“You look like you’re pondering,” DC says to me the other night. I am staring into space wearing an expression so serious he must think I’m single handedly solving the health-care crisis.
“I’m thinking about how to treat the handrails on the staircase,” I wonder aloud. “Should we paint or replace them?”
He shakes his head. He knows I am a woman possessed.
Ever since we closed on our new house last week, my mind has been awhirl with design possibilities. What color paint here? What furniture there? What rug here? What artwork there?
Just when I wrangle one decision to the ground, five more sprout like gray hairs. There’s no end to them.
I go to sleep arranging and rearranging furniture in my head. I awake startled by a dream that involves flying carpets landing in various rooms. I compulsively sketch floor plans on any available surface, the backs of gum wrappers, the palm of my hand, the sidewalk. Paint swatches flutter out of my purse like piñata prizes. I have enough flooring samples in my car to cover a basketball court. And I am actively involved in text threads at all hours of the day and night with a variety of men I’ve just met: the wood-floor installer, the plumber, the painter, the mover.
“You’ve done this a dozen times,” DC says, wondering why the act of designing and decorating this home has commandeered every ounce of my energy, attention, creativity and good nature.
“This time is different,” I say.
I know he’s thinking what you’re thinking: Good grief, woman, if anyone were ready for this moment, it’s you.
After all, I’ve been writing about home design for almost 15 years, have three books out on the subject, have built and designed three houses, and have lived in and staged many more. I’ve upsized, outsized, downsized, and rightsized. I’ve divided, blended, shaken, and shuffled more homes and home furnishings than anyone who is still alive to tell about it.
“I feel wholly unprepared,” I say.
“Why?” he asks.
I look deep into my terrified core: “It’s because this is The House. Our Happily Ever After House,” I say. “This is my finale, the culmination of years of learning everything I possibly could about design, of thinking about what home means, and of reinventing and remarrying and rebuilding a life.”
“Do you think you might be overthinking this?” DC gently asks.
“This is my final exam. If I don’t ace it, I’m a failure. If I don’t get it right, I will feel like an imposter.”
“That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.”
To calm my buzzing brain, and to fortify myself for the job ahead, I chant the home decorator’s version of the serenity prayer: Grant me the ability to know where to use the things I have, the courage to change and purge that which doesn’t work, the serenity to acquire only those new furnishings that are absolutely necessary, and the wisdom to know the difference.
So I steel myself for the final. It is one big essay question: Find your creative eye, and make a new home look great using what you have – or most of it. I dig deep and rely on what I’ve learned.
This much I know for sure. (The rest I’m still figuring out):
Prioritize. The best way to approach any interior design is sequentially. Start with the shell – the floors, walls and window coverings – and move in. Next come large furnishings to fit a floor plan designed with function and flow in mind. Last, layer in art, rugs and accessories. Though jumping ahead is tempting, stick with the method. DC, for instance, often wants to know where a favorite piece of art will go. “I don’t know yet” is a fine answer.
Stay fluid. Decorating a home is like working with a mound of wet clay. You mold it, move it, and shape it, and keep doing that until the whole clicks. This is how the chest I think will go in the living room winds up in the office. It drives DC nuts. “I thought that was going in the … (name a room).” You have complete artistic license to change your mind, and you should.
Find inspiration right in front of you. Look at your furnishings out of context and see what speaks to you, a piece of art, an area rug, a pillow fabric, and let that lead you. Find the common colors and threads in what you own. Build on that color and design palette, while staying open to updating it with a fresher interpretation.
Trust your instincts. Even though you pictured a certain piece in a certain place, if you find when it lands there it doesn’t look right, trust your gut. Keep playing with placement until it feels right. You will know it when you see it.
Create a home store. When I move into a new home, I corral all accessories in one spot, a large table or corner of a room. Once the walls and floors are finished and large furniture is in place, I shop my stuff. I work a room at a time, and take accessories from my makeshift store and test drive them around the house. Break out of your rut and feature old items in new ways. Don’t feel compelled to use them all. Let go of what’s passé, and leave a few places empty for what’s to come.