Designing like a grownup!
September 5, 2014 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I would love some advice on how to approach researching for making our new home super awesome! I'm a design newbie but would love to learn more. Long-winded question below!

Mr. brilliantine and I are closing on a townhouse at the end of this month. It's a big step up in terms of space and newness. We're going from a 1960s building to an updated 1990s building.

The problem I'm running in to is how to get design ideas that will work well in our setting without falling into some styles that I don't like so much. The color scheme is pretty neutral - mostly cream walls, light carpet, light gold wood floors and cabinets, beige and brown granite countertops. We don't have money to change any of this at the moment, and I'm pretty happy with it as the basis of our home.

This is where I start not knowing what terms to use - I look at it and see a standard nice townhouse that's got a bit of that "designery" feel that's been popular for the past 8 years or so at least. Like if someone wanted to continue this aesthetic they would put up vinyl inspirational decals and signs with wine jokes on them. We're very much not that type, but we're also not NYC (or Austin) teeny quirky apartment types, which is what it feels like is all over DesignSponge and Apartment Therapy. I don't really know how to split the difference between these two, or how to look for practical ideas that aren't Ikea furniture but also aren't Design Within Reach (because really, I don't think we can quite afford that). I like browsing websites for ideas or items to purchase (hello Crate and Barrel, CB2, and Pottery Barn) but I'm starting to feel a bit overwhelmed. And while I like a lot of the style of those stores, I don't want it to look like I just ordered everything from a particular catalog shoot.

Since we're moving to a bigger place we don't really have the furniture to fill it. We'll need more seating, more bookshelves, more art (yessssss), and at some point a guest bedroom set. We might also be switching up our bedroom furniture due to a different layout in the new room.

I have this pinterest board of things that I've liked from various places, but going from "random pictures I have" to "cohesive idea of a room" is a vast mystery to me. I'm also up for reading resources on design theory or other materials you might like to recommend.

Some possible options: going out of town to search more far-flung antique stores or flea markets. This could include seeing my sister in Nebraska who has access to so many cool estate sales! We're in Northern VA and it seems like interesting furniture is either picked over immediately or repriced for a million dollars. Also considered taking it verrrryyyy slowww and just getting one piece at a time. This is probably the most organic way to develop a style but it doesn't really address our immediate needs. This would also somewhat involve trawling craigslist and that means I run into the same problems as above.

Thanks for your help!
posted by brilliantine to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Don't go crazy all at once!

I see you have lots of little things and that's great, but let's aim for "Rooms I like." Find pics in magazines or on line of entire rooms that make you say "...aaahhh."

My favorite design shows are the ones where they show you a room done on a $50,000 budget and show you how you can do it for $40.

Try neighborhood garage sales for little tables, odd chairs and dressers. You might score some headboards or things like that too. I got some funky gee-gaws at yard sales. If you hate the finish, no worries, paint is cheap and can make a scratched up dresser, look amazing! (Primer, primer, primer.)

On your room pins, you'll notice certain things that recur. With me it's white wooden furniture. So I bought white wooden furniture and it makes me HAPPY!

I can recommend a place for wooden things. American Signature/Value City Furniture. Stylish and cheap, but don't buy sofas, chairs or upholstered things there. Don't cheap out on sofas! (as I'm wearing out our white, denim sofas that were $300 apiece.)

I love my dining room tables, storage unit, dresser, headboard. So the take away is that the wooden stuff is fine, the rest...meh.

Craigslist will have listings, and in Northern VA a lot of government and military folks will have good quality furniture at stupid prices. Check the listing out, you never know!

This is a really fun project, just remember, it's not for show, you have to have it be functional too!

Good luck on your new home!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:24 AM on September 5, 2014

Check out Lauri Ward's books from the library. She gives many easy design rules that make sense. Things like symmetry are important.

My advice:

1. Always keep comfort in mind. Think about how you live. If you spend a lot of time sitting and relaxing your sofa should be very comfortable. Not too hard where you can't take a nap and not too squishy where you can't get out of it without a hoist. It shouldn't be too low to the ground. Low sofas have been trending lately and they can be hard to get out of and aren't comfortable for tall people. Rolled arms are important -- so you can rest your head -- and they look more inviting. Make sure your seat cushions are flipable if you purchase fabric chairs or sofa.

2. Warm colors rule. I love cool colors, but they can make a house look harsh and uninviting. Warm colors always work in a home. They are more welcoming and inviting and don't date as easily.

3. Go Traditional and you can't do wrong. Don't be swayed by furniture or color trends. Remember when pale blue and chocolate brown was all the rage? It looks so tired now.

4. Take your time. Don't buy something just to fill a space. With that being said, don't go years without purchasing a table that is badly needed.

5. Sure there are some exceptions but it is best to use rooms as they are intended. The dining room should be a dining room and be furnished as such.

6. Measure, measure, measure.

7. Use flat paint whenever you can. Nothing higher than eggshell.

8. Lighting is very important. Make sure you have enough for how you live. Never buy a torchiere lamp since they only light the ceiling.

9. Texture is important and adds interest and life to your home.

10. Never underestimate the power of plants and flowers.
posted by Fairchild at 9:28 AM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Judging from your Pinterest stuff, which I love, I think you would like the blog Dans le Lakehouse.

Check the townhouse portion of the site. I love it, and I never get tired of looking at it.

She has a lot of DIY stuff on the site. I have not checked out the lakehouse posts for a while.
posted by jgirl at 10:05 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The biggest newbie mistake with this is to think that you are Looking For Design Ideas rather than just furnishing a space to live in.

I swear I see sooooo much garbage on Pinterest which is like A Cool Looking Designy Concept, and not anything a real human would want in their home. Avoid that stuff. Figure out what you actually need.

If you're moving from a similarly sized place (as in, not from a studio to a 70000 sf mansion) and most of your furniture isn't straight up garbage, you probably don't actually need to do much. You mention that your new place is bigger, but I would assume you already own the things you need to use every day, like a bed, couch, media setup, table and chairs, dresser, etc. Move the stuff you already have into the new place, and then take your time figuring out what other stuff you'd like. This way, as you settle into the place, you'll get a sense of how you use the space and what will look best.

IMO unless you are a serious design person, don't worry too much about what your Capital A Aesthetic is. You don't want things to be mismatched or look weird in the space, but honestly most people have a fairly eclectic style, and if you didn't, you'd probably already know this.

Give yourself time to let your house tell you what it needs. Don't adopt an aesthetic you don't like, or which doesn't work for you/the space, just for the sake of "practicality" or "this is what people do" or "it's what happens to be available right now".

Nthing don't use any paint shinier than semi-gloss. Don't paint your ceiling the same color as the walls -- ceilings should be white. Art should be centered around 58'-60' on the wall. Pretty much everything else is up to you.
posted by Sara C. at 10:53 AM on September 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, one more thing re Pinterest. You may want to make a few more focused boards. It's going to be impossible to mentally focus on furnishing/decorating goals when you're looking at a pin board that holds everything from what kinds of trees you want in the garden to a toothbrush holder for the master bathroom.

You might specifically want to split it up into garden, DIY ideas, and decor, to start. When you're actually moved in and start developing specific goals, at that point you might want to make even more specific boards.
posted by Sara C. at 11:07 AM on September 5, 2014

Decorate sloooowly. Mix the old and new. Allow only things you love into your home. That's how you avoid ending up with some shrink-wrapped version of "Home Decor," date-stamped to 2014, and looking just like a Pottery Barn catalogue.

Design blogs are your friends. My faves for the last several years have been: If The Lampshade Fits, My Favorite And My Best, Pure Style Home, and I Suwannee.
posted by hush at 11:08 AM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've had my first house for a year now. Some key tips I have gleamed from resources in my quest to achieve awesome interior design:

1. Wall Paint - go with a colour that a slightly grey/muted version of the one you were about to pick. This is about depth and dimension - the walls stay in the "background", and your room decor which is probably in full non-muted colours will stand out as accents. Paint is also relatively cheap and has a huge impact.

Picking colours that work with the flooring and cabinetry is a big help, especially if it's wood. If possible, take a spare piece of the wood, or take off a cabinet door, and bring it with you when picking out paint chips. Pick the colour you like, and then take a few extras of varying tones around that colour, and TAKE THEM OUTSIDE to natural light, to see which one best compliments the wood. we had a purple-grey colour in the kitchen that made the floor laminate look super-cheap and awful. But we couldn't afford to change it. So I picked new paint that coordinated with the floor, a true grey, and the laminate actually looks good now.

After you have your main colour(s), pick a palette for larger rooms. The other colours are what you keep in mind when picking accent items, throws, pillows, artwork, etc.

2. Window curtains - you can make windows look much bigger by setting the curtain rod higher and farther out, so that the curtains frame the window rather than just barely covering it. And don't skimp - you will probably need extra panels of curtains to achieve the proper full look.

3. Accent items - Size is important. I read somewhere that you should avoid buying items smaller than a cantaloupe, because amassing a whole lot of small items and trying to display them just looks like clutter. Don't be afraid to buy something bigger. Staggering the sizes of items on display looks most attractive.

4. Framed items - Again size is important, in terms of variation and the picture vs. frame size itself. If you have a lot of eclectic stuff and are trying to tie it all in together, use black frames. A poster you've loved dearly looks juvenile just stuck up on a wall, but properly framed gives sophistication. A small photograph with a proper mat and frame looks substantial and dramatic, and is now a much bigger piece.
posted by lizbunny at 11:10 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It will really help to cover the standard-issue beige townhouse carpet. Big area rugs!

Also, replace standard light fixtures with funky stylish chandeliers and sconces. Store the bland ones in the garage if you ever sell and want to take the artsy ones with you.
posted by amaire at 11:44 AM on September 5, 2014

Go slow. You've got time. Perhaps even don't worry about getting furniture to fill the house - a few years from now you'll be shocked at rapidly the house filled up and be wistful for the days when you didn't need to pare down. (If you go slow, you can promise yourself to not get furniture unless it's fantastic.)

Maybe think about some core things or concepts that you'd like to organize around or which can drive the design of that area. Especially unique things that are you. For example, I think one of the rooms should have the outside of the doorway and wall covered with a hidden-secret-door bookshelf. Not because I know you, but because I think everyone should have this and no-one does. (Or maybe they do and haven't told me). You're going to own a home, so don't just think decor, think about long-forgotten dreams :)
posted by anonymisc at 2:02 PM on September 5, 2014

I found it was helpful to look at full rooms, so was super helpful. also tries to give useful design tips, like how to choose rug size, how to mix patterns, etc (if you like her style)
posted by pizzazz at 2:23 PM on September 5, 2014

Agree with go slow. Look at this not as a challenge to furnish your house, but as a journey of exploration to discover what your aesthetic is and how to bring it into your space and life.

Find a few things that light you up, bring them home and then build the rest of your designs off of them. Nobody designs a room all at once — great designers all do it the same way: one piece at a time. Professionals just do it quicker :)

Agree with bring only things into your space that you love.

Agree with focusing first on how you live in the space — that coffee table may be super cute but if it's the wrong size for the space you'll end up hating it.

CB2 and EQ3 are your upmarket Ikeas. CB2 constantly surprises me in a good way.

And don't knock Ikea too hard. They've got pieces that can be strong in the right room. KALLAX (nee EXPEDIT) could work great with your aesthetic.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:34 PM on September 5, 2014

I bought magazines and interior catalogues and ripped out pages I liked. You can still do that if you're a tactile person who likes working with paper, winnowing through a stack of interior magazines to find what you really resonate with. The UK home design magazines worked best for me - turned out we like a sort of student-scandinavian-attic look, not at all what we thought we did at the start. Way more bare and calm and I don't actually like strong colour at home! This after being a devoted Jocasta Innes fan for years.

You need to look at rooms, not individual pieces, and you need to look at LOTS of them and just yes/no your way through until you have maybe 20-30 photographs that make you go "yes, that's where I can live". Like a bracket challenge. Not wow, I'd like to hang out at my friend's house that looks like that because you may admire lots of design you don't want for yourself, but oh that's where I personally feel at home.

You're starting with a blank canvas which is a gift. Live in it for a while, and then decide what you'd change and add. Really live with the house for a few months and then decide - you'll save so much money by realising how much you wish there were shelves there and not here, the washing machine over there, etc.

One way to personalize it fast is to designate a wall that you know you want to eventually repaint as an art wall to start. Knock up a couple of narrow shelves to stack prints and art and books and plants on, and re-arrange it to see what you like. Are you a few big bright prints? Lots of plants and candles? Silver photo frames and doilies? Rearrange at whim and experiment.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:10 PM on September 5, 2014

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