How to design a room like a professional

illustration of persons planning for and decorating a room
© Martin Haake

The key to designing a room is honesty — how do you live or how do you want to live in your home? If you can articulate that, you’re halfway there.

For example, you might imagine yourself in a minimalist museum-piece of a room: acres of serene emptiness, with just a crisp-white sofa, a sisal rug and a single tubular steel chair. But can you actually afford to surrender all that space? Rather than empty walls, should you be filling them with storage?

I was once designing a house for a client and she told me it was her dream to have a room designed like the library at Blenheim Palace — an impossibly grand room, covered in decoration, with two floors of bookcases, a high-arched ceiling and a 19th-century pipe organ at one end of its colossal 180ft length. She wanted this in the basement. “Do you not think the 8ft ceiling height might pose a problem?” I asked her.

A more important question, perhaps, rather than what you want a room to look like, is what do you want it to do? Or what do you want it to do for you?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself recently. I bought a new apartment last year, and had to work out how to decorate it.

So, what do I want from it? I want it to be the place everyone wants to gather: my children, extended family, friends. I want dinners where the dining-room table shakes with the banging of fists, and where the walls vibrate with the sound of laughter. I want my granddaughter to be able to scoot down the hallway at worrying speed. I want a home but I need it to be a beautiful background to my life. It can be both of these things (perhaps not always both at the same time) but everything needs planning and honesty about how it will be used.

library at Blenheim Palace
The library at Blenheim Palace

Room with sofa, bookcase and a centre table with books
A room designed by Emma Burns of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler © Dean Herne

The start of any size job for me is to review the floor plans. How do the spaces flow? And if they don’t, how can they be made to? I sketch and scribble my thoughts for the layout freehand then translate these into a measured, scaled plan. This helps me work out the flow of a space and the placement of furniture.

And it’s here that we often hit the first roadblocks: can you really have eight people round to supper or can you only squeeze three round the table? Is there room for that longed-for L-shaped sofa or must that wait
for another time? “But it’s my dream” is not good enough if it’s not going to work.

Sometimes brutal honesty calls for radical solutions: block a window if it makes for a better room. People get really scared when you say block a window. Shifting a doorway could be the right move. Think laterally: just because a room is described as the drawing room, or the master bedroom, why can’t it become the kitchen? Why not rotate the layout of the rooms by 90 degrees? Though, that’s getting a little silly — perhaps it might be better to just move. An honest grasp of the budget is also crucial, right from the outset.

Once I have the shape of the room laid out and the furniture placed, the next thing I do is something a surprising number of people never devote a moment’s thought to: I plan where all the switches and sockets are going to go. Ask yourself: can you sit and read with a drink and see your book or paper? Can you turn the lights off from your bed? Are the taps for your shower somewhere you can reach them without getting wet? It’s basic stuff, but often overlooked.

When it comes to colours and textures, inspiration can come from the strangest and least likely places. Put down the interiors magazines and property supplements (though not this one, yet) and pick up your phone: taking images of things you find interesting and beautiful can be a great help when it comes to designing a room.

One client called me after finally spotting the colour she’d been dreaming about. “Should I shoot the bird outside my window and send it to you?” she asked. “Its breast is exactly the shade of chartreuse I want for my drawing room walls.” Poor defenceless thing! I told her that wouldn’t be necessary.

But I once matched the red lining of a jacket to the lacquer for a coffee table. The soft powdery grey of a puppy I saw on an airport transit was the inspiration for a mohair and cotton velvet combination I used on an
L-shaped sofa for a young couple’s drawing room. My daughter’s first grown-up bedroom scheme was inspired by the old crocodile strap of my father’s wrist watch.

We are surrounded by inspirational things. A colleague loves what she refers to as “eye bag blue” as the perfect background to gilt frames and nubby, off-white linen curtains, which shows that even something undesirable can translate into a thing of beauty.

A plan for several rooms by Emma Burns
A hand-drawn plan for several rooms by Emma Burns

Another tip is to make a list of all your existing furniture — can you “go shopping” from what you already own? Just because the chest of drawers has always been in the hallway, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a basin cut into the top and become your bathroom vanity unit. I like to recycle where I can, reinvent, and find ways of giving new life to furniture. Picture frames, for example, can they be repainted — or even removed altogether? Can you paint that old cupboard and give it a new lease of life? Try lining it in a wallpaper you love but couldn’t afford for a whole room.

So how then to distil disparate ideas into a single scheme? This can be difficult. A much-respected client likens the design process to a dog sniffing in the park — not the most glamorous simile, but accurate. The idea is to circle, hone and edit until you can create an ensemble that works. Try to bring them together as much as possible, either in real life or in a mood board. Then check the budget: are certain choices too expensive and will they need replacing? This part of the process can sometimes feel like a game of snakes and ladders.

A room’s success has nothing to do with the spend. If it’s been honestly devised and thoughtfully put together, the prices of the pieces are irrelevant: it will be the sort of room everyone wants to be in. Suitability, suitability, suitability is what my old mentor Roger Banks-Pye drummed into me.

The least successful rooms are those which I consider to be dishonest: the try-too-hard rooms and the everything-too-perfect rooms. John Fowler said nothing beats a handpicked bunch of primroses in a chipped porcelain jug sitting atop the finest quality marble-topped commode — a juxtaposition of the rich and perfectly ordinary. I think he was right.

Emma Burns is the senior design director at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

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