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When I was living in New York while working on Design Star, I remember season six winner Meg Caswell discussing her idea of a series all about design crimes. Up until that point, I’d never used that term. Well, I kinda love it. In fact, I would probably steal it and pass it off as my own term if Meg hadn’t created it in front of millions of people on national TV. (Her new show is called HGTV’s Great Rooms; I like that, too.) The term is rather silly if you think about it; how criminal can decorating get? Well, perhaps if you rob a bank and then use the loot to buy custom window treatments. But for the most part, the term “crime” seems rather severe when applied to an industry heavily focused on fabrics and chandeliers.

After stepping off a plane to Atlanta from Fort Lauderdale where I’d spent a week troubleshooting some kidspace and kitchen renovations, I started to make a list of decorating dos and don’ts. While I’m not the end all/be all expert when it comes to decorating, I have for the most part pretty much seen it all, the good and the bad. Sometimes, there are happy accidents, such as running out of vases, then using a soup can to hold flowers, which surprisingly turns out to be kind of adorable. On the other hand, there are wimpy, completely uncreative acts like throwing sticks into a vase, shoving them into a corner and calling that “decorating”.

From smooshing sofas into walls to turning master bedrooms into showrooms for matching sets, here are a few design don’ts to keep in mind before tackling your next project. And if the term “design crimes” will persuade you not to do them, let’s go ahead and steal Meg’s catch phrase for the sake of saving a room from possible incarceration. PS – Can you imagine getting twenty-five years to life for blocking a window with a bookshelf or using floral chintz in a bachelor’s master bedroom? Hmmm, maybe there should be decorating jail after all.

Stick In A VaseDON’T #1: Shove sticks into a vase and use them as centerpieces. This was invented somewhere, probably in hell, and it doesn’t make any sense or even remotely add anything to a room. Well, except for some sticks. And a vase.

PlantDO: Use potted fiddle leaf fig trees indoors. As seen in this photo from The Marion House Book, they’re architectural, hardy, fill negative space beautifully and are an excellent choice for bachelor pads since they borderline on masculine.

Floating RugDON’T #2: Throw an area rug into a living room just for the sake of throwing an area rug into a living room. In order for an area rug to do its job—to ground and/or delineate space—it needs to not look like it accidentally fell from a magic area rug stork.

RugDO: Choose an area rug large enough to encompass all seating in a living room. Ideally, select one that is large enough to tuck either halfway or all the way under the sofa and any other chairs or settees in the space. In this Charleston home featured in Veranda, designer Deborah Lipner used this technique to help create the feeling of a room within a room, similar to the way putting disparate objects on a tray makes them look like a uniform grouping.

Sofa and ArtDON’T #3: It’s probably wise not to ever buy a matching living room set. Or a bedroom set. Or even an office set. Actually, 99.9% of the time sets suck. Vintage ones are okay. Unfortunately, the set in this photo is very, very bad. Its matching art takes it from bad, to good, then all the way back to bad…forever. But seriously, art should never match furniture. And an entire room of furniture that 100% matches (as in a set) is just plain wrong.

Sofa and ArtDO: Pull some colors from a good piece of art, and use them as accents throughout the room; they can even be close to the colors in the art, not exact. This cottage living room from House Beautiful is a great example. In this space designed by Leslie Klotz, the blues and yellows in the painting make their way around the room in different intensities. The Steven Gambrel-designed chairs have stripes in blue and yellow tones that complement those in the art. The table lamps bring out the more vibrant blues in the art a little bit more. But none of these tones “match” the art, per se. Just in the same ballpark.

Something one of my favorite designers taught me is that the key to a great room is to always have things slightly off, like different shades of a common color instead of the same exact color everywhere. I kinda love that tip.

Okay, those are three crimes and three legally decorative alternatives. Anyone else got any major decorating pet peeves that they see too often?

Report them in the comments below.

37 Responses

  1. jane says:

    i think my absolute pet peeve of all time is the kitchen where everything hides away in a cupboard. My sister had one of these… I spent two frustrating days trying to find the fridge, the dishwasher, you name it. if they could have hidden the stove and the sink inside cupboards, they would have. I'm glad to say that the dishwasher is now 'out', but the fridge is still hidden. And right now I am staying in a house that has hidden the washing machine and dryer behind little wooden doors, as well as the fridge and freezer.
    However, I have another hate too, which is low-level microwaves and ovens. This kitchen has both, and the resident four-year-old is going to come to grief one day unless watched. But more to the point, I have to sit down to access either, especially while punching buttons. I think it was actually designed by a 4 ft dwarf with a very tall spouse who could reach down things from the surprisingly high cupboards!

  2. Carmen J says:

    Big clusters of half burned candles! Yick!

  3. Chrissy says:

    A too-formal living room…. feels like a hotel rather than a home. I get that it's for entertaining and receiving guests, but do you want your guests to think you're stuck up, or do you want them to be comfortable? Why have any seating in your house that you wouldn't love to sit back and relax in? To each his own I guess, but this is my biggest peeve.

  4. Suse says:

    We entertain quite often. These are a "do's." I have found that it is best to have small, lightweight tables tucked around that can be pulled out, when we re-configure our rooms for the guests and type of gatherings, so that I can put them next to chairs so guests have a place to put their plate or drink. These don't have to be expensive and can be very small. Also, to have coasters already out and scattered around so that no one feels awkward having to hold their drink or putting a drink down on a pretty, burled wood table. Other items are to have plenty of toilet paper out, in a pretty basket, when entertaining a large group. That way guests don't have to start rummaging through the cabinets! I also put lotions out on the bathroom counter. I NEVER have scented candles, or scented "plug-ins!" Too many people are sensitive to them and they really bother me when I am in other people's homes. One last thing that bothers me is that many people don't have original art on their walls. I see mass produced stuff, even in my wealthiest friend's homes. Original art does not need to be expensive. Even putting children's artwork under glass and hanging it up gives everyone something interesting to view and comment upon.

  5. Melba says:

    Melba
    I disagree that marching sets are always bad. I like to use a nice chair with a matching ottomom which can be used as extra seating or can hold a nice tray . I do like chair matching but agree that the couch should be unmatched but complimentary.
    I hate popcorn ceilings and hope to have mine removed soon. I hear it is a mess to remove but I will do whatever is necessary to get it out of my home.
    I need help on art work. I have a large family and get lots of photographs and so I find my walls used to display them. Is that always wrong? I love family pictures and my guests seem to enjoy seeing them and asking about them. How can it feel so right and be wrong?

    • Terry says:

      All you have to do is get a spray bottle with water in it, and a paint scraper. Spray the ceiling until the popcorn is damp (not soaking wet), and start scraping. I did an entire house. It was time consuming, but once it started coming off it would come off in strips. Not too bad.After the ceiling was clear of the nasty stuff, I bought a bar-b-que scrubber,it is steel wool I believe, and has a handle. Buy a box of joint compound. Get a plastic container; I didn't use a bucket, but a heavy plastic container that was square. You can figure out what works for you. Fill it about half way with joint compound. I used a large, plastic cooking spoon for this process. The next part is key. Put in a little water at a time, stirring as you go. If you want heavy texture on the ceiling, use less water. You get the picture. If you get it too thin, just put in more joint compound. Now use the bar-b-que scraper. Holding it by the handle, tamp it on top of the joint mixture until you have a good amount on it. Now, push the compound onto the ceiling, turning the scraper in a haphazard manner.

      • Terry says:

        Continue with popcorn ceiling removal:

        Using a plastic wallpaper smoother, one without a handle works better, "knock down" the compound. Do that in different directions also. I made a spiral on my dining room ceiling by starting in the middle of the ceiling and shifting the ladder as I went, I applied the mix in a spiral and knocked it down in a circular motion. Gorgeous. Looked like outer space. Wait for the mix to dry, then paint. Using a plastic wallpaper smoother, one without a handle works better, "knock down" the compound. Do that in different directions also. I made a spiral on my dining room ceiling by starting in the middle of the ceiling and shifting the ladder as I went, I applied the mix in a spiral and knocked it down in a circular motion. Gorgeous. Looked like outer space. Wait for the mix to dry, then paint.. This is so inexpensive and easy that anyone should be able to do it. Good Luck

  6. Vic says:

    How 'bout furniture that is way too big in scale for the space so that there is no space left for people to move around without someone else having to move or having to walk sideways to clear the furnishings!

    And what about wall hangings, pairs or sets of pictures, prints or paintings that are stairstepped up a wall to nowhere. Okay along a staircase, but disorienting over a headboard, sideboard, console or couch because of the lack of balance.

    Or paintings placed so the bottom is above the level of your head so you feel like a little kid even in a space where the rest of the proportions are normal.

  7. Diane says:

    Hate:
    Vertical blinds. They just won't go away.
    Sofas and chairs with huge rounded arms in a small room. Scale is key.
    Mixed patterns on a sofa (cushions different from back and sides.)

  8. Maureen says:

    As a person with a disability, it is hard for me to make my place look "fabulous." I have a certain space to move around in my power wheelchair, have an unslightly lift chair recliner and a raised toilet seat..and the oh so beautiful shower seat! These are not an option for me. There is no such thing as "Urban Nursing Home Designer!" One can only dream. Disability and design do not go together.

  9. Suze says:

    One of my pet peeves is when I see these "vignettes" that designers set up on tables, mantles, etc. in multiple locations in a room. Even though they are lovely to look at, do these people all have housekeeping services? There is no way I would want to dust all of that stuff. I'm way too lazy, I guess!

  10. Floridian says:

    My husband says that his father had a saying, "If it doesn't look like sh*t, we don't own it" when referring to their home and furnishings. There were 4 kids in the family. I do not mind my guests thinking I am "stuck up," Chrissy, if it means having at least one room in the house that doesn't look like the sofa is used regularly for sleeping and the coffee table is free of nicks and scratches. As long as the sofa in my formal living room is comfortable to sit on, there is nothing wrong with my guests being inspired to reach for the coasters before setting their drinks down and leaving a permanent ring. My formal dining and living rooms are a joy to me when I pass through and see everything looking like a magazine cover and I am not embarrassed no matter who drops in. ~~ The family room is a whole other story.

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