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Renovation & Design

Decorate a home with intention

Michael J. Lee / Washington Post

Interior designer and author Erin Gates uses deep grey painted woodwork to bring drama to a family room. She says the trick to making a home feel ‘done’ is to take time finding the right decor pieces that you love.

Interior designer Erin Gates founded her blog Elements of Style in 2007. She published her first book in 2014 and has just written her second: Elements of Family Style: Elegant Spaces for Everyday Life, with advice for how to live with open-plan kitchens, turn nurseries into big boy and girl rooms and choose durable fabrics. Gates joined Jura Koncius of the Washington Post last week for an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Question: How do you balance wanting your house to feel "done" vs. finding the right/unique pieces for your space?

Answer: I always advise clients to take their time when creating a home, but I understand the need to want it to feel "done." I like to get the main pieces settled quickly so you can live in the house comfortably (for example, it helps to have a sofa and coffee table in the living room or dining table and chairs in the dining room) and then really take your time picking the finishing touches and accents such as wallcoverings, rugs, accessories and art. Wait until you feel strongly about something — be it a pillow or a piece of art — because if you really love it, you will not tire of it. If you’re just buying stuff to "fill" a space, you will end up replacing it and spending twice the money.

Question: How do you integrate kids’ and adults’ needs and styles in one (small) apartment? I want my home to feel like it’s also my kids’ home and that they belong there. But I also don’t want the whole place to feel like it’s one big playroom.

Answer: When it comes to integrating kids into an adult space you can still be proud of, it’s all about storage. We always suggest either ample bookcases or built-ins with lower cabinets to store toys. Also, storage ottomans or benches that can do double duty — such as seating or a coffee table that also can help you put items away. I love to use a lot of attractive big baskets instead of plastic bins to store toys. Look for some with lids (they may be listed as "hampers" online, but they are great for medium-to-larger toys). And thankfully, when it comes to kids’ tables and chairs or play kitchens, there are so many attractive options beyond brightly coloured plastic that you can probably find items that match your decor.

Question: I’m moving into my first apartment this weekend, and I need some advice on how to make the space work. It’s a basement apartment with one window. It’s not sunny, but it’s not exactly a cave, either. I want to make it light and bright — what should I prioritize? I have a full bed and want to buy more stuff.

Answer: With a basement apartment with one window, I’d really focus on keeping things light and bright. Maybe accent the bed wall with a removable wallpaper in a fun pattern? Add a pair of pretty white linen drapes to frame the window and accent the height of the room. Ground it with a nice, light-tone rug that will cosy it up! And make sure you have great lighting options — bedside lamps or plug-in sconces and overhead if you have it, or a floor lamp if not. Having ample light in a darker space is crucial.

Question: What are your best tips for transitioning a nursery into a "big kid" room? I want our nursery to be appropriate for a baby but also able to transition over time without having to replace everything.

Answer: It helps to start from a smart place, so design a nursery that can easily transition — nothing permanent that is too babyish, such as wallpaper, a rug or window treatments. When doing a nursery, I like to keep these pieces age-neutral so they can evolve with the child. Swap the crib for a bed or daybed, update the wall art to something "older," add some more attractive storage for the toys that will accumulate, and you’re good to go. A larger but effective project is to change the wall colour to something a little bolder and less babyish, too.

Question: I’m shopping for family room furniture, and I like sleeker mid-century pieces. I don’t want to reupholster our genuine mid-century modern furniture because I don’t want to stress about my kids spilling anything on a $1,000 sofa, so I’m looking online. How do you know whether online furniture is well-made?

Answer: This is tricky, because shopping for furniture online is a gamble, and it can be very expensive to return something as large as a sofa. If a piece is upholstered, research its material and how it was made. Kiln-dried, hardwood frames are the best for sofas and chairs.

Spring-down cushions will stay much loftier and fresh-looking as opposed to a foam cushion wrapped in down. If these details are not available online, call and ask. Also, make sure you try to use indoor/outdoor or performance-graded fabrics to ease your worry over the kids — they stand up to so much more and are so easy to clean.

Question: We have a seven-month-old son and a pretty traditionally styled home (think Kazak rug and brown leather Chesterfield sofa). Right now, we just throw a blanket on our living-room area rug, where he kicks around and plays with his toys, and put it away when he’s done, but we know he’ll need a bigger and softer floor space as he starts learning to crawl and walk. Do you have any recommendations for attractive play mats, gates or other solutions that blend into our style enough to stay in the room sometimes but also can easily fold up and tuck away?

Answer: I totally understand this issue. There are some play mats these days that are one solid piece of foam or rubber, are rug size, and can be rolled up instead of being in 20 different puzzle pieces!

Pottery Barn Kids just came out with some very cute, neutral ones. I also like Little Nomad. For gates, I just look for the most inconspicuous white gate I can find — but there are some really amazing custom wood baby gates that I have seen in client homes, too, if you want to invest in something custom.

— Washington Post

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