Thursday, November 25, 2010

Back when I first moved to Toronto, nearly 10 years ago, I took the easy way out and bought a bunch of white stuff at IKEA. A Klippan sofa, Tullsta chairs, a slew of beech tables, a few horrific pops of red,  and that was that!  Decorated like a low-rent version of American Psycho.  Well, guess what?  That's not a good look.

My tastes have changed since then.  Moving, mostly unscathed, through the matchy-matchy phase, we slowly replaced generic junk with special things found at antique shops, or roadsides, or on craigslist.  Nearly every piece in our apartment has some kind of story attached to it which doesn't include a side of meatballs or a Swedish instruction manual.  But nothing was expensive, in fact often-cheaper than new stuff from stores.  When I look around now, I see layers and interest and history. Not just things, but the reasons they're there instead.

Not that you asked, but these are my tips for putting together a room.  

While I don’t think my space is perfect, it does satisfy my eye and my mild OCD.  When putting together a space in your home, there are elements that can fly under your radar, causing the overall result to be mysteriously lackluster, though you may not be able to pinpoint why.  When you have "nice things" and a definite style, what might be missing?

Like an outfit, your room requires contrast. Without, everything is flat and nothing rises up. Remember, our eyes are really just very sophisticated camera lenses – They react to light, contrast, and depth. If these things are missing, our eyes don’t know what we’re looking at.  It’s science, baby!  If this might be what's lacking in your place, try swapping out a couple of throw cushions with something a bit brighter, whiter. How about a set of sheers under your dark drapes? Perhaps adding white mats to all your framed photos will do the trick.  On the flip side, shots of black can help too. If your room is looking a bit one-note (white and bright and airy) it might need to be anchored by something darker. A mirror with a dark frame, a dark throw on the back of the couch.  It doesn’t take much to crank up the contrast in a room, but you need it!

Are your colours competing? I’m a firm believer that all colours can go together if they share a level of saturation. Purple and blue and red and green and yellow all in one room harmoniously, as long as they carry the same weight. Try putting a pastel alongside a jewel tone, you’ll see what I mean: they will compete, and each will inevitably come out looking confused. But army green with slate blue and deep mustard?  Beauteous.

The same goes for scale.  You can mix styles and eras if their size relates well.  And don’t get trapped in the notion that a small space requires small furniture. I’ve never met a “condo-sized” sofa I liked – Scale it up! But, like colour, make sure that the relationship between your pieces is appropriate.  You don't want one occasional chair to be significantly taller than another. While they don't need to match (and often shouldn't) something will seem amiss if your guests are at radically different levels when seated together.  Remember your coffee and end tables, too.  They need to play well with the other pieces in the room - like your outfit, make sure each element relates.  

Are you playing with shapes?  Think sunglasses – If you’ve got a square face, bust out the Jackie O’s. If you’re an oval, you might need something with some edges. Same goes for rooms and furniture and placement. If something isn’t quite right, perhaps everything is too linear. Swap out your boxy dining table for a round one. Or hang a round mirror on the wall. Or twist your armchairs at an angle, rather than perpendicular to something else. Don’t get boxed-in. Alternately, don’t get too free-and-easy. Your room might need some structure – It can’t be all gauzy fabrics and roundness. Balance it out!

Like a meal, each room needs a bit of acid. Throw in pops of mustard yellow or a shot of lettuce-green or peony-fuscia. Orange. I’d call them neutrals, frankly. I think shades found in nature can be considered such, when used in small doses. You’d be surprised how these unexpected hits of colour can really work and can add needed-interest to a space.  

Consider the elevation of the objects in your space: Is everything on one level? How does your eye travel about the room? Is it drawn up to notice artwork on the wall, then back down to note the gorgeous rug? Or does it run along the top of each chair, the back of the sofa, suddenly darting upwards to a painting hung too high, and then back down to the kitchen island and across every doorknob and light switch in the place? That ain’t good. Your eye should wander gracefully, all around.  

Depth and texture are huge for me. I can’t stand a blank, flat wall of colour with a blank, flat sofa pressed up against it, with blank, flat throw cushions tossed around. The whole thing is the decorative equivalent of a pair of coveralls in a workshop – Not an outfit!  Use wallpaper, or choose a sofa fabric with some depth, some texture. Like you’d accessorize your clothes, do the same with a room.  Layer things in.  Don't be afraid to build a collection, stacking special items in front of each other, even framed photos obstructing others a little.  This will draw guests in to get a better look, to see how these treasures relate.  Nothing pleases me more than a new visitor poking around our shelf, gliding about, taking it all in.  These things on display tell people our little stories, walk them through the smallest details of our lives.

Consider the materials you’ve employed. Every room requires a bit of all things: metal, wood, fabric (velvet, wool, tweed, cotton, silk, leather, hide), glass, natural stone, and natural fibre. Also consider the gloss-level of each object. Like pharmaceuticals, balance your highs and lows. If everything is shiny, nothing is shiny. If everything is matte, the whole room will fall flat. If you were putting on jewelry, you’d surely wear just ONE pair of diamond earrings, no? Showcase your favourite items, don’t cannibalize them by overdoing.

Lighting!  Good lord. The number one way to murder a lovingly-thought-out space is by butchering the lighting. Why do you think movies and theatre have Lighting Designers? Because it’s an artform that must be considered! Low-wattage! No fluorescents or bare bulbs overhead! Keep it warm and soft and plentiful. You need to have total control over every aspect. Dimmers, dimmers, dimmers!

I use some of these ideas when I'm cooking, plating a meal, or putting together an outfit, too.  If something seems off, I run through a list of possibilities in my head.  Often adding a tertiary colour to an outfit (maybe a tie, or a different belt) or arranging a sauce differently on the plate just changes everything.  

(Thanks for reading.)


  1. Great tips! (not that I asked ;) hehe. I love how your related everything to a good outfit or a beautiful plate of food. So true.

    I luuurve that photo with the light coming through the chair.

    Your living room makes me want to take a nap - in a good way, of course. It's just so cozy.

  2. Somebody get this guy a TV show.

    {P.S. I'm putting a stop to Meenskies immediately.}

  3. Wow! That's a book's worth of knowledge. great advice and fantastic space.
    Especially agree with the lighting. First thing I do in a new place is install dimmers everywhere.

  4. What a deliciously thoughtful post, Jason. I'm with Mina. You could definitely give Nate a run for his money. I'd settle for a book, though.

  5. Well done. It is indeed interesting that good quality old (not necessarily really old) is often less expensive than inexpensive new. RD

  6. Jason, thanks for this really tasty primer. You could easily spend a week's worth of posts on each of the points you raise here -- selfishly, I wish you would!

    As I gather more material for my own posts on interior design from a more masculine perspective I know I'll be referring back to this one again and again.

  7. Nice digs Jason, very well done. I've got an occasional chair like your two (in desperate need of new covering, might revert to the original black like yours).

  8. Good tips. Too bad we have this GREEN carpet that runs through the entire house.

  9. Thanks for sharing. You have some great tips! I love your apartment - my space has so far to go before being finished.

  10. Love this post. Come do my house next?

  11. Love, love, love this space. Perfection.


  12. I LOVE that lantern...where did you find it??
    Very thoughtful post, Jason.

  13. Hey Suz! We made it!
    Check out this post.

  14. I remember loving this post...