Things to know for design do-it-yourselfers

With every subdivision that is filled, there are homebuyers eager to begin their new lives. Affectionately known as vanilla boxes, these homes can cause design dilemmas. A home is a canvas; if used properly, it can be a masterpiece of creativity. If used improperly, or just ignored, it can be a giant billboard announcing the homeowner’s shortcomings.

The contractor white walls are the starting gate. Inspiration is the finish line. Inspiration is a necessity. “I don’t know what I want.” This is a bad excuse. There are more design magazines on the market than ever before. Buy at least 15 magazines. Browse through every one of them. Tear out pictures of rooms that are striking. Don’t over-analyze things! Glue all of the pictures on a large piece of cardboard. Every picture will relate to the other pictures. By nature, we are drawn to things we are comfortable with. A color, texture or furniture motif will appear. THAT is inspiration, the epitome of the perfect home.

This is the road map to design success. There are stages to this process. Skipping or skimping on a step will only result in an unfinished feel to the space. The three stages are shell, function and embellishment. These principles can be applied to any age of home. Before diving headfirst into a design redo, keep one thing in mind. ONE ROOM AT A TIME! Don’t even think about the dining room until the living room is done. Focus, focus, focus!

One: Shell

This is instantly where people become the most intimidated and overwhelmed. First, decide on flooring for the space: carpet, tile or hardwood. Floors are just backdrops to the things in the room. Once the flooring is chosen, the walls need to be addressed. The wrong shade of paint can make an entire room feel uninviting. Choose colors based on the inspiration pictures. The main wall colors should be chosen with the idea to complement the furnishing. Understated is the key. One wall in the room can be an accent wall. Typically, an accent wall is just that; it accents the positive things in the room and diminishes the negatives. Solid colors are classics, faux is not. Faux finishes and wallpaper are very trendy and costly. These are luxuries that should only be addressed after the entire room is planned, and the budget still allows for them. Ceilings are the one area I leave to the homeowner to decide. If lighting is an issue, leave it white. If the lighting is good, paint it three shades lighter than the wall color. Moving on!

Two: Function

What is the room used for? How much seating is needed? Are there pets or children? Buy what you need, not what’s on sale. Sofas, sectionals and recliners are usually heavily used pieces. Investing in these pieces upfront will help avoid any future issues with quality. What color? Once again, neutrals are best; the longevity of furniture is dictated by quality and color. Accent furniture is where trend can be expressed. Occasional tables are things that should be eye catching. They bring style to the room. Pillows, curtains and throws are all accent fabrics. They set the seasonal theme. Keep in mind investing a lot in these items is not a good idea.

Three: Embellishments

These are the things that bring personality to the room. Many homeowners never even get their rooms to this point. These are crucial items to finish a room. Plants, fake or real, should be addressed as softeners. They take the hard edges off corners and areas such as bookcases. A house without some type of greenery begins to have a museum feel. Invest in greenery. Cheap greenery is dreadful. Don’t go crazy with accessories. The room should have these accents placed in points of interest. Bookcases, occasional tables and other furniture accent pieces are prime spots for accessories. Use total restraint. Less is more. Lighting is very important. Now that the entire room is full, the correct lighting can be appropriated. Track fixtures to spotlight art or accessories. Up lights for making corners seem larger. Lamps are for task lighting, and finally, candles for mood lighting.

Designing doesn’t have to be a painful job. Using these basic guidelines, it can be quite easy. One must remember to always do the steps in order. Vanilla boxes are just canvases for creativity. Take your time. Great rooms don’t happen overnight, nor should they. Good luck!

Michael Liaro is a local interior designer who has done extensive work throughout the West Coast. You may contact Michael for any design questions by e-mail at

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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