Test, Measure, Repeat

A few things to keep in mind when choosing fabric, paint color and furniture

“Can you help?” “Would you come by?” “I’m just wondering if…”

I’m not a decorator, though I do my own work and have helped a few friends over the years. Occasionally, a friend or a reader will ask if I will help them pick a paint color or sort out a furniture arrangement. (At which I’m terrible.) All of this, I know, is not because I possess some rare skill, but rather because she doesn’t want to make a mistake. But mistakes in decorating are part of it.

I have, in the course of decorating four houses over 25 years, made a lot of mistakes. Some were inexpensive and some were, if not tragic, more expensive. Paint, which many people think is easy if only you know what you’re doing, is in fact tricky. I painted a hall bathroom what I thought was going to be a really great Southwestern sand (it was the early ‘90s) that ended up looking as if I were inspired by the inside of a sick baby’s diaper. The first rendition of a yellow living room was so bright that it glowed. It looked as if a UFO was landing in it. It practically hummed. My painter assured me that once my furniture was back in I would love it. I did not.

But my mistakes have not been in paint alone. I bought a buffet at a yard sale for a steal. I could not believe my good fortune. Even after I picked it up in a borrowed truck I did not know I was in trouble. Not until it stood in my front hall did I understand its scale. It was a beast. As we had first met outside on a long driveway, I had no perspective. The sidewall in the dining room where it was supposed to stand guffawed.

The thing is, you simply have to try. Even the best decorators paint and re-paint, arrange and re-arrange. (They do not, as a rule, buy furniture four times too large for a room, however. That’s a rookie mistake.) I had a friend who was working with a decorator who ended up with a pair of chairs and an ottoman upholstered in different but much too similar fabrics. It was a big project, and a few pieces had shifted in the planning stage. The colors of the fabric were right, but the scale of both was much too close. It was a mistake. Her decorator apologized, they selected a new fabric for the ottoman, and they moved on. It happens to everyone.

The important thing is to do something. To become frozen by fear serves you least of all. The bathroom did end up the highly uninteresting shade of sand that I wanted. The living room was, eventually, a happy glow-y yolky yellow that made me smile every time I walked in or through it. The buffet, sadly, lived in the basement for many years before it found a home with a new family, but I’m sure she’s happy still, chock-full of glassware and linens. In the end, nothing bad happened.

Courage! Do something. Make the mistake. With each of my mistakes I learned something important. Now I buy small test samples of paint. Now, I trust my instinct and say, “No, this isn’t working,” instead of listening to someone else tell me that something I know is not going well is going to be fine. Now, I measure.

Do not be the people whose house looks best right before it goes on the market. Do something. Make the mistake. Make the best decision you can make at the time. Is it a horrible disaster the likes of which you never imagined? Will your mother-in-law remind you of it every holiday for the next 10 years? Who cares? It’s not heart surgery. Very likely no one was killed in the process. Do something! Make the mistake! You can always correct it.

Now What?
Some of the most common mistakes are paint color, fabric choice and misjudging scale. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Choosing a Fabric
There are those of us who can see a 72-inch sofa in a fabric while we are holding a 2-inch by 2-inch swatch in our hands. I hate to say it, but we don’t understand when people can’t. If this is difficult for you, invest in a yard. Even with a very expensive fabric, the cost of one yard may save you an expensive mistake. My living room curtains are Brunschwig & Fils “Le Lac.” The pattern repeat is 81 inches. I’ve seen it on club chairs and think it’s fantastic, but the pattern is very large. It would not be for everyone. If you’re not sure, test.

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Choosing Paint Color
It’s never been easier to test paint color. In the old days (when I first started decorating) you basically had to commit to a gallon to give anything a try. Now, you can buy sample pots in nearly every line. Try a few hues (don’t do what I do and buy one sample, test, dislike, repeat; buy three or four at a time.) Paint large-ish swatches. Check on them throughout the day. (They’re not lonely; the light changes.) Samples are usually available in only one finish. Keep in mind that if you test in satin and paint in flat, the way the light reacts with the paint will change.

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Choosing Furniture
I’ve said this here before, as have several decorators—measure. The space in which we see furniture on display is often large with very high ceilings. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale. As a habitual hunter-gatherer, I try to remember to have a lightweight tape in my bag and nearly always have a larger one in my car. At the point in my life when I was in an “acquiring” phase (lots of empty rooms; little furniture) I carried a hand-drawn floor plan with me as well. This made it easy to see if the table would fit next to the chair or the ottoman was the right size for the sofa.

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