The Expert - 8 Designers on How to Decorate a Room: The First Steps
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8 Designers Share the First Thing They Do When Decorating a Room

Words by Gabrielle Savoie
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Design by Studio Ashby; Photo by Philip Durrant

Ask 8 interior designers how they start decorating a room, and they’ll give you 8 different answers.

No really. Don’t believe us? We put this theory to the test. Sometimes, the most daunting part of decorating is getting started, finding a direction, or deciding on an action plan. Even though common knowledge suggests starting with a paint color or a fabric swatch, this isn’t always the best solution in practice. So where to start?

There are many ways to approach a room redesign, and there is no “right way” to start. What’s important is taking the first step, so if you’re feeling a little stuck, here are 8 of our Experts on how they kick off a design project—from tackling the floor plan to looking at how natural light enters the room:

Understand the Layout

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Design by Patrick McGrath; Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson

“I like to start with the furniture plan first and determine the program for the space will be with my client. That being said, design often starts with either a special piece of art or a beautiful carpet… Each project evolves organically.” —Patrick McGrath

Turn to the Architecture

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Design by Meghan Eisenberg; Photo by Haris Kenjar

“I start by considering the architectural style of the house and the client’s personal vibe. From those two pillars, I can create a vision for the space in my mind: is it formal, playful, classic, contemporary, avant-garde? It’s all about finding the right balance, so if the client is playful but the structure is classic, I might choose furnishings with a more formal silhouette and pair them with an unexpected fabric.” —Meghan Eisenberg

Focus on the Biggest Piece

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Design by Mikel Welch; Photo by John Bessler

“I typically start with the most prominent piece that's going to be used the most. If it's a living room, it's the sofa. It's the bedroom, it's the bed. I begin with the key big-impact pieces and then work on the layers because I like to focus on what’s going to give me the most bang for my buck.” —Mikel Welch

Study the Natural Light

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Design by Martyn Lawrence Bullard; Photo by Douglas Friedman

“My first point is always the light: understanding where it comes from, how it illuminates the room, and how it plays in the space. It’s the number one tool in understanding how to make an interior feel good. Once I understand the lighting and determine if we need more or less of it, if we need to add windows, or close off badly-placed sources, I’m able to evaluate the mood we want to evoke within the space and take it from there.” —Martyn Lawrence Bullard

Start with Art

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Design by Studio Ashby; Photo by Philip Durrant

“Art plays a central role in our process. I believe it has a vital place in every room. We often start there, sometimes literally taking a piece and building an interior around it, and other times more figuratively using it as the start of a narrative journey. No space feels complete without it. It’s through art that rooms become highly personalized and unique to each client.” —Sophie Ashby

Look at What’s Underfoot

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Design by Brandon Schubert; Photo by Paul Massey

“I start with the floors because they’re often the least flexible part of a project. In historic homes, you’re working with what’s there. In newer buildings, you often have to choose a floor that needs to work for multiple rooms. After that, I think about the walls and what their character is: are the floors lighter than the walls or vice versa? Or are they similar in tone? It can really set the mood even before you’ve thought about color, pattern, and texture.” —Brandon Schubert

Find a Great Rug

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Design by Nina Farmer; Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson

“I always start with the rug. It helps set the tone and palette.” —Nina Farmer

Tackle the Most Obvious Problem

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Design by Leanne Ford; Photo by Tessa Neustadt

“I really get a kick out of problem-solving at any stage. I don't like a blank canvas, which is why I prefer old houses. I like having a starting point, playing with what’s already happening, and fixing a problem because it gives me parameters to think creatively. That's when the fun stuff happens.” —Leanne Ford

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