Design Experts to the Rescue

Local Decorators dish on DECOR FAUX PAS and tell us how to fix the small stuff

By Lin Connery for the Calgary Herald

Do you have a room gone wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on it? It doesn’t have that finished and tied-together look.

Most of us tend to make the same minor mistakes when decorating our homes. Just in time before the arrival of in-laws, friends and co-workers into our homes for the holidays, Calgary interior designers offer up the first gift of the season – solid advice on fixing the small stuff.

PROBLEM: The list of details-gone-awry starts with pictures and art hung way too high. It usually happens when people pull their sofa away from the wall, get out the stepladder and guess at how high things are.

SOLUTION: Grab a tape measure. Calculate the height of the sofa and place the bottom of the artwork no more than 6-8 inches above the back of the sofa, mantle or headboard.
If your tape measure has gone missing, then go for eye-level: hung for easy viewing for a standing average-size person.
In living rooms, family rooms and dining rooms, art should be low enough for people to enjoy while they are sitting down. If you’re craning your neck, it’s too high.

PROBLEM: What’s the best way to arrange a group of pictures?

SOLUTION: “Gallery-style – basically hanging everything at the same level at the bottom – meaning eyes don’t have to zigzag up and down to take in all of the images,” says Karyn Elliott, owner of CRAZY HOUSE Home Staging ( and Albertine Design.
If you are grouping art, find the common denominator. Maybe the prints are all black and white, or they’re all oils.
“You don’t normally mix media,” says Elliott.
Reframing can create a harmonious link in a collection of artwork and photos. It’s an easy way to find commonality within a diverse group, says interior designer, Monica Stevens.

PROBLEM: A too-small picture on a big wall is another trouble spot, says Stevens.

SOLUTION: “You need something to anchor it – a chest of drawers, something with some bulk or weight to it. It will act as a base for what you hang over it.”
If you don’t have anything to hang, then go for fabulous colour on the walls and nobody will notice they’re bare.

PROBLEM: skinny drapery rods are another pet peeve of our designers.

SOLUTION: “You need something that has some substance”, says Stevens.
“Don’t use thin curtain rods over a large window,” says Deirdre Gilbert, proprietor of Rearrange.
”The scale should match and so should the drapery panels. Panels are meant to be heavier and just break at the floor like a man’s suit paint on his dress shoe.”
Longer draperies that puddle off the floor look best in a high ceilinged room with a hard floor.
“It’s a grand look for a grand room, says Gilbert.
Layering is her favourite style that includes windows.
“I love to see a window with shutters layered with decorative panels, then a headboard layered in front with several layers of pillows in varying fabrics and a cover folded at the foot of the bed, and finally a large area rug layered just under the bed. The same effort can be made in other spaces such as your living room and home office. This warm, overlapping look and combination of colours and textures is luxurious, no matter what your style in home decor.”
Throw out the poofy little valances and metal horizontal blinds for an instant update on window treatments, says Gilbert. She sees a move back to Californian plantation shutters, which are probably here to stay.

PROBLEM: Beware of accessories that are too delicate to have impact.

SOLUTION: Go for big and bold pieces that fill space and add an architectural element, advises Stevens.
“Save to buy something substantial. Pairs are nice, like two vases or two bowls.”

PROBLEM: Cluttered bookcases and jumbled entertainment shelving can bring down the energy in a room.
“Having only books in a bookcase is boring”, says Elliott.

SOLUTION: Include vases, boxes and photographs. Collections and groupings of related items can add visual appeal to bookcases.

Finding you inner window dresser isn’t easy – that’s why people are paid to assemble beautiful groupings – but you can make an impact with some patient experimentation.
“Study the magazines,” says Elliott. Study the show homes. The try your hand at reproducing some of the display vignettes.
Weed out the paperback books and remove the dust jackets to reveal beautiful bindings, says Gilbert.
Confine piles of miscellaneous bits and pieces to a collection of baskets or bins. Try not to be too matchy-matchy. A little bit of difference in colour and texture enhances the end result.

PROBLEM: “Furniture clinging to the walls like pre-teens at their first dance,” Gilbert says.

SOLUTION: Loosen up your furniture arrangement to get away from the effect. As a practical benefit, pulling furniture out prevents marks on the walls. Just for fun, drag a chair into the centre of the room and see how it looks. Don’t leave it floating alone, though – anchor it with a table or lamp. But be conscious of traffic paths through a room or space, too.
Getting the scale of furniture right is another tough assignment Pieces that look fine in a huge showroom sometimes turn out to be too big at home. Never shop for furniture without a tape measure and a measured sketch of your room.

PROBLEM: The room resembles a cave or it’s lit up like a big box store.

SOLUTION: Lighting is a challenge, but it’s worth the struggle to get it right. Proper lighting can make a room more inviting, comfortable and useable. Figure out what you want to do in the room and buy lighting that makes you feel at home. Do you read in a chair in the living room? Are you lighting for a space where entertaining happens?
When you’re buying lamps and fixtures, “look for clean shapes – classic modern shapes,” says Monica Stevens.
Avoid the over-stylized, and invest in more traditional shapes for a happier, long-term relationship with your lighting.
“Don’t try to gild the lily too much,” says Stevens.
Once you’ve determined what you need invest; in dimmers for flexibility and ambiance, says Elliott.
If you’re buying a new home, watch for ceiling outlets for lighting and try to have them placed so that they work for you. All too often, a dining room will have a fixture smack in the middle with no thought to traffic pattern or table placement.
“In the dining room, I almost always see a standard pendent fixture, a large harsh light source,” says Gilbert.
Choose a chandelier instead, and make sure it is cantered over the table and hung 60 inches from the floor to the bottom of the fixture.
The wrong lighting is particularly distressing in bedrooms and bathrooms, Gilbert says.
‘The standard Hollywood or dressing room style bathroom fixtures are too harsh.”
While you’re in the bathroom, she adds, why not do something about the huge expanse of mirror stuck to the wall? Put a frame around it, or replace it with an attractively framed mirror over each sink.
“The master bedroom should not have flush mount ‘nipple’ fixtures, but rather softer, more romantic lighting. A hanging fixture or a lantern style will bring the romance back in. Your reading light will come from the table lights by your beside. Ceiling and low-level lighting will combine for functionality balanced with romance and beauty,” says Gilbert.

Problem: Little plants and greenery that resemble clutter and provide no visual impact.

SOLUTION: Groupings of similar items can add impact to a room but so can large-size statements. Gather up all the “little planty-poos” from around a room and arrange them in a grouping of plants in similar themed pots. Grouping also makes them easier to water.
You could even think the unthinkable – have no small plants at all.
“Give them to a sick friend,” says Stevens. “Get a nice big tree in a nice big pot.”
Or get two nice big trees and fill two corners with greenery “with a pot light underneath for atmosphere in the evening.”

PROBLEM: Coffee table heights that are out of sync with the furniture.

SOLUTION: This can be a fairly simple faux pas to fix. A big boxy sofa flanked by two short tables just doesn’t work.
“If the tables are slightly lower, build them up with books and a big lamp,” says Stevens.
Two or three good-sized art books are just about perfect for the job. If the lamp isn’t tall enough, put a block of decorative granite under it, for instance, to build up the height.

PROBLEM: Skimpy area rugs. A postage-stamp-sized carpet topped with a major coffee table is not a happy pairing.

SOLUTION: Often, Stevens lays down newspaper sheets until she’s satisfied with how much floor the paper covers, the measures to see what size rug is needed.
Generally she likes to go a few inches under the sofa.
“Just tuck in slightly under the furniture, so you have a nice border of wood showing and there’s a nice anchor.”
Sometimes the area carpet should be big enough to have all of the furniture on top, but much of the time tucking it under works beautifully.
“With design it’s usually just guidelines – it’s never hard and fast rules,” says Stevens.
In dining rooms, make sure the area rug is big enough to allow chairs to be pulled in without catching at the edge of the carpet. Get out the newspapers if you’re not sure.

PROBLEM: Don’t forget about first impressions. A boring front porch doesn’t look very inviting.

SOLUTION: Spiff up a bare and boring concrete step with a handsome sisal runner and a tall pot, says Stevens. “Don’t be afraid of big. Big and fabulous are what you are shooting for.
“Enjoy. Things like that add a nice detail. And make sure the style of your mail box and the numbers are appropriate for your style of house.”
A big, beautiful planter can come alive with plants in summer, and be filled with sculptural twigs in winter.
Chose exterior colours that look right with our prairie surroundings and light.
“We’re good with the earthy, mucky colours, the bird colours, the deeper tones – it’s part of our environment,” says Stevens. “They work so nicely here.”
Then add a warm, welcoming paint colour at the front door.
“The door is a home’s handshake, says Elliott. Don’t cover it up with an aluminium screen/storm door. They’re messy and they’re always breaking.”
“Try to enhance the curb appeal and try not to stress the garage or the many garages,” says interior designer Coco Cran. “Highlight the front door. Plant evergreens because it is a long winter and they add colour, interest and will line curves leading to the front door. Use trees or build screening to add to your privacy.”

PROBLEM: Ceilings don’t have to be white, says Gilbert.

SOLUTION: It casts a cold shadow over the room and is a missed opportunity to bring in warmth with subtle or bold colour.
“A new trend that may be here to stay is a lighter neutral wall colour with darker or more vivid colour on the ceiling. This expands your palette without overdosing on colour. Vivids are made softer and trim colours bolder.”
For a more conservative approach, choose a ceiling colour that’s a couple of shades lighter than the wall colour or a tint that’s 15 per cent of wall colour. This can take the glare and the chill out of white ceilings, says Elliott.

PROBLEM: Jason Cass, co-host of HGTV’s One House Two Looks and a director of Fallow and Ball Canada, laments people don’t go with their first instinct when it comes to paint colour. Too often, people will pick a colour that held instant appeal for them, only to back down to a more subdued shade, says Cass.

SOLUTION: The antidote for bland wall colour is, of course, to go with you first inclination.
It’s only paint, and some paint suppliers – Farrow and Ball included – sell sample pots so you can view a square yard of your first choice in the space you want to transform. That will help confirm you’ve made the right decision before you spring for gallons.
It’s not a great idea to pick wall colours from a 1-inch square paint chip. On the other hand, trying on several gallons of colour to find the right shade can become expensive, observes Elliott.
“It’s cost effective to get a designer in there because colour is the most important aspect of a house.”

Who To Call For Help

Cran’s basic advice for amateur decorators: have an interior designer made a house call. Get a professional to assess the situation and then confidently go ahead and rearrange what you already own. Help is available, by the hour, on a consulting basis.
A designer can point out what could be culled and give constructive advice on how to enhance what should remain in a room.
“If you put it there 10 years ago, a lot of people think that’s the only place it can go”, says Cran. “That happens all the time.”
“It saves time and money to hire a fresh eye to help you assess the value of each of your pieces and salvage what is still acceptable to you – maybe recovered and with some cushions here and there.”
Karyn Elliott is the owner of Albertine Design, an interior design firm that specializes in “making the most of what you already have” by organizing, rearranging and transforming your spaces resulting in enhanced and harmonious living. Albertine Design is a Calgary design firm that specializes in Home Staging – the art of professionally preparing a house for sale.

Karyn’s home staging division, CRAZY HOUSE has been featured on CBC TV, ACCESS TV,Canadian Learning Television, Shaw Cable TV, Global TV, CBC and CFRN radio, in Avenue Magazine, President’s Choice Magazine, Calgary Sun, Calgary Herald, Calgary Magazine, Real Estate Magazine, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Western Living, and The National Post.

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