Sunday, January 19, 2014

Thrift Week Day Three: Use What You Have Decorating

Yesterday's Thrift Week entry dealt with the garden, so today's brings us indoors to tackle the rest of the house in an equally ecofrugal fashion. Use What You Have Decorating is the first book published by Lauri Ward, an interior designer who grew frustrated with the traditional practices of her profession. Typically, she says, she would go into a client's home, get rid of all the existing furniture, and start over from scratch, but the process always struck her as inefficient and wasteful. Many of her clients actually had perfectly good furniture; the only problem was the way it was being used in the space. So in 1981 she broke away to found her own company, Use What You Have Interiors, which offered a more ecofrugal alternative to traditional interior decorating. Her goal was always to start with what her clients already had and figure out how to put it to the best possible use. She might buy a few new items for each room, but the core of each new decorating job was to rearrange the furniture and accessories the client already had (often "borrowing" pieces from other rooms in the house to make the look complete, as well as "banishing" items that didn't fit in their current location). Ward's approach saves time as well as money, since the pieces she works with are already right there in the house, so she can easily transform the room in a day.

Use What You Have Decorating educates readers about how to do the same thing in their own homes. The key, Ward says, is to understand the ten fundamental decorating mistakes that most people make:
  1. Not defining your priorities. Before you place a single piece of furniture, you have to think about how you actually want to use the room. In her first chapter, Ward outlines a "priority questionnaire" to help people figure out just what they need from their space, including who will use it, what its functions are, and what you like and dislike about it now.
  2. An uncomfortable conversation area. Ward considers this the anchor of every living room: a place where people can sit and converse easily. The pieces need to be close enough together, and positioned properly, so that everyone can see and hear each other, as well as having a place to set down a drink or a purse.
  3. Poor furniture placement. Furniture needs to be arranged so that people can move comfortably through the room without disrupting the activities going on inside. A common mistake Ward sees is pushing all the furniture up against the walls, making the room feel more like a doctor's waiting room than a comfortable living space. 
  4. A room that is off-balance. This can happen when all the furniture pieces are either too heavy and blocky or too light and spindly, or when all the big pieces in a room are crowded together instead of spread throughout the space.
  5. Furniture of different heights. This doesn't mean that you can't have a tall bookshelf and a shorter couch in the same room, but you should avoid positioning two tall bookcases on either side of a short chair. Doing this means that the tops of the furniture pieces will keep jumping from one height to another, creating what Ward calls "the roller-coaster effect." 
  6. A room that lacks a cohesive look. Ward is a big fan of pairs: matching chairs, matching lamps, matching candlesticks. Keeping pairs together, she argues, creates instant symmetry.
  7. Ignoring the room's focal point. If a room has a fireplace or a window with a terrific view, Ward recommends arranging all the furniture to center on that feature and make the most of it. If a room lacks a "natural" focal point, Ward says you can create one with furniture and artwork that dominate one wall.
  8. Improper use of artwork. Ward notes two particular problems most amateurs have when arranging artwork: hanging pieces too high and spacing them too close together. Rather than trying to hang pictures at "eye level" (which obviously varies quite a lot), she recommends hanging your art exactly three inches lower than the spot where you think it should go. ("I've tested this theory with hundreds of clients," Ward insists, "and it works!") She also recommends keeping similar pieces together (photos, paintings, drawings) and keeping one wall free of art as a "resting place" for your eyes.
  9. Ineffective use of accessories. Ward is a big believer in grouping like pieces together to increase their visual impact, rather than spreading them out all over the room. Three similar items, she says, are enough to form a "collection," which can be anything from geodes to stuffed animals.
  10. Using lighting incorrectly. Ward goes into detail about the various types of lamps and their uses, but she also notes that the most common reason for a room to be under-lit is that the individual bulbs aren't bright enough. Kicking them up to the maximum wattage the fixture will allow is usually enough to solve the problem (especially now that CFLs and LEDs make it possible to get more light with fewer watts).
These ten design problems are the core of the book, but what makes it so useful and interesting is the way Ward illustrates them with individual case histories. For each decorating problem on her list, she provides several real-life examples, complete with before-and-after pictures to show how the problem was solved with a few simple changes. She also includes a list of what was "banished," "borrowed," and bought to complete each room. Ward's writing style can get a bit cutesy at times, but her pictures really speak for themselves.

Before I got my own copy of Use What You Have Decorating, I read and reread my mom's copy over and over until I was throughly familiar with Ward's methods. Over the years, I've put them to use in every home I've lived in since I left college. Just today, in fact, I applied the Use-What-You-Have method in redecorating a room in a friend's house. Although we did actually end up buying some new furniture for the room, I relied on Ward's techniques to define priorities (making the room comfortable for watching TV and doing office work in separate areas), create a conversation area, balance the room (removing an overly tall bookshelf), and create a focal point (arranging all the AV equipment and videos along one wall with a large painting over top). We even took a leaf from her book about the effective use of accessories, moving some pieces from my friend's antique computer "museum" out of a closet and displaying them as a collection.

So who will benefit most from this book? Well, obviously, it can help anyone who has a room to redecorate. But less obviously, it can be helpful for anyone who has ever felt just a bit uncomfortable with any room in their home and isn't quite sure why. Ward's detailed explanations and illustrations can provide the key to making your home feel a lot more homey without having to go out and buy a bunch of stuff.
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