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House Call

The Design Rule Leanne Ford Loves to Break

Words by Gabrielle Savoie
a living room filled with furniture and decor

Photo by Erin Kelly

Leanne Ford needs no introduction. Her name is synonymous with relaxed, all-white, cozy interiors with a heavy dose of organic and vintage touches.

But that wasn’t always the case. While working as a fashion stylist over a decade ago (she had style in spades back then too—that’s nothing new), the Pittsburgh native renovated a century-old schoolhouse with her brother, Steve, which catapulted her into design fame. “It went viral before viral was even a thing,” says Leanne, laughing. There was a Country Living feature, multiple book covers, and eventually Restored by The Fords, the designer’s first TV show.

Today, she has a handful of television projects under her belt, countless features in Architectural Digest, Domino, Elle Decor, the New York Times (to name a few), and an exclusive partnership with Crate and Barrel, the sole carrier of her first-ever collection of furniture, decor, and bedding. “I’ve been in this business long enough to have a vocabulary and an understanding of what's out there and what works and what doesn't,” Leanne told us. “A lot of people I talk to on The Expert have incredible style, but this is what my brain thinks about all day, and their brains are focusing on something else.” She recently took time to chat with us and share all her design secrets:

a kitchen with white cabinets and white flowers
a room that has some chairs in it

Photo by Erin Kelly

Photo by Erin Kelly

In one sentence, what’s your design philosophy or mantra? It doesn't have to be precious. It can be casual, it can be fun. What are we all stressing out about?

If your design style was a fashion icon, who would it be and why? Diane Keaton. She’s casual, fun, easy—just like me.

You’re designing a room—where do you start and why? It depends at which point I get involved. What's super fun about The Expert is that I'm getting in at different parts of a project. Today I had a session with a couple whose house was built but they hadn't put their pieces in yet. Sometimes, people are still in the blueprint phase. 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.

What questions do you ask a client to figure out their needs? I ask them to give me three adjectives of how they want their house to feel—not look like. That answers a lot of my questions as I dive in with them. Those adjectives of a feeling can give me a great starting point to play with and helps me give them ideas based on what they're aiming for. I can talk about visuals all day, but the design should be based on what they want their experience to feel like.

a white room with a round table and two chairs

Photo by Erin Kelly

Favorite question or design problem you’ve ever gotten on an Expert consultation? I just had a consultation the other day with a woman who made her own dog food which was messy and ruining her pretty kitchen so she wanted to design a second kitchen. To which I said: pay somebody to make the dog food. It's way cheaper than adding a second kitchen. It was the best 30-minute consultation ever.

It's funny, we get so stuck in our brains and it's nice to have a sounding board. As a designer, I always ask other people's opinions. That was such a great example of someone who was in forward-motion thinking this is the only solution. And as soon as I said that, she literally laughed and said: “Oh my gosh, you're so right.” She just had to get out of her own way. She gave herself a good giggle and I saved her a lot of money.

Name an architectural pet peeve that always needs fixing in any project—big or small? When the toilet is the first thing you see in a bathroom. I don’t understand why we design that way. If you are in the blueprint phase, hide the toilet. Sinks are gorgeous, tubs are gorgeous, and showers are gorgeous. Toilets are not. Hide it.

What’re you loving right now or recommending most to your clients? I always recommend sisal, jute, or seagrass rugs because they fit any style, they're easy, and they have a good price point. I recommend the Ever Sofa and the Ever Bed from my Leanne for Crate and Barrel line a lot because I designed those basics specifically for people to have easy access to this style. And then depending on what city people are in, I always recommend vintage pieces and shops locally. I also always tell people to reach out to their local salvage yards and vintage shops because they have such a rotating selection but you can ask them to look out for specific pieces for you.

What’s your favorite lighting trick? Oversized lighting. Your lighting should be bigger than you think you have room for. There's nothing worse than a dinky light in a big room. You need to fill up the space.

a living room with a fire place and a couch
a kitchen with wooden cabinets and a black sink

Photo by Amy Neunsinger

Photo by Amy Neunsinger

Where to save / where to splurge? I love sending people to the outlet shops. Every big box store has an outlet and that's pretty fun because you can take things home with you, it provides immediate results, and the prices are better. I also recommend giving yourself a splurge account. When Quincy Jones goes into the studio to produce music, he always says “leave 20% for the Holy Spirit,” meaning leave room for creative inspiration, so let that last 20% be your splurge account. When I heard him say that, I was like: that’s exactly what I've been trying to voice—you don't want to have everything down to every detail because you'll miss the flair.

What should you always buy vintage? What vintage pieces are you eying right now? I wouldn’t say something specific, but you should always have vintage in your home. A lot of people design their house and it looks like a computer-animated drawing, and they wonder why it doesn't feel good. Often, it’s because you need things that are alive: the vintage and beat-up wood tones that are just a little bit off. I love mixing textures, linens, creams, tans, and whites. All of that goes really far and it's really easy.

What elements make up the last 10% of a room? Twigs, branches, flowers. Bring in something earthy. I can't even tell you how many times people don't know what's missing. And it's always a natural earth element.

Design rule you love to break? I like to make things oversized, which is sometimes scary when they arrive. I don't care when things get beat up. I believe in marble, but I also believe that the day you get it, you should put your wine glass on it and get your first stain out of the way. I always have to coach people about marble: we spend a lot of money to get vintage, beat-up things—so why are we afraid to do it ourselves?

Favorite spot to hang out in your house and why? My garage. It's our quote-unquote office, but it's more of a rotating art-slash-office-slash-trinket space. And it's pretty and it has these old gorgeous carriage doors. It's a good space to go and think.

a living room filled with furniture and a large mirror ball

Photo by Erin Kelly


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