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Decorating and Design Tips From Gary McBournie
Designer Gary McBournie creates sophisticated spaces that live comfortably
Boston designer Gary McBournie has been appearing in the pages of Traditional Home since May 1993. He has an unerring ability to create sophisticated spaces that live comfortably, invariably featuring colors that feel both fresh and familiar.
Develop a floor plan
A floor plan is your roadmap to success. Don’t be intimidated and think architects-only. You can do this. A floor plan is simply a measured drawing of the space that allows you to play with furniture size and placement. It is so worth spending some time with a measuring tape and graph paper before investing in fine furniture that ultimately may not be suited for the space.
Get the “envelope” right
One of my biggest challenges is convincing clients to focus on “the envelope.” Furnishings are only part of the puzzle. You need to consider floor type and color, the texture of the walls and ceilings, and architectural details such as moldings, cornices, and casings. Sometimes just gutsier baseboards, door casings, and window trims are exactly what is needed to give a room the desired gravitas.
Scale is huge
Scale is a key element of design. We’ve all gone into a room and felt uncomfortable because the furnishings seemed either too large, too small or all the same size. I deal with this by focusing on ceiling heights. If the ceilings are high, I like larger scale upholstery to help bridge the gap between the floor and ceiling. If the ceilings are low, regardless of the room size, I prefer longer, lower upholstered pieces accentuated with taller, thinner objects such as floor lamps, bookcases and open arm chairs. This is one area where you need to “listen” to what the room is telling you.
Furnish for multi-function
When developing a furniture plan, consider the use and benefits of the room. Create more than one appealing space within the room to maximize use and enjoyment. In a living room, avoid the standard sofa and two chairs as your only arrangement, for example. Consider a love seat at another end of the room or another pair of chairs or even some stools for extra seating. In a bedroom, consider a chair and ottoman for reading the morning paper or a dressing table with an upholstered sitting piece.
Pick a starting point for your palette
Try to find one special thing that inspires you. It could be anything from a piece of art to a pattern of fabric to the view just outside the windows. Choose three to five colors and don’t be intimidated! Some of the colors may only show up in a pillow or a trim as accents.
Paint well and wisely
Paint is one of the least expensive decorating tools at your disposal. If you paint a room and you don’t like the color, simply repaint! I recommend doing sample boards before you splash your entire house with color. Most paint stores will sell you small amounts just for this purpose. Once your samples are prepared, leave them out and look at them. How do they look at different times of the day? If you have a palette for a suite of rooms or an entire house, do the colors work together? One important tip: Take the time and properly sand, caulk, and prime the walls and the trim. The payoff for this extra bit of work is huge!
Connect your spaces
Make sure that your rooms “talk” to each other. The colors and designs of rooms that are adjacent or open to each other should relate. Pull the background color out of a fabric print from a pillow or chair in one room and use it as the wall color in the adjoining space. I tend to keep the trim color the same from room to room, which only serves to reinforce the “conversation.”
Indulge in upholstery
Spend the few extra dollars to fill your upholstery with down or at least use down-wrapped cushions. The luxury experience is worth the cost. Also, don't forget about pillows. They need to provide comfort so, again, use down stuffers.
Here’s a cost-saving tip: Per square inch, a good pillow can be wildly expensive. I typically wait until the end of a project to create uniquely patterned pillows fashioned from scraps left over from the draperies, sofas, and chairs.
Treat your windows well
To minimize sun damage, double line your drapery panels. This will also aid in darkening the room to help you sleep. Install shades behind the draperies to enrich the design. I prefer matchstick or bamboo blinds or a custom roman shade.
Worth the cost: Off-the-shelf adjustable drapery hardware can make it very difficult to slide your draperies. A custom-cut drapery rod is a good investment and will save you years of aggravation.
Create pools of light with lamps and avoid excessive use of overhead cans. I also consider lampshades to be a worthy decorative element. Bring your lamp to a specialty shop and seek some advice with respect to size, proportion, and material of the shade. Then trim the shade with decorative flourishes that relate to the room decor.
Here’s another tip: Always install high/low switches on the lamp cords so you can vary the light around a room to create that special ambience.
Be generous with small tables
We all want to make our guests as comfortable as possible. If the coffee table is your only table in a living room grouping, it is a long reach for your guests to place their drinks. Small side tables, whether a small cocktail table or a broken up set of nesting tables, will allow your guests to settle in and enjoy whatever is happening in your space.
Accessorize and make it personal!
Accessories are your opportunity to make your space unique. Inventory what you already have before heading to the store. Shells collected on treasured family vacations look great scattered on tables and atop books; a bag of childhood marbles can be displayed in that great cut glass bowl that you usually take out only at holidays; frame some of those old family photos and display them on consoles, end tables, or bookcases for all to see and enjoy.
To view more of Gary’s designs, see Designer Gary McBournie: Through the Years in Traditional Home.