decorating pro tips!
February 28, 2015 3:15 PM   Subscribe

What are the little decorating tricks, tips, techniques, and secrets that take a space from looking fine and functioning decently to being all-around awesome?

You know what I mean. Houses that look polished, put together, like someone with a great eye curated the stuff in it and combined it all in just the right way - while keeping it super personal and functional. I'm guessing a room doesn't just get to be beautifully finished-looking and inviting out of nowhere. So - I'm looking for the little things that decorators and savvy regular peeps do to make houses look better than mine. Things like:

- Hang curtains much higher and wider than the window itself, way higher and wider than I'm used to, to make the room feel super tall and cohesive;
- Center hanging light fixtures over the action and not just over the room, and at a height that lets them do their tasks properly - so lower than I think over things like dining tables
- Keep colors, styles, and collections brutally edited with one or two big contrasts
- But mix textures in textiles and hard goods for warmth and come-into-me-ness
- Too-small (or seemingly right-size) accent stuff can look skimpy and feel cluttered; even in a small space it can be better to have fewer bigger things
- Quickly test art and furniture placement with painter's tape; consider the jobs they are supposed to do to get it right before committing. Art over a sofa anchors things better when it's larger and lower than I think; people need more room than I think around coffee tables and to pull out chairs

They can be little things or big things, though I'm renting a teeny hundred-year-old bungalow so I'm not looking for major remodeling advice right now. I have pretty specific tastes that lean toward that eclectic hipster thing but I suspect a lot of this tips like this are universal design principles that work regardless of style.

Basically, I want my house to look and feel finished--the kind of space that you know right away how to use and how to visually parse, a space that feels satisfying. I'm on Houzz and Pinterest, but trying to pull a takeaway from a picture of a firing-on-all-cylinders room isn't always easy. If anything I've picked up on an overall theme of degree - going further (bigger, bolder, etc.) than I think I should with everything, but with fewer overall things, looks way more done - so more specific ideas along those lines would be great. Or any other secrets you've discovered! So hit me up - my house, my friends, and my daily aesthetic satisfaction levels thank you!!
posted by peachfuzz to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 105 users marked this as a favorite
I think that there needs to be an element of style singularity (that the average person does not do) but will make a space look professionally designed. For example, you want to do zen minimalism? Go all out. Eclectic can also work, but is much harder and needs a really good eye. Decide upon the look you are going for, and then ruthlessly take everything else out that does not belong, and add as necessary. That is the what the pros do.
posted by nanook at 3:22 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Odd number of things always look better than an even number, e.g. items on a windowsill etc.

Knowledge and use of the colour wheel.

Don't buy everything out of one place, lest you want a real "picked this page out of the IKEA catalogue" feel.
posted by kariebookish at 3:22 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have found that the most welcoming houses tend to be a carefully curated mix of new and old, and it's usually an indication that whoever lives there has taken their time and waited for the "right" piece to come along rather than just rushing to fill the space.

If you have hardwood floors, you are probably going to need larger rugs than you think. Rugs tend to anchor and define the space more than almost anything else, so think of it more like strategically dividing up your entire floor rather than accessorizing your furniture.

Mix high and low, both physically and price-wise. Don't stick everything at the same height, and try seeing how the room looks both sitting down and standing up. If you have a really stunning armchair, you don't necessarily want the world's fanciest side table competing alongside it. It's a bit like flower arranging on a grand scale: you probably want some bigger pretty pieces for visual interest, but the rest can be cheap filler, as long as you don't overdo it.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:56 PM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Many non-designers hang their artwork too high or the artwork is too small for where it's hung.

Plants make a huge difference.

I also find when deconstructing what makes the rooms in most decor photos look amazing, it is the architectural details. Rarely do you see plain windows or no moldings. There is always something interesting about the room. Cool ceilings, wainscoting, interesting doors or windows...
posted by cecic at 4:23 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Simple things for a pulled-together rental: iron your pillowcases, hang/arrange your towels properly, wash your windows inside and out so that the quality of light inside your home is the best it can be. Prioritize what you absolutely need to have out on your kitchen and bathroom counters and stow the rest. Have multiple light sources, at different heights and intensities (dimmer switches are useful). Add flower displays. Consider a neutral color palette throughout with pops of your favorite colors (perhaps from the flowers, so you can switch it up regularly).

Seconding two specific pieces of advice: a) the larger area rugs suggestion -- if you've got one under your dining area, the chairs should remain on it when pulled out from the table, and b) the importance of architectural interest (a bungalow probably already has some going on that you could highlight). When you enter the house and walk into each room, notice what your eye lands on (or ask a friend to do the honors), and decide if that's what you'd want a guest to focus on first. (If said friend notices, say, the oil spatters on the wall adjacent to the stove, or any stains or needed repairs that you just don't register anymore, try to be grateful rather than embarrassed or offended.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:59 PM on February 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

This probably isn't the answer you want, but at a certain point we just gave in and hired a designer. It wasn't as expensive as we expected, and made things vastly easier.
posted by primethyme at 6:37 PM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I really think it often comes down to the lighting quality, which is a hard thing to analyze. It definitely makes a photo of a room appear more or less professional. Natural light is usually good. For artificial light, a single overhead ceiling fixture is terrible; several located around the room where they can bounce off close by surfaces (walls, etc) is much better. Except for task lighting, artificial light should hit at least be filtered and probably bounce of another surface before reaching the area you want lit. It should be balanced but not totally uniform throughout the room, as if you are distributing both light and shadows. That will highlight textures and give things more depth. As you look through photos, think about where the light is coming from and what it's illuminating.
posted by sepviva at 7:32 PM on February 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

Plants. Lots of plants. Preferably in interesting when you look at them, but not eye-catching in themselves planters.

Also, when hanging art, remember that you don't position art to decorate walls, position it to decorate furniture. That is, don't just stick something at the right height in the dead centre of a wall. Stick it where it helps your eye move around a space from furniture, to accessories, to art.

If there are things that are not part of the decor but that you will inevitably use in a room and will inevitably be left in the room sometimes, try to make them match. If you're going to end up with a coffee cup constantly on the coffee table, then make sure your mugs match your living room. If your phone will be charging on the nightstand, get a phone case that matches your bedroom. Home office? Does your computer wallpaper match the room? Keys hanging by the door? Don't get some tacky keychain that will look terrible on the wall.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:38 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

thoughtfulness and tidiness. Everything in your field of view should be exactly what you mean to be seen at that moment. All your stuff needs to have a place that it belongs. If it is out in the open, it should look interesting, and blend harmoniously with it's surroundings. Like, you can have a bunch of small items grouped together, if they all relate to each other. You can have a pile of books, but it should be on a bookcase that blends with the rest of the room - just a pile of books randomly in a corner will look messy. Have lots of colours if you like, as long as they match. Try to hide or at least neatly arrange cables and cords. Artwork - lots of artwork. That shit is life.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:05 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

This Apartment Therapy article describes the ideal measurements for furniture and art placement.

This article explains how to light a living room. Google how to light other rooms.

Not a book of decor, but A Pattern Language is a bible for architects and designers about the achievement of harmony and connectedness in a space--a town, a street, a building, a room--by the consideration of pattern in shapes, color, themes.
posted by Elsie at 3:24 AM on March 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

Seconding A Pattern Language. It is *so good.* Lots of excellent advice on how to create a sense of ease and comfort. Like, you want natural light from two directions rather than just one, you need to mark out a transitional entry space rather than having the outdoors open directly into a living area. Stuff like that.
posted by Susan PG at 4:53 AM on March 1, 2015

At some point, I realized that the 1st step is to decide how I want a room to feel, only then will color, texture, and other choices make sense. My old house was old, with lots of nice period woodwork and details, so the colors and styles worked with that. I prefer things that have patina over things that are shiny/new. For one room, the feeling was serene, and having that in mind meant that I choose things accordingly.

Current house was a tiny cottage that had all cottage charm methodically removed when renovated. There's a cottage my family used to stay in that is in my mind as I try to change it back from sterile box to lake cottage.

Take your time and get the feel of the rooms; don't do it all at once.
posted by theora55 at 10:10 AM on March 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Just saw this Lifehacker post that may be helpful.
posted by theora55 at 11:56 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Add lights, and add dimmers. And when you're done, add some more.

Really, the number one mistake I see in most places is that people either treat the ceiling light as the main source of light or don't add enough points of light around the room, or both.

Lighting can add architectural interest (uplights along a hallway), add comfort (dimmed lights on both sides of your sofa), add visual space (mirror a light - more effective than just a mirror in itself).

And dimmers - you'll want to modulate your lighting throughout the evening. It's fabulous to be able to dim all my lights around 9pm when I'm getting ready to shut down - and spend the next hour relaxing with more quiet lights. Or switch up focal points depending on whether I'm working, watching TV, entertaining. The sun varies in dimness throughout the day, so should our rooms.

Look for second hand lighting - use keywords like "pair" to find matched up lights. I scored a pair of matching vintage marble lamps for $70 by stalking that. Or this dining room light - also a cheap ($80) second hand find. I find thrift stores are not nearly as successful for lighting.

and if you want to add some formality, consider how fabulous it looks when you have a bookcase with lights, or even build in lights into the shelves.
if having a comfortable bedroom/closet is more up your alley, having spotlights on your closet specifically will make even the smallest closet feel more spacious.

to summarize: lights! all of the lights.
posted by olya at 11:59 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

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