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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Overcoming decorating paralysis

When it comes to decorating, six little words often stand between dreams and reality: "I don't know where to start."

It's inertia rooted in fear — fear of making mistakes, fear of wasting money, fear of being judged unfavourably, says interior designer Lauri Ward.

"People are terrified of decorating," says Ward, who pioneered the concept of interior redesign, or decorating by rearranging the furniture and other items people already own.

She thinks the fear is especially acute among women, who often believe decorating ability should be inherent.

So how do you get past that fear? Knowledge, Ward and other decorators say — but surprisingly, not so much knowledge about decorating. It's more about knowing yourself, they say.

Here are some suggestions to help you take those first steps.

Noted interior designer Stephen Saint-Onge believes one of the things that scares people into decorating paralysis is not knowing what their style is. But style doesn't have to have a label, he says. Rather, style is just what appeals to you, what causes you to respond.

That's a central message of his new book, No Place Like Home, which is intended to help average folks find design inspiration and use that to improve their surroundings (available at and for under $20). He's made a career of helping people fulfil their decorating aspirations through his television appearances and his House Calls column in Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Saint-Onge suggests homing in on your style by gathering a bunch of magazines and catalogues and then spending 20 minutes tearing out photos you like. Don't spend too much time analysing your choices; just pick the photos you respond to.

Later, you can spend more time studying the pictures you chose. Think about what you liked in each image, what feeling it gave you, what you noticed first, he says. Mark up the images or write notes on them to remind yourself about what works for you.

You'll probably start to see patterns — maybe furniture styles you're drawn to, colours you like or room layouts you find appealing. "You start to learn to see things and see potential in your own space."

Saint-Onge suggests pasting those photos into an artist's sketchbook or large scrapbook to create a look book, which you can refer to as you start to make decorating choices. Add to it as you see pictures, paint chips or other things you like.

The things you own can also give you a clue to your decorating preferences, says Gary Babcock, creative director for U.S. retail chain Arhaus Furniture.

Start with something you love, Babcock recommends — perhaps a garment, a rug, a dish or a piece of art. Then think about what it is you love about it, and use that as the starting point.

Maybe you respond to the colours, which can give you a palette for your room. Maybe you like the shape and the amount of detail, which might tell you whether you like a clean-lined, tailored look or a little more fuss. Maybe it's the style or feel of the piece —for example, contemporary, romantic, classical or whimsical.

Furniture stores are another great resource, Babcock says. Most are set up in room vignettes designed to give people ideas on how they might decorate their own homes, so go ahead and mimic them.

Saint-Onge also finds inspirations in films — perhaps not surprisingly, since movie sets are carefully designed to evoke certain feelings. Like perusing photos, studying the houses in films can help you recognize your preferences, he says.

Take the beach house in the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton movie Something's Gotta Give, for example. Its open layout and casual, classic look struck a chord with many viewers. They remember it, Saint-Onge says, because it reflects a way they'd like to live.

He suggests spending some time watching DVDs of movies with homes you found memorable. Pause the scenes with sets you like, and take notes about what you're responding to.

No time to watch? Try a Google search for images from movies that feature homes you like. It may turn up some pictures you can use.

Ward, who runs Use What You Have Interiors in New York and Florida ( and wrote Use What You Have Decorating (available at for $16.49) to teach her methods, believes that what overwhelms people about decorating is the sheer space involved. They're fine at choosing individual items, but they find it daunting to combine those things and put them into a space.

That's why she advocates breaking down the process. Start with the shell, she suggests — the walls, windows, floors and lighting. Address those first, so you'll have a backdrop for adding furniture and accessories later.

What's important, Saint-Onge says, is that you figure out what you like and then follow your instincts.

"There are some people who feel like they have to keep up with the Joneses," he says. "But the Joneses don't live in your house. You do." And what you like is all that matters.

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