antique or a replica. Chesney’s, which has a new showroom in the D&D Building in New York City, has a beautiful selection, he says. Another top source that Wadia favors is a company called Westland in England, which procures exceptional antique mantels from estates around Europe in marble, stone and wood and in a variety of styles, from Gothic and Renaissance to Victorian and Art Deco.
13. I own some beautiful antiques, but I’m drawn to modern style. How can I create that elusive, eclectic mix?
Many designers favor the mixed look over all-traditional or all-modern because it has a more personal, collected feeling. A home feels more interesting when it reflects people’s travels and pieces they’ve gathered over time, says Kenleigh. “We have this 60-30-10 rule,” she says of her guideline for determining the right mix. “If the house is traditional, go 60 percent traditional, 30 percent transitional and 10 percent modern.” If you’re investing in new furniture and want pieces that straddle different styles, check out the New Traditionalists line, which features chairs, tables, desks, dressers and more in classic shapes with contemporary touches, such as drawers faced in linen or headboards upholstered in hide.
Some simple ideas for mixing old and new: Consider painting a secretary in a bright color, says Cindy Rinfret. Place a clear or lucite chair, also known as a ghost chair, in front of an antique dressing table or desk; top an antique side table with a modern lamp. Cindy says that the right art can make over a space. “Take a traditional room and add modern artwork, lighting and accessories, and all of a sudden, it has a twist to it.”
14. What are my options for ceiling color?
You could go white, but there are plenty of subtle ways to change things up with wallpaper, paint, texture and finish. A subtle way to add interest aloft: If your walls are eggshell or flat, paint the ceiling in a high gloss, says Amy Hirsch. “If you have a dark, rich color on the walls, then put a metallic or silver leaf on the ceiling for a reflective element.” A grass cloth wallpaper on the ceiling is another fresh way to bring in texture; for even more warmth overhead, you can apply wood planking or walnut to the ceiling. In her own office, Amy installed character-grade wood on the ceiling and finished it in a high-gloss white.
If you’re painting the ceiling, many designers say you should pick up a hint of the wall color for up above. Carey Karlan says her basic formula is to use 25 percent of the color in the wall on the ceiling. In formal spaces like dining rooms, she is partial to wallpapered ceilings and metallics.
15. When does it pay to splurge?
Most clients want to commit the bulk of their budget to the rooms they use the most, such as entryways, kitchens, family rooms, living rooms. “People are investing a lot now in the lower level. We don’t call it the basement anymore,” says Dinyar Wadia. “They’re putting in family-oriented play spaces with half basketball courts, squash courts, movie theaters, even mini driving ranges. And wine cellars have become almost a requirement for some homes.” These cost more than finishing the interior of a living room or dining room, he says, but they really contribute to people’s enjoyment of their homes.
Bob Williams of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams suggests spending the most on core pieces, such as your sofa, your bed and your dining table and chairs. “If you’re using something every day, and will be for a long time, it really makes sense to invest,” he says. Then you can always update your rooms by changing out things like accent pillows, rugs, lamps or accessories, which is a much more affordable option.
The kitchen is also an obvious space for investing, but Kenleigh advises people not to neglect their bedrooms. “The place where you go to bed and wake up every morning should be peaceful and beautiful,” she says. “You should be surrounded by things you love.”