The Natural Order of Things: How To Design Your Home, One Step at a Time

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The other day, I was speaking to a friend who laid a design quandary at my feet. She needed a few new items for her apartment and, since every choice she made would affect the others, she was feeling stuck on where to start — the design version of "the chicken or the egg".

Anyone who's decorated a home, or even a room, knows that the choices you make early on can influence those further down the line. That sofa won't go with the existing flooring, those drapes will clash with the sofa, those cushions will fight with the drapes, and so on. Each choice you make limits the options for subsequent additions to a space, and so it should be, lest we all end up living in a hot mess of clashing colors and fighting finishes.

As a designer, I tend to choose finishes, fixtures and furniture in a particular order, one that's become so second nature to me that I rarely think about it anymore. Generally speaking, I start with the larger, fixed finishes that are costly to replace, and work my way down to the details. By the time I'm choosing small items like lighting and accessories, the answers practically present themselves.

Obviously, few of us will ever have the chance to design our dream home from scratch (even for an interior designer it's rare to start from nothing), but most of us can still use this "design hierarchy". Simply use the larger, more expensive items earlier on this list to inform your decisions about the smaller stuff further down, and you can't go far wrong.

  1. Fixed Finishes. This is the expensive, hard stuff that your home is (aesthetically, at least) made of: flooring, wall tiles, countertops and built-in cabinets where applicable, and any architectural details. Ideally, these finishes will be as neutral as possible and go together to create a sense of flow and a consistent backdrop for the rest of your furnishings.

    Remember, just because it's part of your home's skeleton doesn't mean that it's neutral: wood, stone and tiles have color and texture too, so choose them carefully to support everything you add in later on. In terms of shopping for an existing home, these are the things you want to pay close attention to, especially when choosing large items like rugs, sofas and dining tables.

  2. Floor and Wall Coverings. These "semi-fixed" finishes include carpeting, large rugs, and wallpaper (paint is a special case — more on that later). They cover a lot of visual ground and tend to be replaced infrequently, if at all.
  3. Big Ticket Furniture. These are your "investment items" like sofas, dining tables, sideboards, and armchairs. They can be expensive and often dominate a room.

    When buying multiple things within this group at the same time, say, a dining table and a set of chairs, it's down to personal preference what you select first. I always think starting somewhere is key, so choose the item you love the most and work forward from there.
  4. Smaller Furniture, Lighting, Accessories. Exactly what it says on the tin — this category includes everything from side tables to floor lamps and toss cushions. Some of these items will have serious longevity, but some are more like "fast fashion" for the home.

The Exceptions:

Art. Some designers select art last to punctuate the finished space, and some choose it at the beginning of the project and let it inspire the rest of the room. In general, I'm a fan of choosing art for art's sake, and framing it the same way; buy pieces you love whenever you find them, and use framing to enhance the art, not to try to "match" it to a particular space. But really, anything goes when it comes to adorning your walls.

Wall paint. You might think that paint, as a fixed finish, belongs further up this list, but due to the eye-watering selection of shades out there, I think there's always one (and likely several) that will work in any given space, even when re-painting a room that's been designed down the the last tchotchke. So, you can normally select paint at any time in the design process.

The exception is perhaps if you're dying for a particular non-neutral on your walls— a yellow kitchen or purple bedroom, say— you'd best get it up early and choose the rest of the furnishings accordingly.

What do you think of the "design hierarchy"? Do you use it, on purpose or instinctively?

(Image credits: Adrienne Breaux for Apartment Therapy)

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