Movable decor

Lin Connery for The Calgary Herald

January 8, 2006

A flexible approach to decorating helps make the most of a home’s space and furniture.

With the right furniture, an under-used dining room can double as a home office. And the sideboard might turn out to be more useful in the foyer or the bedroom.

“The ethos of the contemporary home is that rooms evolve and change due to moving up, downsizing, family size changes, and lifestyle changes,”says Karyn Elliott, interior designer and proprietor of Albertine Design and Crazy House Home Staging.

The rigidity of traditional design — where every room has a single purpose — is gone, says Elliott.

“Living spaces are transient. The more uses a piece of furniture has, the better — especially if you’re short on storage. Fluidity and practicality are our prime concerns now,” she says.

Where to begin?

Paint is inexpensive, easy to change and immediately makes a home your own. More expensive, fixed items like countertops, flooring and window coverings require more thought –make sure they’re choices you’re going to love for a long time, says Sandra Young, interior designer at Willow Studio.

Then plan ahead for change and the option of rearranging furniture. Pieces that are multi-purpose — useful and attractive no matter where they are positioned in the home — are excellent choices.

“Good antiques are like that — they never go out of style. And they’re solid wood, so you’re getting quality and not a trendy item,” Young says. Contemporary pieces can be mixed in for a more modern look.

Ottomans and benches can move throughout the home, and their use can change slightly in each location. “A rectangular low bench could be used at the foot of the bed, in the front hall, or as a coffee table,” says Young.

A coffee table doesn’t have to be a single unit. At Willow Studio, Young found that sets of four small tables appealed to clients — they can be pushed together to create one large table, or spotted around the room wherever you need a place for drinks, or moved to a bedroom as night tables.

If you’ve stopped appreciating a piece of furniture, move it to another room — pieces seem to take on a new look in every location.

“A small round table is a must-have,” says Young. Use it between two chairs, as a night table, or add a larger glass top to transform it into a games table. “Some classic pieces can be used over and over again.”

Young says that changing area rugs can effect major changes in a room. Buy $700 carpets so you can afford to be trendy, rather than “a $20,000 heirloom that you have to decorate around.” A carpet will warm the living room in winter. When summer comes, roll it up and lay down a cool sisal carpet. As the $700 carpet begins to age and wear, move it first to the front hall and then to the mud room to get maximum use out of it.

If you need help making choices, consult a designer. Buying pieces that don’t quite work wastes time and money, says Young.

When it comes to major items like a sofa, go for the tried-and-true, says Young. “The biggest piece in a room, most often should be in a solid earth colour so you don’t tire of it.” You can change the look with throws and pillows in fashion colours.

Simple lines are always good, retro styles are usually classic enough to stand the test of time — a Bauhaus sofa, for example — but comfort should always be the first consideration. Or a sofa in leather that will stand the test of time is another alternative.

Chairs are usually less expensive than sofas, so it’s an item that can go a bit more trendy, says Young.

People with kids or pets should consider two words: washable slipcovers. Actually, slip-covered soft furniture in the living room and dining room has decorating advantages, too. You can change colour and texture with the seasons, and swap in clean coverings as often as necessary. It’s also an opportunity to put some pattern on your sofa for a change of pace.

The problem is finding good slipcovers that wear well and look good long term.

IKEA has a number of slipcovered sofas, chairs and dining room chairs. Some of the covers are machine washable, others dry-cleanable. At Pottery Barn, at Chinook shopping centre, the slipcovered pieces — living room and dining chairs — outnumber the regular upholstered pieces. At both IKEA and Pottery Barn, replacement slipcovers are conveniently off-the-rack-readymade and ready to go.

When choosing upholstered pieces, Elliott recommends avoiding the typical trio of the matched three-seater, two-seater and chair. In fact, she’s wary of matched sets in general.

“There usually isn’t enough space in most rooms for a three-seater, not to mention that the arrangement is imbalanced,” says Elliott. “The dining room set is dead. So are bedroom and living room sets — they’re out of touch with the availability of great eclectic designs,” she says. Mix it up.

For a sofa, think flexible and mobile, says Elliott. Segmented sofas — made up of rearrangeable parts — can quickly be reconfigured to be either a chaise or more formal seating. Some have built-in storage for magazines or wide wooden arms, making end tables an unnecessary detail. Coffee tables should, ideally, have shelving designed to handle books and magazines, but if you don’t want one, a pair of small, square tables can be pushed together. “Or use ottomans that open for added stor-ability” and overflow seating.

“A leather bench, square or rectangular, serves this same purpose, and can be moved to any number of rooms. says Elliott. “The bench box is a nice solid seat with an optional upholstered top and plenty of storage for your favourite books, magazines and so on. It’s equally successful as a coffee table or a window seat.”

Elliott agrees that the formal dining room spends most of its time standing empty. “It isn’t used enough. It needs to be reinvented.” A dining room is perfect for multiple uses — not only entertaining and dining, but as a work space or studio. If the dining table will double as a desk, choose one with drawers for stationery, or make room for office storage in a sideboard.

Dining room chairs with fabric seats are a good choice, Elliott says. It’s easy and inexpensive to change the fabric to freshen up the look or to blend in with the new room they are moving to.

If wood pieces will be occasionally moved from room to room, control the number of stain finishes that come into the home. Pieces shouldn’t be overly matchy-matchy, but they should be able to live comfortably with each other as they move from space to space. In the bedroom, look for storage options in or under the bed. Watch for headboards that provide either open or hidden storage.

“For anyone who thinks of the bedroom strictly in terms of sleeping, there are other options” — especially when space is tight. “A Murphy bed, a sofa bed, bed alcove, or daybed may be all that’s required,” says Elliott.

Movable storage is particularly rich in possibilities. “In the Middle Ages, all-purpose chests held entire households on the move and then doubled as tables and beds on arrival. Our own lives don’t seem to be as lightweight, yet we can certainly adapt the notion of movable storage. Armoires, which traditionally were used for storing linens and clothes in closet-less rooms, might now be adapted to contain media equipment, a home office, storage for craft materials, or a games centre. An exquisite antique secretary desk can be used to hold towels, books, wine, stacked quilts, bolts of fabric, wrapping supplies, as well as having display areas,” says Elliott.

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