15 Tricks Stylists Use to Make Any Room Look Better

You know those beautiful rooms you frequently see featured in magazines? Well those pretty farmhouse kitchens, breezy bedrooms, and well appointed porches likely had a little help. To get a house photo-ready, magazines typically send in a professional prop stylist who is well versed in the fine art of helping a room put its best foot forward.

Not to be confused with designers, prop stylists are masters at moving things around, often working with the items homeowners already have on hand in ways that are more pleasing to the eye (and, yes, camera). From perfecting pillows to rearranging bookshelves, these seasoned “zhush-ers” are full of tools and tactics that can truly transform a space, which is why we we asked a few of our favorite professional prop stylists from all over the country to reveal their go-to tricks of the trade.

a sampling of items in a stylist's tool kitpinterest
David Hillegas

A sampling of items in a stylist’s arsenal, including vintage books and eucalyptus branches.

“Embrace the Tray.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of a tray to corral things,” says Los Angeles-based stylist Liz Strong. For example, a coffee maker, bean grinder, mugs, and stir-ins may feel a tad cluttered on a countertop—that is, until you place it all on a single tray and suddenly you have a cohesive coffee station. Trays come in particularly handy by the stove (for salt, olive oil, vinegar), on a bathroom vanity, or on an entry table.

When in Doubt, Hang it Lower.”

New York-based stylist Matthew Gleason advises against hanging art too high, which is something he says is fairly common with homeowners. A good rule of thumb is to hang art so that the center is at eye level. Generally speaking, a center that’s 57 inches from the ground is a good estimation of eye level.

“Size Up on Pillow Inserts.”

That 22-inch pillow cover will look better, and fuller, with a 24-inch insert, not a 22-incher. (Psst: Those in the know swear that Restoration Hardware has the best inserts.) If you’d rather not buy a new pillow, Texas stylist Becki Griffin recommends filling floppy corners of your not-so-plush throw pillows with a generous handful of Poly-fil. “It costs a few dollars, but your pillows will look like a million bucks,” she says.

pillows on a bench

Brie Williams
Now *those* are properly plump pillows, expertly styled by Matthew Gleason.

Raid the Tackle Box”

Yes, really! To help draperies hang straighter, our experts suggest opening up the bottom hem and inserting fishing weights in both corners. This can also be helpful if your draperies are hanging just a smidge too short.

“Embrace Art in Unlikely Spots.”

Oil paintings in the kitchen? Bring it! California-based stylist Heather Bullard recommends displaying artwork in unexpected places. Some of her favorite examples include inside a curio cabinet, propped up on a dresser, nestled among the books on a bookshelf, or layered up against the wall on the floor. (Psst: For great sources for vintage artwork, head here.)

hudson valley kitchenpinterest
ZIO AND SONS
Artwork (or even a bust!) adds warmth and quirk to this Hudson Valley kitchen featuring Zio and Sons tile.

“Banish Cord Bumps.”

Hiding an electrical cord by running it under a rug doesn’t do much good if there’s still an unsightly bump within view. To avoid such, seek out flat cords that’ll keep rugs smooth.

Loosen Up Those Bookshelves.”

First things first: Several stylists we spoke to said not to push your books flush with the back of the bookshelf. Instead, you want the spines a bit closer to the shelf’s outer-facing edge, or at least split the difference. Next, create a few horizontal stacks that utilize your larger books (think coffee table books) and stagger those (one stack per shelf, or every other shelf). These stacks also provide a nice spot to display non-book objects—preferably curvy or round items to offset all of the straight lines. Next, layer in vertically oriented books, jig-jogging height so that there’s variation. (Consider removing dust jackets, too.) If you’re short on books, try layering in artwork, pottery, or even straw hats.

long island farmhouse of antiques dealer hadley wiggins marin owner of north fork antiques shop north found  co and daniele marin living room storage, shelf

Buy the Bread Board.”

While stylists mostly work with items on hand, they also bring a stash of a few tried-and-trues to every shoot. For example, antique bread boards were mentioned time and time again. Some stylists mentioned how they can bring nice warmth to an all-white kitchen; Mississippi-based stylist Page Mullins says she also liked to prop them up against a backsplash to hide electrical outlets.

RELATED: 100+ Best Places to Shop for Antiques and Vintage Online

“Show Off Your Groceries.”

“Pile your weekly fresh produce in large wooden bowls on your island or counters,” says Heather Bullard. “The vibrancy adds so much life to a kitchen!” Stylists especially love a bowlful of lemons. (Now that you know this you will never not notice this.) Also in frequent rotation: artichokes.

Vary Height.”

“When styling open kitchen shelves, I like to vary the heights of pieces,” says Heather. “For example: Place a bowl next to a taller pitcher vs. a bowl next to a stack of plates with similar height.”

RELATED: Dreamy Open Shelving Ideas for Your Kitchen

kitchen with open shelves\, woodpinterest
Jean Allsopp

Bowl of produce? Check. Tray by the stovetop? Check. Bread board? Check.

“Invest in a Good Steamer.”

Ironing can be tedious. While it’s sometimes a necessity, prop stylists swear by portable steamers for on-the-fly fixes related to sink skirts, table linens, drapery panels, or pillows. (Psst: One favorite—and easily packable—version is the Nori Press combo iron/steamer.)

“Bring on the Baskets.”

Woven baskets can help keep certain items out of sight while also lending texture to a space. “Unlike their plastic counterparts,” says Heather Bullard, “beautiful utilitarian objects can serve a dual [dutiful and decorative] purpose.”

“Go Big With Branches.”

“Large over-scaled objects, like enormous cut branches in a vase on a kitchen island, will elevate a space with their dramatic size,” says Heather Bullard. Birmingham, Alabama, stylist Kathleen Varner seconds the impact of big branches, preferably plucked from your own backyard. “With foraged branches, you can go taller and bigger.”

south carolina river house homeowners gerard and shelia frey house designed by jim strickland of historical concepts interior and textile designer heather chadduck hillegas bedroom pinterest

“Get Quirky.”

“An often overlooked element when styling is to include a bit of whimsy,” says Heather Bullard. “An imperfect piece of studio pottery, a found feather tucked into a picture frame, your child’s artwork, or a piece from your grandmother’s owl collection help to bring a sense of story and surprise to your styling.”

“Consider the Rule of Threes.”

Groupings of three are considered more pleasing to the eye, which is why you’ll often see vignettes featuring trios of items. Take it one step further and remember the three Bs: bowls (for odds and ends), boxes, and large books. For good measure, add another of our favorite Bs: brass. A brass object on top of that stack of book is the finishing touch that will make the entire arrangement shine.

Headshot of Rachel Barrett

Rachel Barrett is the Editor-in-Chief of Country Living. She can’t pass up a vintage seascape, drives an ’89 Woody Wagoneer (that is, when it’ll start), and hopes to buy you a lemonade at a future Country Living Fair.

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