I hesitated before asking my office neighbor, interior designer Ken Olsen, if I could pay him to come to my new house to give his opinion of what I’d done so far, and what I should do.
The minute he agreed, I panicked. I learned long ago not to ask questions to which you might not like the answers. (Does this skirt make my butt look big? No, your butt makes your butt look big.) And here I was setting myself in the crosshairs of criticism. How does my house look?
As someone who writes about home design, and has professionally staged and designed many homes, I like to think I don’t need professional help. But I know my limits. I can make a home look good, but a talented designer can take a home from good to great.
Ken had been to the house before, right after my husband and I bought it and before we’d installed hardwood floors throughout and painted every vertical surface, so he knew what I’d started with. He’d also walked through my last house, so he knew what furniture I had to work with. Now he would see, for better or worse, what I’d done in the two months since.
“Do I need to bring anything?” he asked, as we left our office building together.
“Just your brain and your mouth,” I said.
Besides his obvious talent, the trait I appreciate most in Ken is his straight-shooting honesty. “I used to tell people what they wanted to hear,” he told me, “but then I thought, why? They are paying me for what I think.”
Did I really want to know? Too late. We’d arrived.
“You’re lucky so much of your old furniture works here,” he said, as he looked around, though we both agreed a few pieces needed replacing.
“I tried to do the best with what I had,” I said, feebly.
As we walked the house, he offered suggestions and pointed out the hits and misses, validating and educating. And you know what? It didn’t even hurt.
Even if you have a knack, when decorating your own home, have someone with a trained eye help you dial in the last 10 percent.
Here are some of the hits and misses Ken pointed out:
Surprising use of color. I had painted all the closet interiors in bold accent colors -- Sherwin-Williams Secure Blue, Quite Coral, and Clary Sage -- leaving the shelves white. “It’s a nice surprise when you open the door and expect white,” he said. He also liked that I added these accent colors on certain walls, and to the backs of book shelves.
Shelf styling. After taking a critical look at the books and accessories on my living room built-ins, Ken declared, “No change. They’re just right.” (Phew! My best friend, Susan, and I had recently given these bookshelves a careful edit and applied my shelf décor rule: one-third books, one-third ornamental objects, one-third empty space. It works.)
The unexpected. In my home office, my French carved desk is central, and European-inspired art hangs on the wall. I thought Ken would for sure nix the cowhide rug, calling it a non-sequitur. When he didn’t, I asked: “Do I need a more traditional rug?” I braced for an unwanted answer. “I like the rug,” he said. “It’s unexpected. Plus, you’re from the West. It reflects your roots.”
Blocked fireplace. Ken’s first fix happened in the living room. “Why are these in front of the fireplace?” he asked about two armchairs I had placed before the hearth, across from a sofa. “Uh, so guests can reach the coffee table?” I said. He pulled the chairs back and over, so they flanked the fireplace and opened up the room. “You don’t want to hide the room’s best feature,” he said. (Duh! Smack.) The new arrangement was clearly better.
Over-accessorized kitchen cabinets. In the kitchen, which he agreed was largely done, he wanted fewer accessories in the space between the cabinets and the ceiling. I had five large accessories there, (which I’d whittled down from seven). He wanted to remove two more, a painted tray and a basket, and leave only three: a pair of ceramic chickens, a large wooden egg crate, and a piece of word art I like that says “Home.” “The eye needs a place to rest,” he said of the newly created empty space.
Awkward sofa placement. In the family room, I had created an L-shaped sofa arrangement from a seven-foot sofa and a matching five-foot love seat. The long sofa faced the television wall. I’d placed the love seat on the left, where its back paralleled the glass doors to the patio. “No one wants to feel as if someone could sneak up behind them,” Ken said, and, though we agreed that ultimately an L-shaped sectional would be better for this room, the return needed to be on the right. We moved the love seat to the right, where it backed to a wall, improved flow and allowed views to the patio.
Lopsided bedroom. I had arranged the guestroom furniture – a queen bed and two nightstands – to accommodate the swing of a closet door, which opened out and needed 30-inches clearance. So the door could open 180 degrees and not hit a nightstand, I slid the furniture away from the closet, which opened up space on one side of the room, while crowding the furniture on the other. Designing around that door was a mistake, Ken said. “Trust your guests to be careful.” We moved the furniture closer to the closet, which let the room breathe. The closet door can still open 90 degrees, allowing full access.
As Ken was leaving, I had one more question: “When you’re working on your own house, do you ever ask for an outside opinion?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “You can’t see your own home objectively. In my own place, I make mistakes.”
Ken. I like his honesty.