Making a lovely home: 7 elements

I was so lucky to inherit this 16th c Italian textile from my mother

By Caitlin Kelly

Midwinter, mid-pandemic — cabin fever!

Help is on the way!

As some of you know, I spent some time in the 90s studying interior design at the New York School of Interior Design.

I learned a lot, and loved almost every minute of it. The school has taught and trained some legendary designers, so I really enjoyed and appreciated how rigorous it was. I even got an A in color class, which remains one of my life’s triumphs — we learned how to mix colors from scratch.

I decided not to go into the industry for my living, preferring to just love it, but my professional-level training has also informed how nice our one bedroom apartment looks since I better understand design principles.

Here’s a helpful post from the UK magazine Homes & Gardens:

The seven:

Space

This is one of the most challenging — too many rooms are just overstuffed while the enormous houses some people prefer (and can afford!) can mean trying to figure out how to create areas of use that make sense and relate to one another. Our living room is 24 long and 12 feet wide, a great space, even with only an eight-foot ceiling (built mid 1960s.) I would kill for the much much taller ceilings and elegant windows I see in most French and British design magazines.

So we divided the room into two-thirds, divided by a low bookshelf that holds two matching table lamps that illuminate the sofa and the dining area at one end. I’ve lived in this space for decades, so re-arranging it is both a mental break and a necessity as our tastes change.

We have a small dining room that, now, is once more being used as a sitting room — we kept our old sofa and now love our view from it straight north up the Hudson River. We settle in with our newspapers and, as snooze time overtakes, nap!

Line

The vertical lines of the room come from features like windows and doors or maybe a tall fireplace. They’re prized for giving a feeling of freedom and can make a room seem taller. Choosing a tall piece of furniture, for example, can lead the eye upwards and visually heighten the room. In any scheme a balance between horizontal and vertical lines is essential.

Form

This is the shape of your room and the objects in it. Too many rooms are full of endless squares and rectangles!

Consider some circles or ovals as well.

Our antique dining table is oval. We have two square olive velvet stools. Our dining chairs have oval shaped backs. Look around your room with an eye to what shapes it contains — too much repetition?

Here’s our living room’s gallery wall — as you’ll see, it has a variety of shapes, sizes and colors although the dominant colors are red, black and white.

top row, left to right: My photo of a staircase, Paris; a 1950s British photographer; Jose’s image from Mexico

middle row, left to right: a poster from a show I saw in Paris; David Hume Kennerley’s portrait of former First Lady Betty Ford; a winter portrait of the Grand Canyon by a friend

bottom row, left to right: me and a pal after a magazine photo shoot about kids cooking; Bernie Boston’s famous image; a Hokusai poster.

A mix of the famous and the personal.

Light

Crucial!

If your room has lots of natural light, you’re lucky! We use mirrors to help amplify it and bounce it around a few rooms.

Lighting is not easy to do well. Every room should have multiple light sources, ideally all on dimmers, not just harsh overhead lighting which can be both unflattering and inefficient.

Over the years, I’ve changed our bedside tables a few times…the latest ones (a few years old now) are chased silver, hollow, and I have no idea where they come from (other than the Connecticut antiques store where I found them.) There are so many styles it’s overwhelming! The shades are simple pleated ivory. And, yes, I like finials!

I found our living room pair on sale in a chi-chi Greenwich, CT. store.

Sometimes the best things can be found in thrift and consignment shops or (my favorite!) at auction.

Color

So much to say!

Regulars here know my love for the British paint company Farrow & Ball knows no bounds — I even got to visit their Dorset factory in 2017. Amazing!

I like colors that are fairly quiet but not boring so I can add the patterns with things I can easily change.

The trend now is for very deep saturated colors, which are really beautiful but not for me in a one bedroom apartment. One lesson I learned the hard way is that when you live in an open-plan home (we have 3 doors: the front door, the bathroom door and the bedroom door) you can’t have different colors everywhere!

Well, you can, but it’s gross.

The eye is going to travel from one space to the next and needs to not be constantly confused.

So, after several iterations (faux finish brown; Chinese red; pale yellow-green) our living room is now a pale soft gray (F & B’s Skimming Stone.) So is the bedroom (initially faux finish cobalt blue, then aqua, then Granny apple green.) The bathroom remains a deep mustard, a nice contrast to the gray glass tile of the shower. The kitchen cabinetry is a soft green, also F & B. (One reason I’m a fan is that you can re-order a discontinued color.)

Of course, color shows up in many ways: fabrics, rugs, artwork, wall, ceiling and floor, lamps and shades…

Here’s the antique armoire (possibly 18th century, bought at auction online, delivered from NH) whose teal color is now repeated in our living room. The two baskets up top were plain and I painted them in two colors. The small painting is my late mother, painted by my father.

Texture

This is also tricky.

Our new sofa is a pale silver velvet, but has a sheen that reflects light. The throw pillows on it are print linen and a different kind of velvet, in burnt orange, a color in the linen print.

Adding texture can come from rugs, throw pillows, a throw, different sorts of fabrics.

Also from decorative items: glass, brass, ceramics, wood.

Our new dining area rug is a deeply textured sisal.

I’m still deciding — months after pulling down our living room curtains — what to do with the window! Probably a Roman blind, but it’s a huge commitment of funds so I’m not rushing into it.

Pattern

Design school taught me that you can, and should, have at least three different patterns within a room, (fabrics, rugs.)

But…which ones?!

This is where scale matters. Do you want a large-scale design (not as easy to find with many American sources as British) or small? A print or woven? A damask or something more modern?

Again, British designers seem much bolder in their use of pattern on chairs and sofas and curtains. The expense of acquiring anything new is always a bit sobering…but a room with no pattern is sad indeed!

The new/modern sisal rug at one end of our living room deliberately echoes this antique kilim I bought this fall in an online auction — the diamond patterns are similar even though the period, colors and materials are different.

I wanted this rug because — a rare find! — it was in perfect condition, the perfect size, well-priced and offered the colors I wanted, but in fairly quiet tones. The teal is the exact color of the antique armoire it lies in front of. The white relates to the silver sofa it also lies in front of. Everything needs to relate!

4 thoughts on “Making a lovely home: 7 elements

  1. Jan Jasper

    I always love hearing your thoughts on design. It’s nice when you show photos of the items that you are referring to.
    The size of your living room is just like the living room in the condo that my late husband and I first lived in. 24 ft long it is really hard to make good use of that space! I don’t think we did a very good job, we should have divided into areas, as you did.
    And I love that you mention shapes, needing a variety of shapes. I’m looking around my living room and noticing some curved and oval shapes amongst the predominantly blocky shapes – nice.
    When you talk about sheen, that’s where texture and light intersect. A shiny fabric will reflect light. Anyhow thanks for sharing your wisdom on the subject

    1. Thanks!

      A larger space always sounds so great — but then you have to really figure out how to best use it. Our living room is anchored on one wall (opposite the windows) by an armoire with the TV in it. I really hate seeing the TV in a room. I also love large scale pieces like an armoire, for height and storage…our kitchen is open shelving so the teal armoire is our pantry.

    1. Thanks!

      Having lived here a long long time means I have repurposed all of it a few times. This year has been good to us financially, so adding two new rugs and a new sofa has really perked it up.

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