Senses of Living® Décor

Summer 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


As a lifestyle manager/coach, I approach all client jobs, presentations and demonstrations with the agenda of being as ecological and earth-friendly as possible. I outlined this approach using the "Seven Rs" at http://www.god-dess.com/webhintsOctober03.html (please, check it out; I've yet to find anyone else who has assembled this particular set of Sensational Living® guidelines).

With my décor consultations, I'm often/usually asked to provide solutions that are also budget-friendly. That's easy, because I've been practicing low-cost décor since I was a little kid. More mature now, I also offer more mature budget-friendly solutions to décor dilemmas. Of these, the easiest yet most effective technique is simply moving and removing item (please forgive any repetitions from previous columns that had a different orientation!). This column is not a primer on budget décor. Rather, it will offer specific recommendations to update and enhance your current décor scheme that can be accomplished simply by moving and rearranging what currently exists, including removing unnecessary items.

Furniture: In a previous column, "Focal Point, Schmocal Point," (http://www.god-dess.com/services_sensesAugust03.html), I insisted that décor does not require a focal point. The people who use the room are the focal points, or foci, and THAT is what needs to be kept in mind. This is particularly obvious when dealing with furniture. So often I see furniture in clients' homes that are arranged according to wall position, without consideration for how the people using that furniture will interact.

The only consideration when arranging furniture should be functionality. To some extent, just ignore the walls. Consider placing the furniture away from the walls, or change the angle or orientation of the pieces. When people are using the furniture in the room, how will they interact? Will they be able to have a nice intimate conversation, or will they have to shout across the room to communicate? If they are sitting at a table, will they be able to get up and down easily and comfortably? Is there enough room near the bed to allow someone to get in and out easily with bumping other furniture? Is there a table or other piece of furniture next to the head of the bed to function as a nightstand to allow a lamp for reading, and other bedside accessories? Sometimes, there will be too much furniture in the room; is it all really necessary for functioning in that room? Remove some of the furniture, and either place it in another room, or sell it, or donate to your favorite resale shop.

Before proceeding, I want to spend a little time discussing the furniture pieces themselves. Furniture comes in a variety of styles; if you are adventurous and have a keen style sense, you can mix furniture from different periods or locations. But, it's really easier to keep pieces of similar design in the same room to create a type of "theme" (I'm not fond of that word, but I'll go with it anyway). Look throughout your home; is it possible to consolidate a single style in each room? Sometimes it's useful, even necessary (from a design perspective) to move furniture between rooms. Remove a piece from one space and experiment with it in another part of your home. It won't hurt to try a new arrangement; you can always return to the former scheme.

Floor Coverings: If you have wall-to-wall carpeting, it hopefully already color coordinates with the furniture, and you don't have think of it as anything but a "canvas" on which to "paint" your furniture. However, if for some reason the carpeting isn't color coordinated with the furniture, or if it is heavily (and perhaps permanently) stained, what can you do short of dyeing or replacing the carpeting? Use area rugs on top of the carpeting! Oh, I'm sure that is eliciting shrieks from some "traditional" designers reading this, but work with me. Unless the carpeting so clashes with the furniture (and if that's the case, you really ought to consider some professional design assistance … call me!), an interesting area rug (or rugs) selected to coordinate with the furniture will draw the eye away from edges of the room where the carpeting still appears.

In terms of placing a rug or rugs, again, let functionality guide you; this is true whether you are covering carpeting, or using the rug/rugs on a bare floor. Let a rug define a conversation or other functional area (dining, playing, working, entertaining); placing the edges of the rug under the furniture further solidifies the rug's ability to define a spatial subset of a room by integrating the elements and creating cohesion. Similarly, a large rug can actually create imaginary boundaries if you want to contain activities within a certain area. Don't be afraid to move rugs from one part of your home to another; they may just work better elsewhere in terms of color and functionality.

Bric-a-Brac, Knickknacks and Tschochkes: Did you know that "bric-à-brac" is French for "expression of confusion"? I stumbled on that fact (Je ne parle pas Francais) while working on this column, and it just really sums up most people's attempts to introduce décor items. When I say, "décor items," I mean pictures, statues, figurines, art, ashtrays, centerpieces, even books. Now that we've identified what "décor items" are, what do we do with them?

First of all, make sure that these décor items do not interfere with communication or interaction among the inhabitants of the space. I've often cringed at poorly designed centerpieces on dining tables that block one's view of other diners, and interfere with conversation with them. Or is that end table next to the guest chair, which should be used for that guest's beverage or other comfort items, so covered with personal décor items that the guest has no room of his or her own, or does s/he risk breaking something unintentionally when s/he reaches for his/her glass?

Secondly, if you entertain with any frequency at all, are the public décor items "too personal"? If your home is small, it may not be possible to segregate personal items in non-public areas, but try. Along these same lines, do the décor items "work" together? Are they tied together by color, shape, history or any other variable? Or are they a hodge-podge? If they are a hodge-podge, remove some or all of them. Ask yourself, "Why do I have this item here?" If you can't answer that question satisfactorily, remove it. I'll confess that this is perhaps my biggest weakness; I've collected so many beautiful and unusual items from my travels and adventures that I want to share them all. It was one of my grad school paleontological friends who went on to earn an MFA who suggested, "Bret, why don't you rotate some of your treasures?" Well, I don't do much rotation (no time), but he did drive home the point that I had too much "stuff," and since then, I regularly purge items of lower quality that actually detract from the overall ambience.

Thirdly, consider spatial relationships between the décor items. Even if they relate by color or other subject matter, their interaction with each other is also important. Group décor items in an esthetically pleasing way. Create a vignette. Now, this is often easier said than done, but think in terms of odd numbers, group items of variable height, don't leave large spaces between items, and don't mix items that are too dissimilar (see paragraph above). I know someone who collects art glass, and he has specially created display cases for his pieces; this not only protects the pieces, but also forms a dramatic backdrop for guest interactions. Don't be intimidated. Just put some items together, then step back and look, or leave them for a while and check back with fresh eyes.

Wall Treatments: Photographs, paintings, other art, wall hangings … all of these can add that "je ne sais quoi" quality to a room's overall appearance. Tying the colors of a wall element to the furniture and the floor covering just creates more cohesion and defines the space. In terms of placement, wall items should be hung in relationship to the furniture, not in relationship to the edges of the wall. Center wall items over the sofa or bed headboard. Group smaller wall items for greater impact (but see discussion of Bric-a-Brac above for grouping guidance). If you have various ethnic items, you will be safest if you don't mix cultures (however, if these different items are of similar media, or design, or color, they "can" be mixed if you trust your "eye").

Plants and Flowers: I've often written about plants, and I've often ranted about how designers use plants. Plants can soften edges in a room and offer cohesion. They can add height to part of a room. They can fill in an empty space. They can be used to divide space. They can purify air and remove odors. But remember: plants are alive! Every single plant has specific care requirements. Please don't consider plants as disposable accessories as so many "professional" designers do. Think of them as room enhancers whose position must be considered as carefully as the furniture and other elements. If your design professional doesn't have botanical knowledge like I do, you'll have to either educate yourself, or speak with your nursery or gardening center professional, or bring me in. And if you don't have time to properly care for plants, replace them with some other non-living décor item (or select flowers in an attractive arrangement; follow the general advice offered by a floral expert at http://www.god-dess.com/services_senses_Autumn2005Winter2006.html). Seriously, though, we also learn by practicing, and I'll be the first to admit that I have had plant failures, but that didn't stop me from continuing to learn, and eventually becoming a houseplant "expert" myself. I'm continually experimenting to learn more.

Conclusion: What is the theme running through all of these suggestions? No, I don't mean the excessive and childlike use of French. In addition to the stated "Move it. Remove it," the primary theme is "Decorating with intention." It's all about having a reason for each décor decision you make (and "It just looks good" doesn't count). Have you considered the variables of color, texture, shape, size, material and style? If you have considered these variables, then the probability of your having a successful decorating scheme has increased exponentially.

Another theme is to have fun and experiment! Design and décor have very few hard and fast rules (I hate rules). Rather, there are guidelines that are designed to help you make your own decisions. Experiment using the guidelines coupled with your own creativity. If something isn't pleasing, reverse it and start again. Have fun. This is your home, after all, and it should reflect your personality, your choices, and your taste. As I used to tell my students at times, "There are no wrong answers." This is one of those times. Go forth and decorate.

If you use any of these ideas, or if you have your own experiences with moving and removing furniture and other décor items to save money while enhancing your space, please let me know at 773.508.9208 or bret@god-dess.com.