I know, I know, to many of you the idea of decorating an empty room feels as horrifying as one of those dreams where you’re suddenly in public naked. But I’m going to fix that.
Although decorating a room from scratch is intimidating, here’s the truth:
If you can dress, you can decorate.
Stay with me. Let’s assume on most days you get up and get dressed. You in fact start from naked, though one hopes not in public. (I’m going to plant the seed right now: Naked = Empty Room.)
To assemble an outfit, you — and let’s assume for the sake of our discussion that “you” is a put together woman of a certain age — have to make at least a dozen design decisions: skirt, dress or pants? which top, which bra, which shoes, what purse, which lipstick, which necklace, scarf or no scarf, sweater or jacket? You get the idea.
You likely move swiftly and expertly through these decisions. As you do, you layer, mix color and texture, accessorize and edit, all while considering comfort, function and your agenda. And you probably do it all without worrying a hole in your stomach lining.
Ahem! That’s decorating, folks! Pulling together an outfit takes exactly the same skills as pulling together a room.
So why is it that getting dressed feels practically automatic, while decorating makes even the most confident grownup quake like a dog at the vet.
I ran this analogy by my friend Elaine Griffin, a top New York designer, and author of Design Rules (Gotham, 2009).
“SHUUUUUUT UUUUUP!!!” She emailed back. “I tell my clients ALL the time that designing a room is just like getting dressed in the morning, which you’ve been doing since you were 12!”
Like me, Griffin wants to see more homeowners check their creative hang-ups at the door and decorate.
“Fashion and interior design are first cousins,” said Griffin. “Both acts share the same set of visual rules, which lead to creating a personal design statement.”
Steady now. I know about the teeny weenie differences: Outfits are easy to change. If you don’t like what you wore today, you get a do-over tomorrow. And the financial investment in most outfits is much less than what you’d spend on a room, though, come to think of it, I have seen some shoes that cost as much as a nice sofa, which just seems wrong.
I get that decorating raises the stakes, and feels like getting dressed cubed. But you really, really can do this.
Here are some more parallels between dressing and decorating. Once you see them, you’ll understand: You’ve been decorating all along.
• The purpose. When you get dressed, you automatically factor in the day’s agenda. Whether you’re going to a wedding, work, or a backyard barbecue dictates whether you’ll be dressy, professional, casual or stay in your pajamas . Same for a room. What you will do there determines how you will dress it. Is the space public or private? Is it for formal entertaining, working, or putting your feet up?
• The style. Are you more Jackie Onassis or Lady Gaga, more Rupaul or Mitt Romney? Your taste in clothes – classic, funky, eccentric, tailored – should carry through to your home. Don’t dress like someone you aren’t, and don’t decorate like a fraud either. “One rule I would never break is that rooms should look like those who live in them,” said Griffin. “I’d expect Joan Rivers’ home to be a riot of color, and Calvin Klein’s home to revolve around black, taupe and ivory.”
• The basics. Foundation pieces anchor both outfits and rooms. In clothes, foundation items are the skirt or slacks, the dress or suit. In a room they’re the main upholstered pieces: sofas, chairs, or bedding. “A classic neutral sofa is your little black dress,” said Griffin.
• Pops of color. Every outfit and every room needs a spike of color. A teal tie or citron scarf, sherbet orange pillows or raspberry lampshades. A color pop could also be a leopard-print rug, or tiger-striped stilettos.
• The bling. A touch of sparkle completes both an ensemble and an interior. It doesn’t have to be much, but it does have to reflect light. Metallic buckles on shoes or belts, a ring that glimmers, a wrist watch or bangle bracelet does for an outfit, what a crystal bowl, silver candlesticks, or a mirror does for a room. “Earrings are lamps,” said Griffin, “and very important.”
• The wrap. Jackets and outerwear are to outfits what drapes are to rooms, says Griffin, they’re the finishing wrap that completes the package.
• Combine textures. A little cashmere here, a little satin there, rooms like outfits need contrasting finishes. Put sleek with rough, shiny with matte, and soft with hard.
• Lay it out. When putting together an outfit, it helps to lay the clothes out swapping out tops or ties, earrings and belts, until the ensemble clicks. Putting a design board together with paint swatches, floor samples and fabric clippings lets you visualize a room the same way.
Now go and put some clothes on that room.