How to create guest-worthy look at home: Last-minute solutions

Lin Connery for The National Post

Saturday, December 13, 2003

CALGARY – Have a room gone wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on it? There’s something about it that just doesn’t have a finished and tied-together look. Many people tend to make the same minor mistakes when decorating. So, just before the arrival of in-laws, friends and co-workers into our homes for the holidays, some interior designers offer up a small gift of the season — solid advice on fixing the small stuff.
PROBLEM Pictures and art hung far too high. It usually happens when people pull the sofa away from the wall, get out a stepladder and guess at how high things are.
SOLUTION Calculate the height of the sofa and place the bottom of the artwork no more than six to eight inches above the back of the sofa, mantel or headboard. Hallway pictures should be hung for easy viewing for a standing average-height person. In living rooms, family rooms and dining rooms, art should be low enough for people to enjoy while seated.
PROBLEM The best way to arrange a group of pictures?
SOLUTION “Gallery style — basically hanging everything at the same level at the bottom — means eyes don’t have to zig-zag up and down to take in all the images,” says Karyn Elliott, owner of Crazy House Home Staging ( When grouping art, find a common denominator. Maybe the prints are all black and white, or all oils. “You don’t normally mix media,” Ms. Elliott says. Reframing or matting can create a harmonious link. 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.
SOLUTION “You need something to anchor it — a chest of drawers, something with some bulk or weight to it,” Ms. Stevens says. “It will act as a base for what you hang over it.” Or, put a fabulous colour on the wall and nobody will notice it is bare.
PROBLEM Skinny drapery rods.
SOLUTION “Something that has substance,” Ms. Stevens says. “Don’t use thin curtain rods over a large window,” says Deidre 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 pant on his dress shoe.” Longer draperies that puddle on the floor look best in a high-ceilinged room with a hard floor. Puddled draperies are “a grand look for a grand room,” Ms. Gilbert says. Layering is her favourite window style. “I love to see a window with shutters layered with decorative panels, then a headboard layered in front with several levels 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. This warm, overlapping look and combination of colours and textures is luxurious no matter what your style in home decor.” And a welcoming sight for weary travellers. Throw out poofy valances and metal horizontal blinds for an instant update on window treatments, Ms. Gilbert says. She sees a move back to California or plantation shutters, likely here to stay.
PROBLEM Beware of accessories that are too delicate to have impact.
SOLUTION Choose big, bold pieces that fill space and add an architectural element, Ms. Stevens advises. “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,” Ms. Elliott says.
SOLUTION Include vases, boxes, photographs. Collections and groupings of related items can add visual appeal to bookcases. Finding your 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,” Ms. Elliott says. Study model homes. Then — OK, maybe not by Christmas — try your hand at reproducing some of the display vignettes. Weed out the paperbacks and remove dust jackets from hard covers to reveal beautiful binding, Ms. Gilbert adds. 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,” Ms. Gilbert says.
SOLUTION Loosen up your furniture arrangement. Drag a chair into the centre of the room and see how it looks. Don’t leave it floating alone — anchor it with a table or a lamp. But be conscious of traffic paths through a room or space. Getting the scale of furniture right is another tough assignment. Pieces that look fine in a huge showroom can 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 Proper lighting can make a room more inviting, comfortable and useable. Buy lighting that suits the use of the room. Do you read in a chair in the living room? Is the lighting for a space in which entertaining happens? When buying lamps and fixtures, “look for clean, classic modern shapes,” Ms. Stevens says. 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,” Ms. Stevens says. Invest in dimmers for flexibility and ambiance, Ms. Elliott says. When buying a new home, watch for ceiling outlets for lighting and have them placed so they work for your needs. All too often, a dining room has a fixture smack in the middle with no thought to traffic pattern or table placement. Choose a chandelier, and centre it 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, Ms. Gilbert says. “The standard Hollywood or dressing room style bathroom fixtures are too harsh. “The master bedroom should have softer, more romantic lighting.”
PROBLEM Coffee table heights that are out of sync with the furniture.
SOLUTION A big boxy sofa flanked by two short tables just doesn’t work, but this faux pas can be fairly simple to fix. “If the tables are slightly lower, [make them look bigger] with books and a big lamp,” Ms. Stevens says. 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 it up to the right height.
PROBLEM Skimpy area rugs. A postage-stamp-sized carpet topped with a major coffee table is not a happy pairing.
SOLUTION Ms. Stevens lays down newspaper until she’s satisfied with how much floor it covers, then measures to see what size rug is needed. “Just tuck it 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. In dining rooms, make sure the area rug is big enough to allow chairs to be pushed out from the table and pulled in without catching the edge of the carpet. Get out the newspaper to size it right.
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, Ms. Stevens says. “Don’t be afraid of big.” Big and fabulous is 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.” Add a warm, welcoming paint colour at the front door. “The door is a home’s handshake,” Ms. Elliott says. Don’t cover it up with an aluminum screen/storm door.
PROBLEM 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 Jason Cass, a director of Farrow & Ball Canada.
SOLUTION Some suppliers sell sample pots of paint that cover a square metre of a given colour, to test the look it gives the room. Do not pick wall colours from a tiny paint chip. On the other hand, trying on several gallons of colour to find the right shade can be trying. “It’s cost effective to get a designer in there because colour is the most important aspect of a house,” Ms. Elliott says.
PROBLEM Flooring choices that look like they were chosen by a committee.
SOLUTION Never underestimate the impact of flooring. When buying a new home, there will be a wide choice of flooring materials. Don’t choose too many. “We often see a change in flooring three times in an open concept space, which detracts from the natural flow and creates a choppiness that fights the open plan that you fell in love with,” Ms. Gilbert says. “People often allocate their budget to less important upgrades when the flooring should be priority. It’s there to stay.”

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