Home Design 101: Expert Tips from Laurie Smith

an interior designer looking over swatches, home plans, and more - Home Design

Subsequent to my design debut on TLC’s Trading Spaces, over 20 years ago, I have been fortunate to share my approach to designing a space countless times. No matter how my palette or use of materials changes through the years, the rudiments of how I design a room remain the same. 

I like to refer to the first step as evaluating the space. 

a stylish living room with green walls and a pink sofa
Courtesy of @matthewcarterinteriors

What is the function of the space? Is it a place where many gather to socialize or is it a personal retreat shared by only a few at a time?  Sometimes it takes emptying out a room to see it with fresh eyes. Take detailed measurements, notice window placement and architectural elements such as a fireplace or bookshelves. What draws to the space? Is it the high ceilings, hardwood floors or beautiful tile?  If so, those are items you can enhance in the design process. Or perhaps these elements are lacking, and you can focus your efforts to correct inadequacies in the space. Evaluating each space in your home helps you decide whether you need structural changes or merely some cosmetic updates.

The second critical step is determining your layout. 

Furniture layout is the foundation of the room’s design. If furniture placement and the traffic patterns around it are incorrect, the design will not be successful. It is amazing how merely rotating a chair can make an impact. Does the space have multiple uses like a living room with a functional desk or an eat-in kitchen? 

a layout of a home - CAD drawing
Courtesy of @jhinteriordesign

How the space flows and accessibility is key. A fool proof way to play with layout if you are not proficient with CAD, is to take your detailed measurements from when you evaluated your space, measure your furniture, and pull out a trusty piece of graph paper. I like to cut out my furniture shapes and move them around like pieces of a puzzle. In this step you can determine if the scale of your furniture is harmonious with the space. Remember you want at least 12-14 inches between a coffee table and the edge of a sofa cushion.

a library with a large yellow couch in the middle
Courtesy of @jhinteriordesign

Mix wood furniture with upholstered furniture and make sure the furniture varies in heights to add visual interest. Challenge yourself to be more of a curator and a decorator when choosing furniture. Spend time falling in love with pieces because of their uniqueness and solid construction.

Addressing the lighting is a vital third step. 

Lighting is possibly the most powerful tool in design. What is the point of investing in furniture, fabrics, accessories and artwork if a room is poorly lit? While there are entire courses in design school dedicated to lighting, there are three basic sources available in design. 

a library with a white couch and lots of natural lighting
Courtesy of @helenehoue

The first is natural light. 

When you evaluate your space, pay attention to window placement and daylight intensity. These factors not only will contribute to your lighting plan, but will determine how you dress your windows and position your furniture. 

Second light source is lamp light which I love for its warmth and how it grounds a space. 

Sometimes the body of a lamp is timeless and can receive an update by simply changing a shade. 

The third light source is recessed lighting or ceiling fixtures. 

A wonderful ceiling fixture can make a dramatic impression, but a ceiling that looks like Swiss cheese with too many light cans is a mistake. Be deliberate in the placement and my most important advice…

Always install dimmers to your wall receptacles! 

You will thank me at the end of the day. 

The most fun part for me in the design process is deciding your textiles which naturally flows into accessory and art choice.

different frabic swatches
Courtesy of @serenadigan

I often work with the largest upholstered piece first or maybe it is a rug or floor tile that is your primary pattern. Regardless, you add interest to a space by combing different textures and patterns. Coordinate colors in a space instead of matching them. Introduce an unexpected hue to create a bit of “healthy tension.” Allow geometrics and florals to reside together and let small and large scale patterns play off each other to create personality.

a young person's room with a yellow and blue color scheme
Courtesy of @sarah_w_studios

Lastly, I cannot stress enough, wall color should be the final step in your design process. 

a light blue bedroom with a chair
Courtesy of @collins_interiors

I know you may think, “but the first thing you always revealed on Trading Spaces was the wall color?” That is simply because we had less than two days to design a room. In reality, I encourage you to go through the previous steps and then determine your wall color based on the above factors. Consider your wall color the icing on the cake. It is much easier to take a fantastic textile and color match a subtle or dominant color at the paint store than the inverse. 

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