Timeless Home Decorating Tips

Edith Wharton’s Advice: Stick to a Muted Palette

What she said: “The fewer colors used in a room, the more pleasing and restful the result will be,” said Edith Wharton (1862-1937), in The Decoration of Houses (1897). Before winning a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, Wharton was a decorating pioneer, advising people to steer clear of the overstuffed furniture, the gloomy colors, and the multitude of knickknacks characteristic of the Victorian era. The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, was restored in 2002 and is currently open to the public.

Why it works: With a restricted palette, colors recede into the background, allowing the furnishings and the accessories to take center stage. Here, the limited color scheme lets the curves of the table and the chairs stand out. The walls are painted in a tone similar to that of the area rug, and the moldings are painted a bright white to echo the curtains and the upholstery.

More of Her Advice:

  • On switching things up: “It (is) not unusual to have several…sets of curtains and slip-covers…changed with the seasons. This simple form of decoration has the additional charm of variety. The hangings…of the queen’s bedroom at Versailles were changed four times a year.”
  • On stair carpets: “(They) should be of a strong full color and, if possible, without pattern. It is fatiguing to see a design meant for a horizontal surface constrained to follow the ins and outs of a flight of steps.”
  • On streamlining a space: “Decorators know how much the simplicity and dignity of a good room are diminished by crowding it with useless trifles.”

Elsie de Wolfe’s Advice: Arrange Small Pictures on a Dresser



What she said: “Keep the framed photographs on the writing table, the dressing table, the mantel…but do not hang them on your walls,” said Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950), in The House in Good Taste (1913). De Wolfe’s self-proclaimed mission was to lighten up early-20th-century homes burdened with Victorian excess. She swapped superfluous bric-a-brac for simple, well-proportioned pieces.

Why it works: “Small pictures look like visual noise on a wall,” says Andrew Flesher, an interior designer in Minneapolis. But they can pump up the personality of an otherwise ho-hum table. To unify a collection of photographs, use frames of the same material and make sure all the pictures are approximately the same size, so that none will stand out over the others.

More of Her Advice:

  • On scale: “A technical knowledge of architecture is not necessary to know that a huge stuffed leather chair in a tiny gold and cream room is unsuitable, is hideously complicated, and is as much out of proportion as the proverbial bull in the china shop.”
  • On simplicity: “It is such a relief to return to the tranquil, simple forms of furniture, and to decorate our rooms by a process of elimination. How many rooms have I not cleared of junk―this heterogenous mass of ornamental ‘period’ furniture and bric-a-brac bought to make a room ‘look cozy.’ Once cleared of these, the…architectural spaces are freed and now stand in their proper relation to the furniture.”

Billy Baldwin’s Advice: Top Carpeting With an Area Rug

What he said: “I like the warm, deep-comfort look of smaller rugs laid right on top of wall-to-wall carpet. The smaller rug could be a bigger-scale pattern…or a needlepoint, or a beautiful Oriental,” said Billy Baldwin (1903-1984), in Billy Baldwin Decorates (1972). A Princeton-educated decorator whose clients included Truman Capote and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Baldwin “loosened up traditional design and made it more inviting,” says design historian Judith Gura.

Why it works: Layering rugs, like layering clothes, adds texture, color, and dimension. The effect is “calm and warm,” says interior designer Suzanne Rheinstein, owner of Hollyhock, a Los Angeles home store. For the best results, start with a tightly woven, low-pile carpet or sisal in a solid tone. Complement it with almost any area rug―flat cotton, zebra-print cowhide, or fluffy flokati.

More of His Advice:

  • On centerpieces: “When you decorate the tables, beware of centerpieces with too many flowers in too-big bouquets. Much more charming is a simple flowering plant in its own clay pot or a little wicker basket―and please don’t have strongly scented flowers. I remember one dinner party…where the smell of tuberoses…was enough to knock you down.”
  • On displaying artwork: “The best places to put pictures are the unexpected ones. I like…taking a typical over-the-sofa painting and hanging it out in the hall, where you can…see it rather than sit in its shadow.… In one room, I backed a picture with plywood for protection and stood it in a window.”

Dorothy Draper’s Advice: Keep the Mantel Spare

What she said: “A mantel…is not the place for something so small and exquisite that it must be held in the hand to be appreciated. Two big vases…will give a more decorative effect,” said Dorothy Draper (1889-1969), in Decorating Is Fun! How to Be Your Own Decorator (1939). Draper was so famous from the 1930s through the 1950s that her name became an adjective. A Draperized room sported sizable patterns, bold stripes, and theatrical color combinations.

Why it works: A well-dressed mantel makes an impact from a distance. You shouldn’t have to walk up to it to view the objects on it. Opt for large, tall vessels to complement the height of the chimney, but make sure they don’t impede the view of a painting or a mirror. Pick curvy vases to soften a hard-edged mantel and squarish ones to contrast a fireplace with a rounded opening.

More of Her Advice:

  • On bold tones: “Muddy-colored walls are nothing but a blight. So are undecided colors that compromise…(such as) blues that are neither sea, sky, nor good old cornflower. There should never be any doubt what your color has to say.… It may be chalk blue, watermelon pink, lemon yellow, grass green, chocolate brown, café au lait, warm gray―anything on earth you like, just as long as it knows its own mind.”
  • On fireplaces: “It is best to keep your andirons simple as well as large. I saw a set made of three large glass balls that were very effective. But you are liable to grow tired of them if they are too cute―cats, owls, dogs, and so forth.… I prefer brass or chromium to anything else. They mirror the flames.”

David Hicks’s Advice: Cluster Similar Colors Together

What he said: “There are a set of loose rules, which when applied to colour cannot fail.… All reds go together, all pinks go together, just as all blues, greens, yellows, browns and all grays do,” said David Hicks (1929-1998), in David Hicks on Decoration (1966). A decorator whose clients included Vidal Sassoon and Prince Charles, Hicks was known for pairing antiques with modern pieces. An upholstered Louis XVI chair would look right at home next to a Lucite table in one of his rooms.

Why it works: Colors from a single family blend effortlessly without being matchy-matchy. Pick a color you love and stick with its variations. If you like green, for example, paint walls and choose curtains in a rich khaki. Punch up the palette with a brighter sofa. Accessorize with a lime green patterned rug, botanical prints featuring different shades of green and brown, and a yellow green throw.


More of His Advice:

  • On using color: “The only way to learn…is to study colour combinations used by great masters like Matisse…(and) to see how dress designers noted for their flair for colour―like Cardin and Quant―use it. Look at the colour in movies. Look at it in musicals, absorb the way opera and ballet costume designers use it. Most big stores have window displays that use colour amazingly well.”
  • On collections: “If you are a collector of objects, like decorative eggs, beautifully shaped pebbles, snuffboxes―whatever it is―mass them together on one table. They look so much better grouped than dotted around the room.”

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