‘What’s your favorite color?” is a question we’ve all been asked countless times, so it’s not surprising that when we decide to refresh a room, we might start in the paint aisle.
“People run to the hardware store and they look at all the paint chips like it’s a candy display,” says Atlanta interior designer and television personality Vern Yip. “Everybody is so used to talking about design from a color standpoint that they want to start with paint, but paint is the easiest thing to decide later.”
According to design pros, there’s a logical order to decorating a room, and the paint-color-first approach may not be the wisest method (more on that in a bit). Read on to find out what steps you should take early in the process — and what decisions you can save for the home stretch.
1. Identify your decorating hero
Every room should begin with something you love, whether it’s a thrift store painting, a collection of vintage badminton rackets you want to display on the wall, or a textile you picked up on vacation years ago. During a trip to Thailand, Yip fell in love with a silk fabric, which he brought back and used to upholster his sofas. That choice inspired the direction for the rest of his living room.
“I try to get people to work with the idea that they’re not just decorating a space, they’re creating a home that’s uniquely designed to represent them aesthetically and support them functionally,” he says. “When you walk in a room, you should feel an immediate connection, and it’s hard to do that when you just buy a bunch of stuff randomly at the store.”
2. Pick a general color — not a specific one
“Going into a room design with a general idea of the color that you want to use is better than not thinking about it at all, but you don’t need to nail down the exact hue,” says Sandra Meyer of Ella Scott Design in Bethesda, Md.
For example, it’s fine to approach a room knowing you want to use the color blue in some impactful way, but if you’re debating the merits of Benjamin Moore’s Water’s Edge vs. Farrow & Ball’s De Nimes, you might be getting too granular too early.
3. Make a space plan
Thinking about how you want the room laid out will give you valuable insight for all the other decisions that follow.
“Having a space plan that provides enough seating, appropriate tables, and accounts for traffic flow will help dictate things like your rug size,” says Richmond designer Janie Molster.
There are a number of user-friendly apps, such as RoomSketcher, Floor Plan Creator and Planner 5D, that can help you devise a layout by entering in the dimensions of your room and furnishings. Retailers such as Ikea and the Williams-Sonoma family of brands (including Pottery Barn and West Elm) offer their own space-planning tools that come preloaded with the dimensions of their merchandise.
Not so tech-inclined? Do like the pros and map out furniture dimensions on the floor with blue painter’s tape to get a sense of how pieces spatially relate to each other.
4 Bring in major impact items
“Focus on getting your big pieces in early — that way, you have more flexibility in buying the smaller items like a side table or a bar cart,” says Meyer.
The same holds true for hard-to-find or highly specific design elements. If you have your eye on a bold floral wallpaper, Yip recommends choosing it early because it can inspire the overall palette. Trying to shoehorn it into your room later, hoping it goes with everything you’ve already bought, could end in disappointment.
5. Focus on the rug
It’s much easier to match a paint color to the rug than vice versa, so don’t wait until all your furniture is in place and the paint is dry to consider what should go underfoot.
“The floor is one of the biggest expanses in a room, so the rug should definitely not be an afterthought; it should be chosen early in the mix, right along with the big anchoring pieces of furniture,” says Molster. For small enclosed rooms, she suggests a single large rug, while open-concept spaces can benefit from multiple area rugs delineating different zones.
6. Be intentional with art
Resist thinking of art as a finishing touch or a space filler. What you hang in your home is an act of self-expression, so it should never be a throwaway choice made in a fit of impatience to fill an empty wall.
“A lot of people will end up buying artwork at the end of the project, picking something that coordinates with the drapes or the wall color, but that is the worst way to buy art because then it’s just a place filler and there’s no emotional connection to it,” says Yip.
Instead, the pros recommend thinking about what kinds of pieces you’d want to display early in the process. If you already have a burgeoning collection, think about how you’d like to integrate it into a space. Yip stresses that art doesn’t have to cost a small fortune or come from a gallery.
“It can be something you bought at a yard sale from your college days. The most important thing is that it helps tell your story,” he says.
7. Paint your walls
Once you’ve acquired some of your room’s bigger pieces such as the sofa and the rug, you’re in a better position to choose the exact wall color. “There are thousands of choices and you can always customize a color if you can’t find the right one,” says Yip. “It’s the easiest component to decide later, so instead of putting it upfront, the exact color should be finalized towards the end.”
8. Add accessories
Molster says most of her clients spend so much energy fixated on throw pillows and lamps that she often has to issue a moratorium on “pillow talk” until practical things like sofa frames are ordered.
“Accessories are fun, small choices that seem a little less overwhelming for people, so they’re naturally drawn to them, but they shouldn’t distract from making the bigger decisions,” she says.
Think of accessories as the reward; you’ve made all the hard decisions, stayed on track and on budget. Now it’s time to shop for those fun, whimsical elements that make a room interesting.
9. Leave room for growth
The final piece of advice from our experts: Don’t ever finish the project — at least not completely. The best rooms aren’t frozen in time; they’re constantly evolving with their inhabitants.
“Whether you’re a trained professional or a homeowner who just likes design, no one’s taste stays the same,” says Molster. “Always leave some space to find that perfect piece of art while traveling or a wonderful tchotchke to occupy an empty spot on your bookshelf.”
Brunner is a freelance writer. This article appeared in The Washington Post.