Learning By Design

Susanna Salk’s tips will help you decorate your home like a pro

March 30, 2012

Susanna Salk is not a designer. She tells readers that in the introduction to her new design book, “Be Your Own Decorator” (Rizzoli, $45).

Without formal training, Salk has created some spectacular spaces, utilizing bold color choices and a flair for accessorizing. She’s pulled it off by learning from the work of famed designers like Bunny Williams, Kelly Wearstler and Nate Berkus. And anyone can do it, Salk says.

We spoke with Salk, a regular “Today” show contributor and former editor for “Elle Decor” and “House & Garden,” to learn how average homeowners can turn their own pads into places worthy of a glossy magazine spread.

Why do so many people have trouble when it comes to decorating their homes?

They’re locked into all these rules that they can’t do that or have to be careful of this. There are a few things to obviously guide you, but ironically, they’re usually rules or guidelines that encourage you to be more whimsical and have fun rather than be careful. Home decorating is a lot less expensive than we think. We think it has to be a total redo or that everything has to cost a lot. I’ve always done my own design inspired by top designers’ work on a budget, and it’s amazing how people always compliment me on the least expensive pieces in my house.

People are often afraid of doing something wrong. But you advocate against the idea of a perfect room.

Perfect rooms are like hotel rooms. Perfect means matchy. I think people have begun to understand that it’s more about mixing styles and periods, or mixing an antique you inherited with something from Target. If you only display pieces that you love in the way that you actually use your room, it’s going to look great.

But a lot of people get intimidated by the idea of mixing and matching pieces in a room. What’s the secret?

What are they intimidated about? That the police are going to come and arrest them? I don’t know what everyone is scared about, what they think is going to happen. Is there anything more boring than all antiques in a room? It makes you want to go to sleep; it’s like a museum. Even designers who love antiques never put them all together. If anything, be afraid of doing what you think you should do, because that’s the wrong avenue to pick.

Did you find that the designers you talked with were willing to share their expertise?

They were so generous. Designers all want the world to be a more beautiful place. They’re not selfish at all. Designers are all about helping people to live more beautifully and not be so fearful when it comes to home design.

How should a designer’s work that might appear in a magazine or book inspire the average homeowner?

It’s about taking the bits and pieces of the room. You’re not going to translate them all directly. Instead you might say, oh look how this designer hung all these pictures in different vintage frames above the sofa. I thought all of the frames had to be the same. Well, I’m going to do that in my office.

What are some of the most surprising things you learned when working on this book?

A lot of people think small rooms have to be white, because they’re small. But what you see a lot is how designers will layer in a small space a lot of patterns and color to make it feel like a jewel box. Hanging pictures below waist level all the way down to the ground, hanging pictures in interesting clusters — designers are constantly shaking up what we think is not going to look right so that it looks absolutely fabulous.

When it comes to choosing colors, you recommend that readers use their feelings as a guide. Why?

You want a color that you are drawn to, that makes you happy. Orange makes me really happy, so I always have orange in places. Find the colors you like. I don’t like pastels; I hate soft yellows. But I like canary yellow. I know all this from places like Pinterest [a website where members can share and archive photos] or looking through magazines. You’ve got to get to know what colors you love. You have to really expose your eye to a lot of colors to see what makes you feel good.

How important is editing, or removing things from a room?

If you don’t have one dime to do anything, at least edit your room. If something has been the same way for more than five years, move it around or take it out. Is every piece in your room necessary and enjoyable to you? If everything in your room means something to you, great. But if it doesn’t, take away something and you will look at it in a whole new way.

Why do you say every room needs a little bit of whimsy?

Whimsy is really about infusing your personality into the room. You feel the sense of the person behind those choices. I don’t mean whimsy like crazy ha-ha, but something unexpected should be in every room. Why not put a family portrait in the bathroom or mudroom? It delights the eye.

 

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