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Correction to This Article
In the first paragraph of the story it incorrectly states that Elizabeth Mayhew was an editor at Shop, Etc. She was an editor at Real Simple.
Decorating Advice, Step by Simple Step

By Lindsey Rowe
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Elizabeth Mayhew was at a photo shoot with her 4-year-old son in 2004 when she found the inspiration for her new book, "Flip! for Decorating" (Ballantine Books, $24). Mayhew, then an editor for a magazine called Shop, Etc., watched the photographer take hundreds of digital photos that when lined up gave the appearance of slow-motion movement, and she started fixating on the idea of a flip book about home design.

Fast forward five years: Mayhew's first book is exactly that, a horizontal handbook that one can flip through to see four rooms put together step by step, with tips and informative sidebars on transforming your home. "This is a decorating guidebook," she says. "You're supposed to flip for it, literally."

While studying art history at Georgetown University in the late 1980s, Mayhew, now a contributing editor for House Beautiful magazine and the "Today" show, started a catering business and unwittingly set forth to become a lifestyle expert.

Mayhew, 40, slims her years of design know-how into 243 pages, using her own Manhattan apartment as the example. She gives advice on finding the simplest and best ways to change up decor, including five paint colors that will make any home better.

Mayhew recently shared her excitement about paint color, among other things, with us by telephone.

What was your inspiration for this book?

Not a day goes by when I don't get a phone call from a friend who says, "What color should I paint my walls? Where should I hang this picture?" I've been this go-to girl for my friends, and I know what they need to know. And I know from the magazine world what seems to be missing out there: a really simple guide that demystifies the hardness of decorating. Most people are terrified by decisions, and what this book intends to do is hold your hand through the process.

The other thing that I think I really wanted to do is this idea of step-by-step styling. I think people buy stuff but they don't know how to put it together. If I tell you and I show you step by step, you can mimic that.

If you had to boil all your rules and tips down to three or four, what would they be?

My top rule . . . is that I cannot stand anything in an angle in a corner of a room. I like everything squared off. I hate it when people put a dresser in a corner and it cuts off the corner of a bedroom; it's awful to have that weird dead space behind the chest that you can never get to.

I also cannot stand overhead glaring light. I feel like people rely more on overhead lighting than they should. It is so much nicer and so much more flattering to have ambient lighting in a room.

I think every room needs something tall. You need something that brings your eye up. This is what I learned in art history. Your eye needs to move around a room; it needs to move around a canvas.

Also, a lot of decorators say start with the rug. That's because a great rug is so expensive. I'd rather start with my most important piece of furniture, which for the bedroom, it's the bed; for the living room, it's the sofa; for the dining room, it's the table. You need that solid thing that's going to get the most use that really is what the room is built for. I'd rather see someone buy one good thing, something they really need, and do the rest over time.

Sometimes the most simple decorating projects, such as arranging bookshelves or accessorizing a side table, are the hardest. Why?

The only thing that's hard about these is editing. People need to think more like an archivist or like you're putting together an exhibit. You don't go out and put out every single painting by an artist; you put out a few when you're doing any kind of tablescape or tableau. . . . If there's too much to look at, then you don't look at anything. And then you want to add a little pop of color and something living, and then you're done.

If you like the other stuff, put it away and bring it out another time. I have a friend who has framed pictures, but she rotates the pictures. It might involve a little bit of work, but it allows her to have that change, and she doesn't have them all out at once.

You have said that paint is the best way to transform a room. What are additional options?

Invite friends over, you have a little party, and you see where people sit and where they move, and it will give you a very good clue as to how correctly or incorrectly you've arranged your furniture. It's not that hard to arrange furniture, but sometimes people are lazy or don't do it.

In this recession, prices for home furnishings really matter. What are some of your favorite pieces from chain retailers?

I think Target is out-of-control brilliant and amazing. You can find such good lighting and pieces that up until this point would not have ever been available. I think you can go into Target and do everything top to bottom in your house.

I love West Elm; all of their textiles are really incredible. I think they do really great throw pillows that can totally transform a sofa. West Elm also has all of those white squares chairs, which are great-looking. They do lots of little occasional tables. If you don't have a nice coffee table, buy two of those and push them together.

I love Cost Plus World Market. You never know what they're going to have, but it reminds me of when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, what Pier 1 Imports was. It has that world-market discovery feel that I love.

My other favorite is Pearl River [in New York City]. In Chinatown you can find such great tableware, and plates for a dollar that you can put on a coffee table and look great. You can find textiles and lacquer boxes and vases that are incredibly inexpensive but taken out of context are just incredible.

These are the places that, when I really have to do a budget makeover, I go to, aside from resale shops and consignment shops.

Your advice on the final pages of the book is how to make a bed. What is so special about your method?

I went to an all-girls camp in Wisconsin called Red Pine Camp, and our motto was to make ladies out of girls. And every day we had an inspection and had our beds checked. It's cool making those folds like origami, those nice pleats; it doesn't take that much time. It's something that when you're taught to do it right, it's easy.

I can't tell you how rewarding it is to come home and get in that bed because it's just so neat and nice. Like when you fold a sheet of white paper, it's that same kind of crispness.

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