Design Checklist: Guest Rooms

As of this writing, I’ve determined to overhaul our guest room this fall.  It won’t be an easy project because the floor needs to be replaced as well as the bittersweet work of painting.  However, it is exciting to me because the room has become an island of misfit pieces over the years.

In its way, the guest room is charming, an attic of disparate pieces, all storied and meaningful.   Nonetheless, as a designer, I also know the value of allowing a guest room to be a simplified take on the rest of the home.  This is one of those rooms where you can allow fantasy and beauty to take the lead.  Here you are not beholden to the placement of the television set, nor must you consider how a light rug will withstand the march of daily traffic.

So how do you unpack an over-furnished room, laden with mementos from the past, to make it a soothing oasis for guests, even an afternoon retreat from the rest of the house for yourself?

Start with a checklist of needs only.  For the guest room, it should be as simple as: settle in; sleep; freshen up.

Settle In:

This would have been merely unpacking clothes in the not so distant past, but today it includes making sure your friends know where to plug in their chargers and have your wifi password.   We have guests who need a moment each day to check in on the rest of their world.  And while the etiquette-keepers will remind us that in company we should turn off our phones and shut our laptops,  I feel that whatever my guest wants to do once they retire for the night is purely their concern.

In the vein of more traditional unpacking, however, it is good design to provide a space adequate enough for a guest to open their toiletry bag and loot through it to their heart’s content.  This may be a dresser that is not over-done with accents, or a desk or console table equally uncluttered.

Sleep:

This is not where I opine about bed size or style. The most important thing is to make the bed both cosy and easy to use.  After years of “pillowing up” the guest room, I’ve learned that guests want pillows for two things: head support and snuggling.  No one wants to cuddle up with a pillow they assume is irreplaceable to you, so opt for comfortable, washable goods on the guest bed.  That thread-worn antique bolster is charming, but stressful when a guest is looking around for a place to stuff it during their stay.  And resist the urge to put out too many pillows.  When in doubt, the perfect sum is five: two fluffy ones for sitting up to read, two sleeping pillows, and a small accent pillow for color and snuggling.

A bed without bedside amenities is as senseless as a dining table without chairs.  An important part of enjoying the bed is feeling like you’ve arrived once you’ve gotten under the covers and arranged things just so.  This means provide bedside tables and lighting. Even if your room is a tiny New York apartment, you can hang a wall shelf beside the bed large enough for a book or a glass of water. And a wall-mounted sconce will serve your company perfectly if they need to catch a little Jane Austen before sleep.

Another important component to guest room design is knowing that privacy and light control are hugely important to many people.  If you have windows in the guest room (and we hope you do), make sure you’ve dressed them to moderate noise and light from outside.  There are many shading systems and options for drapery that will not only shut out the glare of a street lamp or the morning sun, but also blanket noise to provide a better oasis.

Freshen Up:

The best practice regarding “welcome” setups is to opt for less is more.  I’ve been placed before baskets so laden with travel-sized lotions, sanitizers, and mouthwashes that I’ve felt more like an impulse buyer at a Rite-Aid checkout line than a guest in a friend’s home.  And that pricy lotion you bought at a boutique may please one guest, but turn off another with its posh lavender scent. Trust that your guest has brought their preferred toiletries with them.  It is sufficient to lay out clean towels and wash cloths and to show guests where they may find emergency toiletries (out of plain sight) should the need arise. There is a fine line between charming a guest with your attention to detail and overwhelming them with just plain stuff.

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Once you start organizing your thoughts around the function of the space, as I’ve outlined above, it’s easy to see that the room really needs simple basics to start: bed, bedside tables, dresser or table top, lamps, and window treatments.

Surely rugs make it cozier, and art adds interest, but lean toward simplicity when adding the decorative elements.  The degree of simplicity is determined by your own style.  If you’re already a minimalist, our list of basics may be asking you to put more in the room than you might otherwise. Conversely, to the collector of many things, the imperative is to use restraint to keep the room from feeling over-saturated with your sensibility. After all, the guest holds you in high esteem, but this space should give them a little neutrality, a time out from one another.  Tone it down just a notch, by curating the collections in this room.

I hope to share before and after pictures in the weeks to come and look forward to practicing what I’m preaching as I renovate the guest room in my home.

Cheers!

PM

Snob

I’m a furniture snob.  It comes from nearly twenty years in the design business.  But I’m not a snob in the way that many of my colleagues are.  I don’t care about name brands (although I tip my hat to makers of fine things who’ve earn a deserved reputation) as much as I care about the integrity of the piece.  That is: what is this item trying to be and does it work?

In my dining room – a tiny square where the cat likes to nap, where everyone has to draw in their chairs to pile in around the table – the furniture is a mix of the primitive, cottage-made and the formal and elegant.  Using color, the craft of placement, and a curated mix of art and accents, the pieces compliment the scale of the room and each other.  They function and they please me, two criteria never to be undersold.

However, why the curly French chairs and the boxy little corner shelf play well together is mostly due to their inherent honesty.  As objects, these pieces have distinctive characteristics.  We can change their narrative to a degree by shifting their context, but unless we get out a saw and start lopping away at them (thus rejecting their truth) we must honor the very things that make them unique.  It is, after all, the contrast between the objects that makes for an interesting room.

If a physicist who played fiddle, an interpretive dancer with a passion for soup-making, and a human rights activist who blew off steam at the shooting range were stuck in an elevator together – well, that would make for a pretty interesting dynamic.  Yet if they each felt they should imitate the other, then the highs and lows of their differences would fade away.  In life, we do feel the need to find common ground for brief, sometimes awkward social encounters. Thus, the fiddling scientist, the prancing epicurean, and the gun-wielding idealist discuss the weather until the mechanic gets them safely out.

Design is where ideas and things come together.  The illusive magic of imagination finds expression through tangible goods.   The more sincere the objects, the more truthful the space.  And the more varied and personal our collections, the more compelling and intriguing the design.

If you’re to be a snob about design, it’s better to be one about whether a space is interesting, rather than about what it cost.  Buying quality is important, but purism of influences leaves me cold. We might as well be discussing whether or not it’s going to rain.

Comfortable Elegance

In the project pictured below, our mandate from the clients was precise: comfortable elegance.  To achieve formal balance, we exaggerated the architectural symmetry of the room through the use of matched pairs in lighting, furniture, and drapery.  Our selections of textiles bore features of elegance, such as embroidery and damask-like forms, but were uniformly soft to the touch and devoid of the pomp glossy finishes might have suggested.

Living Room, Hearth Room Shenandoah Valley

Living Room, Hearth Room
Shenandoah Valley

Using rich, dark woods in flooring and furniture, we suggest the gravitas of age, while allowing that the newly constructed home is of today.  The client’s Persian rug – dramatically figured in chocolate, taupe, and pale aqua – provided us with the basis for a light-handed color palette that keeps a densely-furnished space from feeling cluttered or engulfing.  Custom upholstery allowed us to tailor the sofas for maximum seating.

Lighting, Interior Design Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Lighting, Interior Design
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Perhaps the most pleasing detail of a room filled with beautiful elements, is our selection of four dramatic pendants, a choice that eschewed the architectural draft calling for a single, central chandelier. The quadrant of pendents spreads the overhead lighting more evenly in the space and, resembling to some extent the fixtures in old cathedrals, references the very architecture that inspired vaulted ceilings such as these.  Additional recessed lighting and sconces (not pictured) fill in the lighting gaps, while dimmers on all lighting provide a variety of mood options for any use of the space.

Living Room, Interior Design Detail Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Living Room, Interior Design Detail
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

From the large overview to the smallest detail, we enjoyed finding the balance between elegance and comfort.  A lovely project for lovely clients, this one stands out as a memorable recent exercise in thoughtful restraint.

-PM

Winter White Seduction

Day three of snowy weather has me contemplating the allure of white rooms. A few years back I had a client with a three year old who wanted an all-white living room.  Imagining pudding stains and crayola shenanigans, I lobbied for something less pristine.  We compromised on bright sand; cream tones seemed dirty to her eyes.

As impractical as it is, I have to say I get it.  Like a blank canvas, the white room is pleasingly simple.  The people who visit it bring the color in their garb; vibrant brush strokes that come and go at our invitation.

However, on a day to day basis, the all white room may be more satisfying in theory than in practice.  Humans like to be stimulated visually. What I have learned is that we use color to make space more engaging and interesting. When we edit it from the space, the forms and textures that remain have to be all the more dynamic to fill the aesthetic gap. The photo below, from House Beautiful, is a good example of how to keep a white space soft, warm and compelling.  This is a crisp, romantic take on the all white room.

white room best

  •  This is not a ‘color pop’ kind of space; it’s more delicate and soft and less about mod vibrancy.  Using black and white art instead of color [the collection on the wall to the left] and eschewing patterned rugs is a subtle but excellent commitment to detail.  The Lesson: Keep the concept focused.
  • Dynamic installations provide the drama that we otherwise find in color.  The sheer size of the rough hewn door to the rear creates a focal point in a space that’s been blown open architecturally.  The Lesson:  Up the ante on accents and installations for drama, but make sure they’re used to enhance the bones of the room.
  • Form and composition are building blocks to good design.  The massive potted plant and spherical chandelier in this space establish a rhythm of mass that prevents our gaze from getting stuck on the over-scaled central column.  This open space soars when the eye is not grounded in just one area.  The Lesson: Without color to tell the eye where to roam, it’s more important than ever to get the styling right.
  • This room is well-edited and interesting, mixing refined and primitive elements equally.  The whiteness provides punctuation between each piece and the collection finds unity by virtue of its setting.  This is not unlike the art of gallery curating.  The Lesson: Embrace the innate gift of a white space: that it allows and even demands a diverse mix.
  • Texture, texture, texture.  The primitive table in the foreground, the dappled painting over the bombe chest and the organic tangle of branches are all fantastic use of texture to add depth to this design.  Replace the table with its sleek lacquered sister and swap out the art for a gleaming mirror and the room instantly grows colder.  The vase of branches reminds us of nature and is a peaceful connection. The Lesson: Grainy woods, coarse finishes and natural elements offset the pristine elegance of white and keep spaces feeling friendly.

Dark Haven

This room is the kind I’d call preppy bohemian.  The collection implies travel and taste, but the deconstructed arrangement says the person who lives here is comfortable with a bit of chaos.  If the appointments were arranged more formally – no stacks on the floor, no art left leaning – the space could feel dour and heavy.

Image

The styling of the room is pitch perfect.  Here is why it works:

  • The rich red ceiling strengthens the statement of the collections of red atop the wardrobe and in the window sill. Due to the darkness of the room, the reds balance magically being both a color and a neutral. The Lesson: Don’t fear bold decisions like ceiling color, just make sure they support the overall design.
  • The dynamic geometric rug is not crowded with other patterns; textures and organic motifs alone fill in the blanks. (See our first post for more about that.)  In this room the books are textural specifically because their spines are not precisely aligned. Through repetition, unexpected objects become a tactile part of the overall design. The Lesson: Think beyond fabrics and wall finishes when adding texture.
  • Pops of color break the palette like beams of sunlight in a forest. Black, white and shades of honey brown are the primary neutrals here. They establish the rhythm of dark and light, warm and cool.  Editing out the brilliant yellow and blue book spines or the cheery peonies in the foreground would flatten the palette. The Lesson: Celebrate colors that are a little more saturated and playful than the rest. Cleverly woven into the mix, they give design its kick.

Hope you enjoy the photo, which is from Elle Decor and found via Quite Continental.

Thanks

PM