Basic Design Rules

Thomas Edison once said, “What you need to invent is an imagination and a pile of junk.” This is good news because sometimes we want to or need to invent or design new spaces and a pile of junk is all we feel we have to work with.

When we lived in California, I owned and operated a small business called Acute Design. It started as a hobby—going to friends’ homes and helping them re-imagine their living space. After completely remodeling/redesigning numerous homes of our own, I would often have people visit our home and ask if I would mind giving them some advice. Acute Design was born out of helping those friends for fun.

I have had many opportunities to design living spaces over the years as well as working with my husband on designing spaces and worship interactive environments at church over the years. I have also had taught classes and workshops and worked as a design consultant on major projects.

Today, I read an interesting CNN post entitled, “7 Deadly Sins of Design.” While the article touches on some important problems in bad design, I don’t know that I would pick these things as the top 7 sins. Certainly worth a read though.

Here are the best concise design tips I have to offer as the general rules of engagement for any space. They most definitely work in the home scenario and many can and should be carried into the work place and/or place of worship:

Placing Furniture—furniture placement is one of the most important and most ignored rules of good design.
• Start your design from the point of entry—walk through your doorway/entryway into your room. The layout is most important from this point of view. Sometimes rooms have two entry points so pick the “most used” point as your first impression.
• Choose a classic neutral sofa—nothing will age your furniture faster than a print. You can change with trends by using throws and pillows. If you LOVE a colored sofa that is solid you may go with it but be forewarned (dusty rose was very cool in 1986).
• Arrange for conversation—pretend you have people in the room you are arranging. Put 18 inches between sofas and coffee tables.
• Choose a focal point—fireplaces, picture windows, accent walls, and coffee tables all make good focal points. T.V.’s do not—unless it is your home theatre setup.
• Your sofa is not designed to hold up your wall. Get that thing away from the wall and out into the room!

Accessorizing—good accessories can be really good for your space but when it’s bad it is usually really bad
• Remove all accessories from room—get rid of baskets with bows (use other containers), clear the clutter, donate anything you can categorize as a knickknack.
• Choose a “theme” based on either color/style/season or holiday or a combination of those things
• Always place accessories in groups of three and arrange them at different heights like a cityscape. If you have three candle holders all the same size, raise a couple with a small box or an upside-down bowl, etc.
• Group collections (candles, boxes, bottles, etc.) together on either a charger, a flat mirror, a corner table, a buffet, or the likes
• Bigger is usually better—make a statement with your accessories (large pots, large candles, large arrangements).
• Less is more—larger accessories will help you here as well. Clutter is bad. You never see clutter in a model home.
• Plants—you can immediately warm up a room a room and fill large blank spots with plants. Use real plants. Check places like Sam’s Club and Costco for good deals on large real plants.
• Pillows—have fun with your pillows. Change them seasonally. They are cheap so when they get old and flat and grungy either toss them or put them in the dog bed

Lighting—one of the biggest ways to make an impact in a space (and not just at night!)
• Install dimmers so you can control the amount of light day or night. If you need to install them one at a time start with the table, then the kitchen, then over the sink, the bedroom, the bathtub, and on to other spots. You can’t have too many.
• Use up-lighting in corners, behind large plants, above cabinetry
• Install down-lighting underneath your upper cabinetry

Use things you already have—you don’t have to spend a bunch to make your space better.
• Spray paint is your friend! Don’t be afraid to paint something to touch it up or change the color. Practice on something you don’t care about first. There is an art and technique to it but it is easy to learn.
• Put a new lampshade on an old lamp. In choosing lampshades, make sure you measure the height of the lamp from the base to the socket cap (the bottom of where the bulb screws in). The size of a lampshade is determined by the bottom diameter of the shade. Your lampshade should be no more than 2” smaller than this height and no more than 2” larger than this height. The height of your lampshade should be directly related to the height of the “harp” of the lamp. Your shade should be no more than ½ ‘ shorter than the harp and no more than ½” taller than the harp. Fringe is not included in the height of a shade. The “shape” of your lampshade should be close to the shape of the base of your lamp.
• Revitalize that old chandelier. Toss the leaded glass and paint the framework of the chandelier with a couple of coats of hammered spray paint.
• Cut out the inside of your cabinet doors and have glass cut for a see-through insert

Define your style—design on purpose.
• Look through magazines
• Subscribe to free catalogs such as Pottery Barn, West Elm, Ballard Design
• Walk through furniture stores and model homes and take notes on the vignettes
• When you find a room you like, ask yourself what draws you to it. Take notes. Emulate that style.
• Ask a friend to help. If you have a friend with a great space design, invite them to lunch and ask them to help you. They will be flattered and you will get some great ideas from another perspective.

Paint!—don’t be afraid. It’s only latex.
• Paint is an affordable way to change your space in no time at all. Keep your eye out for good boo-boo paint at Lowe’s and Home Depot. You can get this paint for EXTREMELY cheap.
• If you are afraid to do a whole room, start with an accent wall.
• It is a lie that dark colors make a room small—the space is still the same. Dark colors on an accent wall actually “move away from you” and can make a room appear larger. Painted ceilings can actually make a ceiling appear taller. White ceilings make a room feel shorter.
• Paint furniture. It’s okay. Really. Great Grandma will never know.
• Paint cabinets for an update. This is one of the best ways to transform a room. Good prep is key. Talk to someone who knows how to paint and prep before you get started.
• Spray hinges, knobs, and chandeliers for immediate updating—out with the shiny brass and in with the . . .
• Black ties things together. Black is a room’s exclamation point. Don’t be afraid of black.

Don’t go haphazard with wall hangings—This is somewhat subjective but if you can find a happy medium there are some general rules to go by
• Keep your hangings closer to rather than far away from furniture such as chair and sofa backs. Some say 10-12 inches from the top of furniture however . . .
• Try to keep a “line of sight” around the room when possible so art pieces and pictures are generally at the same height around the room. Of course, some pieces are huge and don’t allow for this rule but if you have two like-size smaller hangings and one huge hanging, make sure the like-size smaller hangings have the same line-of-sight at the top.
• Eye level is the “right” height for art pieces. If you have an artist in the house, they will believe this is important.
• Group or cluster miniature hangings with like things. Little pictures on the wall floating by themselves look silly unless you are hanging for a gallery.
• Measure twice. Hang once.
• Lay out art groupings on the floor to arrange them all before hanging them and/or sketch them up on graph paper first.

Use things for purposes other than their original purpose—be creative!
• Who says a wooden window frame is not a piece of art?
• Who says a bowl can’t be turned upside-down to lift a candle?
• Who says a fishing rod is not the same thing as a curtain rod?
• Who says concrete is for walkways and not counter tops?
• Who says stacking old suitcases is not a good end table?
• Who says you can’t rip up your yucky carpet and paint the floor?


  1. So many great've given me some great spring inspiration!

  2. My head is buzzing with ideas. Thanks!


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