Although the rooms pictured in glossy decorating magazines may look as if they were effortlessly pulled together, that's rarely the case. Whether designed by a do-it-yourselfer or a professional interior designer, the chances are very good that a great deal of trial and error went into the process of achieving such photogenic perfection.
But of course no one ever mentions that. So we're left with the impression that some creative genius, an artist possessing the kind of exquisite taste that we will never have, simply whipped up a wonderful room overnight.
But while home design is undoubtedly an art, it is also a science. And, as a science, it relies in a large part on experimentation and calculation. Professional designers spend a good deal of their time taking precise measurements -- of rooms, windows, doorways, hallways, mantels and every single stick of furniture.
They assemble photographs of furnishings and accessories and gather swatches of carpeting, upholstery, curtain fabric, wall coverings and paint chips. For all practical purposes, the pros design a room on a drawing board first, in a precise and methodical manner.
We mere mortals, however, usually lack the time, talent, training and resources to do that. Deciding in advance how to design and decorate a room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling is beyond most of us. There are too many variables and too many decisions. Where do you start? The walls? The floors? The furniture? The window treatments?
The truth is, it doesn't really matter where you start, just as long as you start somewhere. And it often helps to start small. Instead of viewing a problem room in its entirety, break it down into manageable parts. Divide and conquer.
Start by settling on a general look and mood for the room. Formal? Informal? Cozy and warm? Open and light?
Next, break the room down into individual problem zones. Choose one zone -- a dull corner, a bay window, a fireplace focal point -- and define its shortcomings.
Then devise possible solutions to that particular zone. Don't even try to visualize the entire room as finished. Don't get distracted by the room's other flaws. Instead, focus your attention and concentrate your efforts on that single area.
And feel free to experiment. Shuffle things around. Does the easy chair look better pushed up against the wall or positioned at a slight an- gle? Should there be a table next to it, a lamp beside it, framed artwork above it, a big plant behind it or a footstool in front? Borrow furnishings and accessories from other rooms just to get an idea of how your composition can be arranged (particularly before you go out and buy new furnishings).
Naturally, the decisions you make about the one small area you're working on will influence the decisions you make down the line. But that's good. It automatically limits your choices, reduces the confusion and establishes precedents -- in terms of style, color and pattern -- that you can follow as you move on to other areas of the room. So stay focused on your target area. Solve its problems before moving on.
There are several advantages to this step-by-step approach to decorating. For one thing, you gain a sense of control when you have a project of manageable proportions. And it gives you momentum, letting you build on your successes as time, energy and finances allow.
And there is another distinct advantage as well. What you will almost certainly discover is that, once you've redecorated a specific problem area, the rest of the room doesn't look nearly as bad as it used to. Little changes go a long way. Sometimes all you need is a new slipcover on the easy chair to bring a corner of the room to life or a new painting over the fireplace or new toss pillows on the sofa. Or sometimes all that's needed is a fresh coat of paint for the walls.
But if more than one change needs to be made, just repeat the process. Let the decisions you made in problem zone 1 guide you in problem zone 2. But ponder options and alternatives. Instead of slipcovering the sofa in the same fabric as the easy chair, choose a different, but compatible, fabric and then use the chair's slipcover fabric to cover the sofa's pillows or to trim the draperies.
What you should be aiming for is compatibility, not necessarily uniformity. Matching is less attractive than mixing.
In the end, the attention you lavished on areas individually will pay off collectively. Instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of redecorating, you will have triumphed a little bit at a time. And that's the triumph of quality over quantity.