“I like that rug, but I’d never have the courage to buy it,” my brother said yesterday. I know that reads like a back-handed compliment, but it wasn’t.
It’s tough to make bold design choices. Like it or not, our homes tell others about who we are, and we all generally want to be taken for compitant, discerning, and maybe even sophisticated adults. To do that, we have to be brave. We have to show ourselves. Stay with me, it’s not as scary as it sounds.
“It’s like skiing,” I said. “You can’t just go up there and try not to fall down all day. You have to impose yourself on the mountain.”
Most of us know what we think is beautiful when we see it, but struggle to achieve it from scratch on our own. Without any guidance, we aim for safe choices assuming that if we go wrong—at least we won’t go spectacularly wrong. Problem is: it’ll never go spectacularly right either. Trying not to be wrong is like trying not to fall on skis. You might not fall—but you’re also not skiing.
Remember what unspectacular lemmings we all were in jr high? Trying not to make a wrong move was all there was. Our insecurity on full display regardless of our constant efforts to conceal it.
Telling someone you’re a designer is probably not unlike telling someone you’re a therapist. People feel exposed at first—wondering what we see. They start making confesssions about how things got “this way” and how they’ve just resolved to carry on. And it’s true—we can see your anxiety expressed in beige on beige on beige, like a safe warm bowl of oatmeal. All the furniture is pushed up against the perimeter of your living room walls like awkward preteens—risking nothing—doing nothing.
Unfortunately beauty is not entirely subjective, so we do have legitimate worries here if we want to be taken seriously. Beautiful happens when tension between elements is balanced just right. People go to school for this stuff after all. What are they discussing in those classrooms? They’re not just comparing opinions—they’re learning the rules. So what do you do outside of hiring a designer or enrolling in an art program?
Here’s the good news: quality design work is everywhere and you can use it as a guide. You don’t need to understand color theory to know that there is something about a shirt, a book cover, or a painting, of which you can’t get enough.
This isn’t cheating. This is how we do it. All designers begin by being inspired by something that we feel compelled to capture in our own work. We trust the beauty of it enough to check our ego at the door. Most of us will admit that we didn’t come up with our best ideas in isolation. Some of us will admit that our best work can even be accidental. The work is in the seeing.
Artists don’t usually believe art is something we do—it’s something we see. We see it, and we feel compelled to capture it. You can do it too.
I have a favorite skirt that is unfortunately made of polyester. I wear it all summer because I love the colors and patterns too much to care about how sweaty it makes my back side. I was wearing said skirt recently when I sat on an outdoor cushion and audibly gasped at the unexpected glory of their paring. I immediately took a photo of my hip on the cushion to use in the future. This is the feeling you’re looking for when choosing the inspiration for your space.
Here’s that photo....swoon❤️.
I can talk to you about complimentary colors, line quality, high contrast in value, the careful use of white, the tension between warm vs cool colors—but you seriously don’t need to know all that. All you have to do is trust what you see. That means you don’t argue with it. Don’t ask yourself if these colors are too much. You don’t know what you’re doing, remember?
This skirt was not the inspiration for the color palette I used with this condo a few years back, but it could have been. What makes this skirt beautiful, also makes this condo beautiful. Can you see it? Different shades of the same cool blue, a warm swampy yellow-green, a deep earthy red on the floor, and white trim to make sure we don’t lose track of that pale blue in the kitchen.
You can order a gallon of chartreuse paint for your kitchen cabinets without flinching because you can trust the genius designer who came up with this gorgeous skirt. Take yourself out of the equation apart from your love of that thing that inspires you. That’s a reasonable amount of courage to require from yourself.
This is a valid form of self expression. You are using someone else’s work as inspiration and making it your own thing. You are making art.
I have conversations like this with friends all the time—more to come.
JTF: In addition to painting this white, I need to find a way to mount a TV to this brick and fully functional wood burning fireplace. My current thinking is a hollow mantle to hide cords?
I hate TVs. There is really nowhere else to put the damn thing.
me: I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say you’re painting this room white, and move right along to the TV question. I hate TVs too. And I get why mounting it above the fireplace feels right—but I want to talk you out of it anyway. It’s super common, but here are my biggest issues with that placement:
1. It’s always too high. What our necks really want is a tv right across from our face as we sit—that’s a good 4 feet lower than using the spot above the fireplace.
2. The fireplace is a natural focal point. It always brings architectural detail, and organic elements like brick or stone. It adds visual interest, and demands our attention. We’re compelled to put it there partly because it feels orderly to yield to its authority. But we don’t like TVs, so let’s not partner them with the focal point of the room. Give that fireplace all the attention and make the TV recede.
Let the room inspire calm human interaction even though watching tv may be the main activity happening there. You can arrange it so that people can comfortably watch tv, but that the room doesn’t announce “we watch tv here!”
Remember this living room? The 40” tv was on the second shelf up—on the left side. The next shelf up was left out to make room for the TV.
JTF: The previous owners put it on a credenza in front of the window on the right. That blocks the beautiful nature and view of the city at night. I'm afraid this may be our only option, Obiwonkanobe.
me: I love your sass, but there have to be a few furniture plan options that would give you what you want without putting it over the fireplace.
Consider a super low (like 12” tall) credenza. Sight lines through the window would not be so spoiled. Or floating in the room some other way.
It’s a trade-off. I have strong feelings about avoiding the tv-over-the-fireplace scenario, so that factor largely drives my space planning in living rooms.
Also—putting it so high on the wall makes your house look like a sports bar.
JTF: You make a strong case. I will go back to the drawing board.
me: Someimes I bury the lead.
I'm an artist and a serious introvert. I'm an interior designer and a writer. Let's talk about the golden rules of design. It's not about having "good taste." Let me unravel some of the mystery.