Now that The New York Times has, this week, killed (!) its weekly Home section, I’m here to the rescue!
But as someone passionate about interior design and who studied at thew New York School of Interior Design, I love all things design-related and will miss that section a great deal.
Here’s the first in a series of three posts, all of which I will post in the next week, on how to solve some of the most common design problems.
Especially for those of us in the (brrrrr) Northern Hemisphere and those anywhere near the 50th parallel, sunlight is a treasured resource — only now are the days beginning to lengthen.
Nights are long, cold and dark — and every scrap of light matters.
I once visited Stockholm in November and will never forget what incredible attention to light was paid there, everywhere, from the post office to the votive candles glowing on restaurant tables at mid-day; (it was dark by 3pm or so.)
No matter how much time, money or attention you pay to your home (or not!), the quantity and quality of the lighting there can make a huge difference to your mood, ability to concentrate, your family’s happiness and, most importantly, their safety.
Many people are badly injured, even killed, by falling in their own homes and being able to clearly see where you’re stepping — or chopping onions! — is really important.
A few tips on how to best illuminate your home:
— The most welcoming rooms have four different light sources. Our living-room, which is 12 feet by 24 feet, has five: a desk lamp (task light); a small accent light; a floor lamp, a lamp on a bookshelf and a reading lamp. There’s no overhead light, nor do I ever want one there.
—There are many ways to use light.Task lighting is used, as it suggests, for doing specific things using that light — cooking, bathing, working, reading. A chandelier over a dining table creates a focal point for the room, casts a warm pool of light, and saves floor space in a small area. Many people use under-counter lighting in their kitchen beneath their kitchen cabinets. We chose open shelves instead, so the lighting in our kitchen is three wall-mounted lamps from Restoration Hardware and three pot lights in the ceiling, all of them on dimmers.
— What mood do you hope to create? A nasty overhead light far above your head does little to flatter anyone or any interior. Useful for a hallway, sure, or a bathroom, but not very attractive in a bedroom, living room or dining room. Pools of light delineate your space.
— Dimmers! We have our bathroom, kitchen and dining room lights on dimmers and it makes a huge difference to the atmosphere we can create as a result.
— Choose your lighting with a careful eye, not only the style of each lighting source but the bulb: LED, incandescent, filament, halogen…each has a very different quality of light and energy usage.
— Lamps can make or break the beauty of a room. Whether you prefer formality and elegance, modern simplicity or a sparkling crystal chandelier, it’s out there!
— Consider quality, size, color and condition of your lampshades. They can be square, rectangular, round, conical, in card, silk, cotton, burlap. The most elegant, formal rooms often have tightly pleated colored silk lampshades, glowing like jewels when lit. Plated sharp-edged card shades are hell to clean.
— Don’t forget how many amazing options are available on-line. Two of my favorite resources are Circa Lighting and Renovation, with hundreds of choices.
— Make sure your lamps are close/tall/bright enough to actually do the job you need them to; three-way bulbs are a nice choice.
— Remember that every lamp you choose adds color and texture to the room. I love this metal articulated task lamp from Wisteria ($219), this one (in purple, turquoise, cream and silver) from PB Teen for $79, and this table lamp, with a clear glass base from West Elm, which we have and love, $89. It doesn’t look like much, but its value, to me, lies in its ability to cast enough light without adding any design drama because of its simplicity. I discovered the PB teen lamp in — of all places — a gorgeous inn we stayed in in Prince Edward County, Ontario. They were the bedside lamps and so perfect I picked one up to see who the manufacturer was. (Ideas are everywhere!)
— Include the timeless beauty of candles as well, whether a row of flickering votives lining a windowsill or tall tapers. I keep a scented candle by my bedside and often start and end my days with a few minutes of its gentle light and spicy, relaxing smell. We also eat dinner in a room filled with lit (unscented) candles, votives and tapers, (in addition to a chandelier on a dimmer, with reflective bulbs [silver bottoms] that keep the glare out of our eyes.)
— The shadows cast by electric or candle-lit lanterns made of pierced metal are mysterious, exotic and add a distinctive note; look for great sources from Morocco or Mexico.
Most of us want to create a pretty, tidy and harmonious home, whether you’re living with four room-mates and in college, jammed into your first tiny solo apartment or making sense of a larger home.
It seems like it should be easy, as there are so many resources online now, from Apartment Therapy (which includes houses and is excellent) to Houzz.
But it’s still, for many people, a deeply confusing and overwhelming process: choosing the colors for walls, floors, ceilings, front door, baseboards; selecting the size and shape and color of your sofa and chairs; rugs, lighting, curtains (or blinds? Or none?)…
And most of us have limited time, energy and budgets.
I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan and planned to leave journalism to work in that field. I didn’t, but I learned a great deal and it’s reflected in our home, a one-bedroom apartment in a 1960s six-story apartment building north of New York City. We own it, so we have also invested some money in a full renovation of our one very small (5 by 7 feet) bathroom and galley kitchen.
Here, with lots of photos, are some ideas you might find useful as well:
1) Seek inspiration!
It’s really difficult to design a room, let alone a home of any size, without some inspiring ideas about what you like: Modern and sleek? (Read Dwell magazine.) Historic and formal and elegant? (Try Traditional Home.) Cosy and weathered? (the UK version of Country Life.) I don’t use Pinterest, but it’s very useful in this respect. Your local library will also have gorgeous reference books whose images you can photocopy. Here are four magazines I read often, if not monthly, and have for many years. I get tons of great ideas from them, especially about small spaces (European homes are often much smaller), interesting color combinations (like lime green and chocolate brown) and mixed periods, like a super-contemporary lamp over a battered farm table.
2) Group your art
The focus here, on the long (25 foot) wall of our living room, is a vintage photo given to us by a neighbor cleaning out his garage. It’s an amazing image, probably no later than 1905 and possibly from the 1880s, and we were delighted to get it. He also gave us (!) the two lovely smaller pieces to the left of it, both original framed prints. The small images above the photo I found in antiques shops, the egg in Vermont and the dog in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The image at the far right is my own photo of a staircase in an 18th century building on the Ile St. Louis in Paris.
3) Look around your home
in every room, for items that — when placed together — will have an artistic or interesting relationship to one another: frames, mirrors, photos, small objects like a box or an animal or bird. This grouping, in a corner of our living room, includes: a pierced metal lantern with a candle in it, ($12 on sale at Pier One); two small metal birds (our local garden shop); a vintage silk embroidered shawl (local antique shop); a Victorian ceramic vase (Toronto antique shop); two marble bits of statuary ($25, antiques show) and a huge Victorian mirror ($125, Port Hope, Ontario antique shop.) I’ve owned some of these items for decades, but it’s the combination that’s fun: echoing shape, size, color and texture with a mix of scale. I added a small spotlight ($12, Home Depot) for a bit of drama, adding both shadows and reflections in the mirror behind.
4) Customize what you have. We bought this Crate and Barrel armoire many years ago (it’s still available, in a slightly different version, for $1,299), but I hate looking at stuff. Inside the armoire are plates, glasses, serving pieces, candlesticks — a visually exhausting mess. I lined the doors with this charming map-of-Paris print, on linen, which was inexpensive, referenced other Parisian/French elements in the place, and gave us a nice neutral that wasn’t as boring as plain beige would have been.
5) Add unusual and lovely fresh flowers and/or plants. I found this deep, wide metal cachepot for $25 at my favorite consignment shop and have been adding fresh flowers and interesting greenery to it for weeks. I always have fresh flowers and plants in every room, even in the bathroom, as a touch of color and beauty. Really nice on a cold, gray rainy or snow day, especially!
6) Shop often.I don’t mean spend a lot of money or make hasty impulse buys! But every month or so, I treat myself to a visit to a few favorite shops, whether thrift, consignment, garden or Big Box, to see what’s out there. I scored a gorgeous set of red glass goblets at my local thrift shop — $10 for five — recently. Favorite sources include Anthropologie (on sale!) for terrific housewares and linens and flea markets.
7) Think about including textiles in the mix.If you have pets and/or small/messy children, maybe not. But textiles’ colors, textures and patterns, especially vintage pieces– whether a lovely duvet cover, a knitted throw for the sofa, a cover for a chair or table — can add tremendous charm without a lot of cost or taking up precious space. I’ve covered my desk with a 19th century paisley shawl, my corner table with a 19th century silk shawl and my armchair with a 19th century carriage blanket. None were especially costly; try amazon.com or regional/country auction houses for great finds in this department.
8) Upgrade to better quality and design whenever possible.
Unless you’re wealthy and can afford to buy everything you want the very second you want it, you may have to postpone high quality purchases. I recently spent $300, (yes, really), for three new cream-colored silk lampshades. They’re clean, fresh, elegant, and a huge improvement on the cheap crappy ones I was using until I had the spare income to finally upgrade. Even a fresh set of pillowcases or hand towels can make a significantly cheery difference to your space.
9) Visit museums galleries and open houses to see how others have handled space and texture and material. The pro’s know!
10) Use your cellphone camera every day. Whether you see a cool texture on the sidewalk or a colored wall in a store or restaurant that inspires you — or a scene you’d like to frame and display in your home — that little camera will keep your eye fresh.
Here are just a few images I’ve collected in the past year for visual inspiration.
Need help? I can work from photos! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; $150/hour.
Do you ever wonder what life was like before we — in the more developed world at least — took electricity for granted?
Mirrors mattered, for their ability to reflect and magnify every available source of light. The crystal prisms of chandeliers amplified the glow of candles — chandelles, hence chandelier.
Candles were carefully trimmed and hoarded.
Traveling through inky darkness, whether by horse, carriage, boat or on foot, was a perilous undertaking as pirates, animals and highwaymen lay in wait. Not to mention perilous roads and conditions.
One of my favorite movie scenes ever is in Cabaret, when Sally and Brian sit on the floor in a room exclusively lit by candles.
I often start these long, cold, murky winter days by lighting candles on the shelf beside our bed. It’s a gentle way way to ease into the day, without the sudden, harsh illumination — wake up!!!! — of simply snapping on a light.
It’s also a lovely way to soothe yourself after a crazy, beeping, buzzing, over-caffeinated day. I love the snap of the match, the delicate blue moment of a wick lighting up, the surprising amount of light a cluster of candles does offer, enough to read by — preferably something written in the 18th. century!
We light candles every evening as we sit down to eat, votives whose glow softens the room.
When I visited Stockholm in late November — where the sun rose at 8:30 and was gone by 2:30 — candles were everywhere, even on the restaurant tables at lunch, creating a wholly different, (softer, gentler), mood for even the men in their suits having business lunches.
There is something centering and calming about staring into the flickering flame of a candle.