Design Lessons I Know Now that I Wish I Could Share with My Younger Self

published Jan 3, 2017
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(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

My first decorating memory dates back about 20 years or so (the dates are hazy, but the experience is crystal clear.) After some pleading, my mom had granted me the opportunity to redesign my bedroom. I took the job very seriously, sweating over picking just the right shade of bubblegum pink (a risk for this non-pink lover), but it felt right at the time.

Weeks of studying the Montgomery Ward catalog resulted in the eventual selection of an oh-so-sophisticated rosebud-printed bed-in-a-bag for my daybed (that was placed on layaway for what felt like an eternity to a pre-teen). Rose-appointed accoutrements were selected to accessorize and style, and a rosevine stencil was laboriously painted along the ceiling line of my bedroom and on the doors of a wall-length shelving unit my great uncle had built me years prior. The result was my childhood masterpiece—an accomplishment that would mold so much of my future without even knowing it.

A lot has happened between the completion of my rose-themed bedroom and today. Now in my 30s, I can look back and recount many decorating highs and also many, many, many lows (in retrospect, of course), but never has my love for interior design ever faltered. My tastes have evolved—as they do for most—and I’ve learned a lot about the subject (and myself) along the multi-decade journey. If I could go back and talk to my younger design-hungry self, there’s a lot I’d want to say. Those glow-in-the-dark stars you so innovatively hung from the ceiling with fishing wire? You might want to rethink that, as the process of taking them down was not a short one; in fact, there still may be a few stragglers overhead in your old room. The first grown-up sofa you purchased? The one you bought in a safe gray because you were being sensible…you should have gotten the sapphire-blue velvet, instead. Screw practicality.

Again, the list is long, but let’s start with these six guiding principles (and hopefully, you too can find some wisdom in my words.)

(Image credit: Pablo Enriquez)

Design is not a quick process.

In my adult life, I’ve lived in three different apartments. Each time, I was so hard on myself to make sure I spruced up the place immediately. I’m a design editor, after all, and the expectations for having an Instagram-worthy abode are high. But I’ve learned that all the homes I’ve pinned over the years or ripped out of magazines for inspiration boards…they are all spaces that have been collected over time. That is where design blooms: in the ultra-special pieces acquired in the span of years and years…and years. Don’t think designing a home you truly love is going to be quick. It won’t be, and that’s okay. I promise.

Take some chances. It’s okay.

There is currently a dark gray sofa in my living room. I love the sofa: It’s super deep, perfect for binge-watching old episodes of Felicity, and for curling up with my six-year-old nephews for movie night. However, I regret on an almost daily basis that I didn’t take the chance on something more exciting. Inky, luscious blue velvet was all I could dream of while on my sofa hunt, but when it came time to bite the bullet, I chickened out and stuck with a safe neutral. Not that it was a bad decision (for me, or for anyone else reading this), it’s just that I knew in my heart of hearts I wanted something different and I didn’t listen. In the future, take some chances. You won’t regret them (and even if you do, you’ll survive).

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Don’t buy things you only half like just because they’re inexpensive.

If I counted all the money I’ve spent on curtains I’ve bought but only sort of liked because I chose to cheap out and not purchase what I really wanted, I could have long since had those French blue Belgian linen drapes of my dreams. It’s easy to get lured in by a low price tag, but you have to ask yourself this: Would you love it if it were twice the price? If the answer is yes, then go for it; if not, hold out for what you actually desire. Because remember, design is not a quick process.

Paralysis of choice happens. Let it.

Any time I’m making a large purchase, I get stuck. I read and research and uncover every review written on the internet, then discover something new in my process and start the read/research/review hunt exercise all over again. I’m really hard on myself for this, and frequently envy those that can make a quick, cut-throat decision. But I’ve learned only recently that it’s fine. I’d rather be well-informed on what I’m investing in than jump to a decision for the sake of making said decision. Let yourself go through this, and you’ll come out the other end (hopefully) with something you feel really good about (unless it’s a gray sofa…in that case, don’t trust yourself.)

(Image credit: Bethany Nauert)

It’s okay to splurge on once-in-a-lifetime things. You won’t regret it.

There are plenty of things in my home that I really like, but there are only a handful of pieces that I love, including the circa 1960s Italian Mauro Manetti pineapple ice bucket I bought straight off the kitchen shelf of an antiques dealer’s home in Belgium. It did not come cheap, but when else would I have had the opportunity to scoop up such a treasure? Maybe never, which is why I took the plunge, and it now has pride of place in my home, strategically placed in front of a mirror so I can see it twice in one go. These are the things that will bring your home life, character and a good story to tell guests. They are the items that will survive home purge after home purge, because once-in-a-lifetime items never go out of style.

No house looks like it does in a design magazine.

Take it from someone who worked at a luxury interior design magazine for five years: Those gasp-worthy dream homes in the pages of your favorite shelter glossy…they don’t look like that. Well, that’s not totally fair for me to say. They are beautiful and the interior design and architecture of the homes were usually quite aspirational IRL, but the final result you see…that took a lot of work from a stylist, a designer, tons of fresh flowers and good light, borrowed accessories (sometimes borrowed furniture and art), and the genius eye of an expert photographer (and retoucher) to capture the room just right. Social media can play tricks on you, and the perfectly styled homes you see all around the web make you start to pick on yourself for not having a place that looks like so-and-so blogger or publication. Stop. Stop it right now. Borrow inspiration, of course, but remember that nothing is ever as perfect as it seems.