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Tricks of the Trade

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Allusion or Illusion Part 4: Draperies and Built-Ins

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It is easy to assume that draperies, installed over windows hosting an incredible vista, would overshadow a beautiful view. But if those draperies are designed and installed by professionals, they certainly will not. Rather, side panels can actually enhance the view by subtly framing it, as though the landscape beyond is a painting.

Curtains as a Bridge to the Outside

With a simple dip upon the floor, long curtains add an elegance and softness to the hard lines of the window itself. They are the bridge to the outside and, as such, mediate between sky and interior space. But, here’s the catch: they must look flowing and be proportionally scaled to the room. If they are layered with swags upon pronounced swags, it obfuscates the view. They call too much attention to themselves, distracting the viewer. The idea here is to be simple and subtle. If interest is called for, select a fabric with an attractive pattern. Also, if additional drapery is being used in conjunction with the heavier side panels, be sure to use sheers. This creates the necessary contradiction between light and heavy, and ensures proper balance between the two distinct layers.

Pole versus Cornice

When determining whether to use a pole versus a constructed cornice, consider how the wall just beneath the ceiling is configured.  If there are layers of mouldings or if there is a lot going on architecturally, it is beneficial to frame the window with a solid cornice. If, on the other hand, it is a clean piece of wall, a pole will fit just right above the window frame, with no competition.

Sometimes, modern apartments have a series of ganged windows that stop short midway up the wall.  In these instances, roman shades that fall to the top of the sill are most effective.  Set within a pair of side panels, the shades create a perfect composition within the window frame.

The Magic of Built-in Cabinetry

It may not be obvious to some, but built-in cabinetry, when professionally designed and built, enlarges space. That’s because built-ins are unobtrusive and recessive. They are there, and they are not…meaning they don’t call attention to themselves. Couched between two walls, or below a sill, they are function masters, serving as major storage units. Unlike a piece of furniture, this type of cabinetry is subtle. With a unique wood veneer or stunning poly-resin color, they are rich. Or they can be plain white, and still skillfully serve their purpose. In addition, they are non-competitive. They are married to the walls to which they are attached and, for that very reason, they enhance those very planes.

Here’s a professional secret that elevates the scale of the built-in: the insertion of the reveal.  This small space between cabinet and wall, like a musical elide, gracefully transitions the two pieces together.  Most importantly, it gives the cabinet the appearance of floating between walls, achieving a light, airy feel.  If on the floor, the cabinet should have a recessed bottom fascia, adding to the floating aspect.


Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Defining Differences: Decorators, Designers, Contractors, and Architects

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As an interior designer, I am frequently asked about the defining differences between an interior decorator and an interior designer, a contractor and an architect.  It is an insightful question because while the distinctions may seem subtle, they are actually rather radical, and can make all the difference between the intended and finished project.

The Role of the Interior Decorator

Typically, a decorator works only with surface decoration such as paint, fabrics, furnishings, decorative lighting, and materials.  Decorators also design drapery treatments, specify carpeting and rugs, wallpapers, accessories, and other “soft” items.

Decorators do not always have a formal design education.  While they do deal with tradesmen such as painters and wallpaper hangers, their responsibility is limited to the degree to which they can read, interpret, or create drawings.  They do not move walls, lower ceilings, or add any structural enhancements to the space.  If you want to refurbish your home but like the existing plan and feel of the space, and have no desire to make any structural changes, then the services of a decorator should suffice.

The Role of the Interior Designer

Interior designers deal with form and function, space and aesthetics.  In addition to performing all the services of a decorator, they are professionally trained—typically through the NDICQ qualifying exam—to create pleasing environments through interior space manipulation and planning.  An interior designer typically has the following expertise:

- Allocate, organize, and arrange a given space to suit its function

- Identify, research, and creatively resolve design issues

- Design and specify the type of lighting (such as cove lighting, down lights, etc.) and/or the design of light fixtures

- Monitor and manage construction and installation of the design

- Select and specify plumbing fixtures, furnishings, products, materials, hardware, and colors

- Design and supervise fabrication of custom furnishings

- Develop documents and specifications relative to interior spaces (manuals and schedules delineating the plumbing, finish, hardware, paint, lighting schedules)

- Help establish project goals and objectives

The Role of the Contractor

Contractors implement the design drawings, taking direction from the aesthetic directives of the decorator, designer, or architect. Caveat Emptor: Contractors do not design; they build.  His (or her) expertise is in the implementation of a design, not in its creation.  Contractors do not choose colors, fabrics, or finishes. They do not design kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, etc.  The homeowner that chooses a contractor in place of an interior designer or architect cuts out the most vital step of the design process: the vision, the creation, the style, the good taste.

In addition, when a contractor performs an architect’s job, he removes a checks and balances system vital to the consumer.  There is no one to oversee the contractor’s precision or attention to detail. A good contractor is vital to the success of the project, but he is there as the facilitator of the design, not as the creator of it.



The Role of the Architect

Like the interior designer, architects mold and manipulate space to create aesthetically pleasing and well functioning homes or offices for the client.  Architects are knowledgeable about the mechanics of finishes and materials; “structures,” or the how and why things work the way they do; and the surrounding environment’s relationship to their creation. The major differences between an interior designer and an architect are the architect’s education, training, and experience and their ability to create new structures from the ground up.  They are typically not trained in, and customarily not interested in, the finishing of a space, that is, its decoration. I say typically because until the latter part of the 20th century, most architects focused on buildings and houses.  More recently, however, they have extended their domain to include interior renovations, encroaching somewhat into the designer’s territory.

The residential architect can be masterful in creating a satisfactory built environment, inside and out.  But this is more the domain of the “design architect,” one whose interests veer towards combining great design with great structure.  They are interested in the implementation of a master plan and the outfitting of its interiors.

The best projects combine the skills and abilities of the architect, the interior designer, and the decorator.  It is rare, however, to find a firm or individual who can successfully bring all three skill sets into play.  Josef Hoffman, Charles Rene Mackintosh, Robert Adam, William Morris, Rossetti, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier are among those icons who have done such, designing beautiful environments inside and out. More common is the confrontation among the three professions, rather than their seamless integration. When the designer or decorator places furniture incongruous to the structure, or when the architect designs space without consideration for how the furnishings will be laid out, then the client suffers. Happily, more and more design professionals are teaming up, creating comprehensive design networks to better serve the end product and their clients.


Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Allusion or Illusion, part 3: Pocket Doors, Carpeting, and Lighting

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Pocket doors create magic by disappearing into walls and economizing space. One minute they are here; the next, they are gone. How? Slits in the adjacent walls act as “pockets” for the doors so that, when the doors are fully opened, you don’t even know they exist. But, pull them out and they do their job and then some. Magic! The doors themselves can be innocuous, just plainly floating in and out of the wall, or they can be works of art, designed, detailed, and visually delightful.

The mahogany pocket doors in the image are composed of a mirrored pattern on one side, while its opposite side is made of sandblasted glass. You get two-for-one here because glass or mirror can be laminated to each other, creating different visual effects on opposing planes, like the sides of a coin.

Pocket doors add a decorative element when closed, and disappear into the walls when fully opened.

Don’t have enough room in your walls to build in a pair of pocket doors? How about a barn door? Built correctly and designed properly, it can create a similar effect. Here, one moment a full door slides over the opening. The next, it becomes wall, sliding over the piece of sheetrock adjacent to the opening and creating a double wall-like effect. It is deceiving in its simplicity. Like the pocket door, there is room for creativity here with decoration possible on each side. Magic or not, these two type of doors do the trick!

A barn-style door is a practical, decorative solution when the walls can’t accommodate a pocket door.


Another trick behind enlarging space is to lay wall-to-wall carpeting down throughout the major connected spaces. This makes the room feel larger and more balanced. Alternatively, do as the Europeans do—place an area rug right on top of the wall-to-wall. This serves to distinguish the highlighted area, while maintaining an even, smooth look.

The best kind of carpeting to use is a cut-and-knot style carpet. A plush, solid cut carpeting reflects footprints, whereas a cut-and-knot is flatter and thus less impressionable. It also reflects the light in an interesting way, giving a two-tone look to the floor.

The broad expanse of carpeting unifies the furnishings and enhances this room’s restful feel.


Light is one of the designer’s basic tools through which his architectural invention is reflected. Without light, neither the aesthetics nor the function of a room would be visible. When cleverly employed, light can create subtle refinements of space. Lighting can be direct and indirect, focused and ambient.

There are two types of light: natural and artificial. With artificial light, the designer or architect uses different types of illumination to create mood and purpose. Cove lighting (also called “up lighting”) and down lighting are two functional and indirect types of lighting. With down lights, light is recessed into the ceiling, casting a downward beam. When placed in a soffit, it can be a particularly useful tool for displaying art. When placed in a kitchen over the cabinets, its glow reflects the counters below. Here, it sheds light in a consistent, yet focused stream, giving the illusion of light all around. Like cove lighting, it enlightens and enhances the area.

The lighting here is tucked away in a soffit, providing a gentle, unobtrusive glow.


Friday, November 19th, 2010

Allusion or Illusion, part 2: Mirrors, and Furniture Placement

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Here are more sleights of hand that the professional designer and architect employ to create the illusion of space.


Mirrors expand space in addition to reflecting light. When placed in a narrow hallway, a mirror opens up that area at seminal junctures. When placed diagonally across from a window, it opens up the view even further by reflecting it. As an added bonus, if the wall colors surrounding the mirror are light, it adds to the wall’s reflectivity. Putting mirrors on every wall, including the ceiling, will not enhance the room, but rather make it look ridiculous. A true professional knows how to and how not to use mirrors to advantage.

Ever been in a bathroom with floor to ceiling mirrors? These mirrors, with their clean, stainless steel edge, basically disappear. They recess into the wall or woodwork, so that while you get the full effect of their function, the eye reads it as the space it is reflecting, rather than as a mirror.

In the picture below, the mirror is placed within the confines of the built-in cabinetry. All one sees reflected is the room’s double. You get double the space for free. It is inexpensive, non-existent space, but the illusion of space just the same.

In the second image, mirrors are placed on the pair of doors. Here, again, what is reflected is infinitely more interesting and spectacular than the mirror itself. Looking at the doors, one only sees the frame, per se, because the mirrors capture the inside of the room with such elegance and subtlety that the viewer is not even aware of their existence.

Furniture Placement

As to the magic behind furniture placement, common sense dictates. Too many
do-it-yourselfers align pieces with the direction of the room, so that a long couch will sit against a long wall. This only serves to emphasize the length of the room. Instead, furniture should be placed against the grain. When you position the couch/s perpendicular to the long wall, it creates a more harmonious, balanced effect. It squares the room, if you will, into a more natural geometric configuration.

In many living rooms where there is a wall of windows directly on axis with entering, the common misconception is not to put any furniture against that window wall. However, when you do align the sofa with the window wall you get a particularly harmonious relationship: The windows magically frame the sofa and the sofa magically gives the draperies or window frame a sense of scale relative to the furniture in the room.

In the photo below, the couches are set on visual axis parallel to the window wall. It becomes a destination point, an eye-stop, putting closure to the vista, instead of allowing the eye to roam out the window to some unspecified outdoor location. Then, to make the room even more defined and balanced, the professional designer knows to square the opposing sofas with a set of club chairs, and if space allows, an opposing set of ottomans facing the chairs. This will fill in and define the living space without it looking like a furniture showroom or office. Balance, order, and harmony rule.

Coming in the next Tricks of the Trade: A Professional’s Perspective blog: The “magic” of pocket doors, carpeting and lighting.


Friday, October 29th, 2010

Allusion or Illusion?

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As an interior designer for over twenty-five years, I have learned how to create space through the use of what I term “design magic,” ideas that contribute towards successful design. The premise underlying “Tricks of the Trade: A Professional’s Perspective” is my belief that effective design is achieved through a series of manipulative “twists of the wrist,” magic made by a professional.  By exploring the secrets behind timeless design, I hope to reveal how, through the sculpting and carving of space and the use of different and interesting materials and finishes, a designer creates magic.  “Tricks of the Trade” explains how these twists are created and then brought to fruition.

If sleight of hand is the magician’s forte, then sleight of imagination is the professional designer’s expertise. What distinguishes the so-called ‘do-it-yourself’ decorator from a real pro is basically the magic they create in sculpting and creating space. No mere pretty pink polka-dots on a wall, but perhaps a floating wall, one which seems to exist in space with no apparent support. Is this magic or professional know-how? It is both one and the same. It is an understanding of how a room can be made to look other than it is, and for a space to be constructed to look as though its imperfections were perfectly manicured.

Challenging Spaces Become Features

Consider the narrow passageway. The professional knows that by dropping the ceiling, the side walls “seem” to expand in breadth, thereby giving the sense of increased space. Was the space really widened? Was the neighbor’s apartment encroached upon? Of course not. It is simply a trick of the trade. Another bit of magic can be employed to make a floor appear larger than it is. By tiling or laying the floor on the diagonal, it appears to open up the space spreading off into some undetermined distance. Put a border around it and the magic is destroyed, the illusion cut short.

The Big Impact of Small Spaces

When visiting Malmaison outside of Paris last week, I noticed an abundance of antechambers—spaces designed to create the expectation of surprise and a breathing area, like a stop in music, where one waits in wonder as to what comes next. Often, these antechambers have dropped ceilings so as to create a sense of enclosure while simultaneously making the entering space feel even larger and more majestic. This sculpted drama is sensual in its appeal of the unknown. And then, when the individual passes into the major room, it is grander than thought. Back here in the United States, the entry foyer creates this same magic. By carving out a space, albeit small, it serves as a preface of what is to come. Again, it gives the illusion of grandeur beyond. So as not to enter directly into the living room, it is a transition area for circulation and surprise. What exactly lies beyond this curved wall, or veiled panel? There is really a type of physics going on here, as one lessens the feel of one area, the conjoining area seems enlarged. Niches do a similar thing; they carve out space, yet make it look larger. They create diversity and a sculpted sense that something lies beyond and within.

The Intrigue of the Half-Wall

Another bit of magic is that created by the half-wall. Instead of building all the way up to the ceiling and thereby closing off a space, a half- or three-quarter wall is created to divide spaces, while maintaining an open, airy feeling. These partial walls, which may be made of glass block, cabinetry, sheet rock, sandblasted glass, metal, basically any material, add interest and intrigue. It begs the question of what is beyond…. and yet visually it is completely open. This too is magic, as the viewer must now postulate on what lies ahead.

These are just a few of the sleights of hand, flights of imagination that the professional designer and architect conjure up to create the magic of space.

Coming in the next blog: The “magic” of mirrors, pocket doors, and perfectly placed furniture.

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