My friend Sarah just bought her very first place–a charming condo in the heart of Houston (I’ve written about Sarah before here). She’s got great taste but she doesn’t know it and is always asking me for decorating advice. Even though her instincts are great I’m happy to help! Here’s an email she sent me recently:
As you know, I just purchased a new condo and need some of your expert advice! Where should I even begin to decorate? I read somewhere that for a small place to look bigger, it’s a good idea to have a color scheme throughout the house. With the open floor plan, I’ll need one main color and then I can play around in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Any suggestions on color?
One of the main features that made me fall in love with the place was the dark wood floors. They’re a little banged up, so I got a few estimates to refinish them. This will be a big expense, and I’m concerned that the soft pine will be dented up again in no time. But if I’m going to do it, I need to do it before move in so I can keep the furniture off of it for a few days. And nice wood floors really make a place. Should I take the plunge?
She included a sketch of the layout and some pictures:
First off, I totally agree that those floors are beautiful. You’re a lucky lady to snag a place like that! My floors were recently refinished and perfect-looking when we bought this house and we scratched them in at least three places the day we moved in. I was annoyed at the time, but I can’t even imagine how upset we would have been if we had just shelled out all that dough ourselves to have them refinished. I’m of the opinion that unless the floors are really bad, it’s best to just leave them as is so you won’t feel too terrible if you add another scratch or dent of your own. Besides, once you bring in furniture, rugs, etc., the damage that’s already there probably won’t be nearly as noticeable. If you live with them for a while and decide down the line that you still want to have them refinished you can take the less convenient route of doing it in phases and moving the furniture around as you go (ex: move all the bedroom furniture downstairs while those floors are finished, then all the downstairs furniture upstairs, etc.). Plus, I think what really makes a big impact about your floors is the rich, deep color. A lot of people would refinish just to get color like that. Lucky for you that your floors already have it!
Now back to Sarah’s first question–where to start? I’m cheap so I say start with what you already have. Identify what you’ll be moving in with that you’d like to keep and then prioritize what needs replacing. For example, when we moved into our house our dining table was relatively new and I still loved it, but I’d bought the sofa secondhand my sophomore year of college and it had seen better days, so I kept the table and ordered a new sofa from Pottery Barn before we even moved in. Other items, like the wing chairs I’d gotten from Craigslist, I knew I could reupholster or replace further down the line. We also desperately needed a new bed, but we made do with a basic frame and mattress until nearly a year later, when I was able to pick up a beautiful four-poster bed for only $200. Decor and accessories will fall into place over time in much the same way. I think it’s definitely worth it to start slow and take your time for three reasons: 1) your taste will evolve as you start bringing in things you love, 2) it forces you to be more thoughtful in your decisions, and 3) it gives you time to wait for the best deals.
And last but not least, the color scheme. I’m still learning about color myself through trial and error, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is this: you can go colorful with your walls or with your stuff, but not both (unless you really, really know what you are doing, which I do not). I prefer to keep my walls pretty neutral and then bring in lots of color and interest with furniture and accessories. On the phone the other day Sarah mentioned that she was leaning towards gray for the main living area but worried that the kitchen cabinets and backsplash would look better with a warmer shade on the walls. Lucky for you, Sarah, there is such a thing as a warm gray! It’s very trendy to call it “greige” right now, but the good ‘ol fashioned term is taupe. Ben Moore offers some good ones. I would start with swatches of Revere Pewter, Cotswald, Early Morning Mist, and Overcast. Get a few of each swatch and tape them up on various walls in the living, dining, and kitchen areas, then check ’em out as the light changes throughout the day to see if you can pick out an overall favorite. Since each swatch has several shades you’re bound to find one that works. If you’ve got time (Sarah’s parents are coming in from out of town to help her paint before she moves in), grab a few sample pots to narrow down your favorites. I used the swatch method to pick the color in my living room and I love it (BM Overcast).
Revere Pewter, Cotswald, Early Morning Mist, and Overcast
For the rest of the rooms in the house, I would choose similar shades of cream, taupe and gray, but you can really do whatever you want. The bathrooms might be a fun place to use more color, since it would be a small dose and you could easily bring in neutral towels and accessories to balance it out. Or, you could try to help the small room feel airier by keeping the wall color ultra-light, then add interest with the stuff you put in there. For the bedrooms, I would stick with neutral shades on the walls so you can have more fun with bedding and accessories, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the same gray as you used downstairs (although it can be, if you want!). Try going with something darker or lighter, or even a pale blue or green. Just remember if you use a colorful shade to avoid the more saturated tones–if you’re anything like me you’ll end up wanting everything else in the room to be neutral to balance it out (I painted the master bedroom in our rental house bright green and was constantly overwhelmed by it).
I hope that helps! My number one tip is to not rush into anything. You will hopefully have years to enjoy your new home and it doesn’t have to be “finished” right away. I think you’ll be happier in the long run if you take the time to wait and see what happens if you make only only or two decisions at a time. Congratulations on buying your first place, and good luck!