Though these rooms may look as if they effortlessly fell together, and perhaps their owners would have you believe they did, I assure you they did not. Like that girl in school who aces the chemistry final and says she didn’t even study, successes like these don’t happen by accident.
Great interiors do not tumble into perfect place like Brigitte Bardot’s hair.
Here to unravel the mystery, hand over the trade secrets, and show the cards up every designer’s sleeve is House Beautiful editor Sophie Donelson and her new book, “Style Secrets: What Every Room Needs” (Abrams, September 2017).
Can we just stop for a moment and consider the promise in that subtitle, which is right up there with the burst on the cover of the South Beach Diet book: “Lose Belly Fat First,” which an acquiring editor once told me were the four most important words in publishing.
Isn’t “What Every Room Needs” the Holy Grail of decorating? If you are like me, you are seizing this book and shaking it by its covers until the tips fall into your lap like poker chips. And, if you are insatiable like me, and want the scoop behind the scoop, you call up the author.
Donelson and I hit it right off. We are both journalists who happen to love design, not designers who happen to write. And she could have been channeling me when she wrote in her book’s introduction, “I’m a perpetual student, soaking in tips from top decorators right alongside my readers.”
“First,” I ask, “with all the beautiful home design books out there, how is this one different?”
“The design books that land on my desk, and I’m sure you get the same ones, are either design-as-art books, written by high-end, A-list designers, that say, ‘Here’s a beautiful room. Aren’t you jealous?’ and, DIY-type books, instructive, elegant manuals that tell you how to create a room from top to bottom. This book is neither, but the best of both.”
The 256 color pages feature rooms that work – though you may not like them all – along with captions explaining what’s going on here, and what’s holding these interiors together.
Along the way, the book teaches you how to look at a room. Though that sounds deceptively simple, don’t be fooled.
But enough beating around the ottoman. Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with Donelson and her book that you can try right now.
Every room needs …
Something overscale. Go big or don’t bother, says Donelson. The biggest mistake home designers make is going too dinky. Display the biggest urn you can find. Hang an oversized light fixture or a huge piece of art. Put large branches in a vase. Beef up drape panels by hanging three per side, not one. Overscaled items give rooms dramatic impact.
A detail you don’t notice at first. When you look closely at lovely rooms, you often see a deft touch – a silky tassel or pillow fringe, nail heads on the chairs, contrasting welt, a rug that is softer than you’d expect. Pay attention to the little moves.
A shot of black. A splash of black gives a room flair, and makes everything else look good.
Many points of light. A decorating blind spot for many is not enough lighting. An overhead light and a table lamp isn’t enough. “Layer on the lighting,” says Donelson. “Put a big honking pair of standing lamps on either side of the sofa, sconces on the walls, and pools of light from art or library lamps to illuminate what you’re reading. Then light the fireplace and some candles to get that soft, glowing welcome. How could you not feel at home?”
A curve ball color. Start with a palette you can’t go wrong with, say blue, white and tan, then throw in a raspberry cushion or a splash of lime. You’ll invigorate the whole room, she says. “That unexpected color is like the lemon zest in a recipe – a touch of fresh.”
Something shiny. Items that reflect light -- a majestic mirror, a pair of shiny candlesticks, a sparkling crystal light fixture – belong in every room.
Things that make you happy. A painting or two from the family attic, a goofy picture of you and your partner, something your kid made, these give rooms a touch of whimsy and belonging.
Something from the animal kingdom. Whether an animal-print pillow, a figurine of a dog or elephant, or a painting of a horse, rooms come alive with a hint of animal life in them.
Before Donelson and I wind up, I have to ask, “What about what every room doesn’t need?”
“Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or obligated,” she says, “like a sofa you hate to sit in or grandma’s breakfront, which is hulking and taking over and is a gross brown. Let it go. You can’t find new inspiration if you’re hemmed in by stuff you don’t enjoy.”