My mom had eyes in the back of her head... really. I know every mom says she has eyes in the back of her head, but mine did...or else she had pretty sophisticated mini-cams hidden throughout the house (which would have been some feat in the ‘60s, when I was just a girl). Like a referee senses when the football, outstretched in the running back’s hands, breaks the plane of the goal line, my mom could tell when I had inadvertently broken the plane of the formal rooms in the house with a swinging arm or stray foot. And then there’d be hell to pay. I was not only forbidden from entering the living and dining rooms—filled as they were with silk-covered, down-filled sofas and windows draped in imported Fortuny fabrics—I was forbidden from even stirring dust molecules across the rooms’ thresholds. I can barely remember a time when we used these rooms or when I felt relaxed being in them.
When I purchased my own home, I wanted to live differently, to actually use every room in my house, every day. So I set out to furnish each space as best I could, with gorgeous fabrics on the windows, trimmed and tasseled toss pillows, and fine wood and detailing in every table and chest of drawers.Being childless, I had the time and the budget to decorate the rooms in my home with the style and quality I wanted. I gave no thought to whether the faux finish on the foyer walls could be easily touched up or how I would clean a spot from the white and terra cotta striped, cotton sofa. My kitchen designs called for open shelving full of delicate, antique pottery and a creme-colored kitchen table with black glass appliances—what could be wrong with that? Everything! It was all too delicate, too difficult to keep clean, and required too much protection from what was becoming my real life.
You see, I married a slob and then had two boys, and they destroyed our home. Let me explain. When my husband enjoys a latenight snack in front of the TV, he thinks, “Why use a plate?” The sofa arm is a perfect spot to rest re-heated greasy pizza. Need a napkin? “Why get up when there’s a nice, absorbent window curtain nearby, long enough to pull over and use for both hands and face?” And then there are my athletic boys. It doesn’t matter how I lecture about not throwing a ball in the house or removing baseball cleats full of mud before walking on the carpet. When I’m out of the room, they do as they please. (I could really use those eyes my mother had in the back of her head.)
I realized it was time to redecorate. Given how much new fabric and furniture cost (even for a professional designer), I knew I had to come up with room designs that couldn’t be easily broken, stained, torn, or damaged by the people and guests who live in and frequent my home. After all, peace of mind is worth everything, and I didn’t want to turn into my mother—checking dust patterns and carpet imprints to see if anyone had trespassed into secret, forbidden territory like, say, the dining room. Whatever time and money I was about to put into redecorating had to last.
And because everyone’s always busy with work, school, sports, and friends, I had to do so with low-maintenance materials and fuss-free styles that wouldn’t require constant primping, cleaning, or special care to look and feel good. Who has the time to fluff pillows, dust tabletops, style draperies or vacuum up clumps of baseball fields on a daily basis? I certainly have no time and little patience for recovering kitchen chair cushions every time they get soiled and stained. I’d rather find the right fabric, have my upholsterer recover the cushions once and for all, and move on to the next task at hand, which is usually laundry.
I hate to admit it, but everything I did to better design my own home the second time around I learned from my husband and kids. The fancy magazines, beautiful showrooms, and designer showhouses are great, but you should also take your decorating cues from the people and pets living around you right now. If you have a Black Labrador Retriever, light beige carpeting and white upholstery won’t work. If you have a Golden Lab, forget darker colors. If your husband (or sometimes wife) is cleaning impaired like mine, select only washable, stain-resistant fabrics in the family room and industrial strength countertops in your kitchen. Have active kids or pets? Watch out for delicate collectibles and expensive lamps on crowded tabletops. Even empty nesters and single professionals with busy social lives and full travel itineraries want a fuss-free, low-maintenance home that looks and feels good with little work or care. So consider how much time and effort you want to put into safeguarding your highly-styled, high-maintenance home. Make your home work for you! Here’s how:
Let There be Lots of Lighting: If I’ve learned anything in my years as a designer, it’s this: Nothing effects how you feel in your home more than lighting. Good lighting makes even the most modest rooms look impressive. Without good lighting, however, even the most impressive rooms can look modest. Think about how you use a room or hall space. Where would you like to display art, photographs, and other things that matter to you? Light it up with dramatic, low-voltage, recessed lights that illuminate vertical (wall) and horizontal (tabletop) spaces. Will you sit, read, or perform other tasks in this space? Use a combination of natural light (place workspaces near windows whenever possible), recessed lights, and ceiling and wallmounted lights to give yourself ample and flexible task lighting. Limit table and floor lamps—they don’t do the job as well and the shades seem to always be crooked. Also, try dimmers to change the mood in the room from full brightness for working to a low glow for watching TV or quiet dining. Wherever possible, replace older floodlights in your recessed fixtures with halogen bulbs for brighter, whiter light without the expense of an electrician.
Living in Color: Let the things you love in your home, like treasured pictures, collectibles, textiles, and photos, inspire your wall color. Don’t be a slave to white, beige, and pastels. Color adds warmth and personality, and it can be used to “set off” your furnishings and make them pop. Best of all, color can camouflage spots, stains, and abuse. Spills on a chocolate brown sofa blend right in and fingerprints or scuffmarks that are a fact of daily life in builder-white homes virtually disappear on a colorful wall (scrubable paints make maintenance even easier).
Color can also change the way we perceive architectural features in a room, so it’s an essential design tool. When I want to highlight room features like double crown moldings or camouflage odd features like a sloped ceiling in a long, rectangular room, color is the easiest way to achieve big, architectural effects without a big expense. Best Seat In The House: Put your money into the things you will sit and stand on. They’ll last longer, look better, and still feel comfortable over time while giving you the best return on your furniture investment. So when you’re shopping for sofas and chairs, start with a good quality manufacturer who uses kiln-dried, hardwood frames, screwed and glued and corner blocked at the stress points with eightway, hand-tied springs for balancing weight and wear. Next, think about styles. Loose, multi-pillow backs require a lot of maintenance. Chairs and sofas with large, oversized arms take away from the actual seating space and because they are often sat on, the fabric on the arms wears out very quickly. Skirts on sofas and chairs collect dust and animal hair and require additional maintenance. Many seating manufacturers give you the “no skirt” option—ask your salesperson. Consider spending more for “blend down” back cushions and “spring down” seat cushions. These upgrades tremendously extend the wear and feel of your sofa. Standard foam cushions will lose their shape and firmness and start to flatten out with heavy use. Spring down wears like a mattress, bouncing back to shape time after time. The same is true for blend down seat backs. They go back to their original shape with little coaxing. Finally, turn your seat and back cushions periodically to prolong the life of the fabric and cushion.
So as you begin decorating your own home, ask yourself, are you considering posting security guards at the living room entrance to keep out family members and pets? Are you reluctant to remove the plastic wrap that covers a newly delivered sofa? Can you really get a motion-activated flashing sign made to automatically remind the kids to wipe their feet when they come into the house? Before you do anything, carefully examine how you really live and make design choices that truly fit your lifestyle. Spills happen, and no one (except my mother) has eyes in the back of their head.