How To Make A House Into A Home

WE ALL KNOW that a home is more than four walls; we want a comfortable, relaxed environment that is inviting to friends and expresses who we are. But to have the kind of home that offers even more, the kind of place where memories permeate the air, we must pay attention to more than just matching colors and hanging pictures. Just what sets apart such wonderful places? Some of the good design principles below, combined with personal touches and collections, make all the difference when creating a home.

A condo living room with plenty of seating, thanks to small scale furniture selections.

Furniture Scale

Old fashioned homes did not have ten foot sofas that were forty inches deep. Furnishings were smaller and more mobile in the old days. They were more human in scale, so you didn’t have to be seven feet tall not to have your feet sticking out like Edith Ann when you sat. And there was more flexibility – since a smaller chair is as comfortable in a bedroom as a living room, pieces would be reused as people moved from house to house. In addition to saving your budget, old pieces grow even more charming when you choose from the thousands of fabrics available for recovering, rather than picking from the manufacturers’ bland choices. Consider unusual fabrics such as scenic designs, cotton ticking, or animal spots next time you recover, to give your home a unique air.  For a modern, casual home I recommend slipcovering for a washable, cozy look, and I prefer sofas and chairs of a normal scale. Have a designer measure before you buy – nothing looks very big in a large showroom. In the condo living room above, we chose a medium sized sofa and small scale, movable chairs for maximum seating.

Even if you live in a large home with huge rooms, you gain nothing by using a ten foot sofa that only two people will sit upon. Divide large rooms into two or more cozy seating areas; make sure that people sitting in these areas are no more than about eight feet apart, so they can chat comfortably. Delineate the areas further by mixing area rugs, and denote uses for the areas, like putting bookshelves for reading, or a games table. Remember, really big rooms are still inhabited by regular size people; and the nicest times are often spent with different activities happening in the same room.

Practical Concerns

Make sure your seating areas have adequate lighting. Ceiling lights are not meant to light people, they are for artwork, pathways and task areas. Each chair and sofa should have a large lamp – at least 28″ tall, with a 3 way bulb. The light should be over your shoulder for reading, so choose a high enough end table. If you don’t read, keep in mind that most civilized people do! Make sure there are enough soft pillows, preferably feather filled since you can scrunch them up just so, flop on them, and fluff them up again. We recommend making at least some throw pillows washable, so you can really use them. Don’t put too many – one per chair, three to four on a sofa is plenty, since you want to see the seat cushions if you expect people to sit down. Pairs of chairs should be angled slightly inward for conversation, not lined up straight. Tables should be plentiful – each seat must have a spot to put a book or drink. Think outside the box – side tables can be anything from a 40″ round skirted table to a Chinese garden seat or small carved stool. At least one large table, deep in a corner or behind a sofa, can offer a large surface for piles of books and a potted geranium, or an interesting display of travel finds. A small stool beside a club chair is perfect for a glass of wine and remote control, and is easily moved when there’s a crowd. And don’t forget someplace to put your feet up!

This library show off the homeowners antiques and fine rug; a comfortable sofa is slipcovered in rose printed linen.

This custom library we created (above) provides a home for the owner’s books and antiques; small stands and ottomans can move as needed, and comfortable pillows help create the perfect spot to curl up and read.


I often wonder who people really are when I visit their home and there no mementos of trips, no original art, and few books. Nearly everyone is interesting in some way, and here is where a professional designer can really help. Check your closets for heirloom art pieces that can be re-framed or re-matted to personalize your house. Bring your collections out of hiding – hang plates on walls, fill bookshelves with trophies from childhood, make that funny old Chinese statue into a lamp.  A professional eye can help sort out the really valuable things and make good use of them.

Stay away from the mass-produced poster art sold in furniture stores – no matter how fancy the frame, it’s still just a poster! Why have a $400 picture of a watercolor painting when for about the same price, you can have the real thing? Check art fairs for talented unknown artists, find something you really like, and start building a collection of real one-of-a-kind art at great prices. You’ll have pieces with a story to tell, and if an artist becomes famous, you’ll have something of real value one day. Antiques shops are another great source for the works of unknown “Sunday artists”. It can be fun to work around a theme – some people collect dog paintings, or rose pictures, or still lifes, or botanical prints.

Our design for the Bel Air living room below includes antique lacquer boxes, French chairs, and 19th century oil paintings, combined freely with vintage textiles to create an air of intellectual glamour. A backdrop of taupe silk curtain panels and walls calms the mix.

Bel-Air living room

Control clutter by gathering pieces into collections and using a hutch, bookshelves, or large tabletop for tidy display. Set your things off with a strong paint color for an inexpensive change with dramatic impact. Remember, when you leave the furniture store with your new living room suite, you are not finished with the room. Really great rooms move way beyond the three fabric combination of retail. Mix in several other fabrics, varying pattern scale and texture, adding fringe to pillows. This is another area where design help can make all the difference. Look at the really fabulous rooms in national magazines and count how many different fabrics populate the sofas, chairs, ottomans, pillows and curtains in a beautifully finished room.

Speaking of Curtains

The loveliest homes are usually replete with some sort of window treatments. Custom treatments can be a significant project, but are necessary for large and odd-shaped windows.   For a quick solution, our new Ready-Made Drapery Panels give a polished finish to a room at a great price.   Draperies control light, soften corners, hide poor architecture, quiet echoes, and create a human scale in high-ceilinged rooms. They also add pattern and color – in our business, we believe that not having curtains is wasting an opportunity for colorful excitement, or for a soothing cocoon of calm. You could spend a fortune on accesssories and not have nearly the impact of finely made window treatments and a pretty paint color.

Palladian window

We used yards of linen to give a relaxed air to this Lowcountry bedroom (above). Slipcovers keep the wing chairs from looking too serious for sitting, and the simple curtains allow the beautiful Palladian window and view to take precedence.

Get Help

I’ve encountered many homes cluttered with tchotchkes and too much furniture. Often people make one impulse purchase after another as they try to find the one thing that will make their home fabulous. One couple I worked with had five sofas, all bought within three years. Every time they wanted to perk up the house, they went to the furniture store! With professional help, after a couple of years of disciplined decorating, their home was a comfortable, charming and elegant showplace, with pretty curtains, oriental rugs, and slipcovered chairs. And when they moved, they had learned so much they didn’t need my help at all to make the new home just as attractive. As I tell my clients, if you add up all of the $50 impulse purchases we make in a year – the lamp that was too short, the picture that doesn’t match, the rug that was too big for the bathroom – and apply those funds instead to interior design, you may have enough in the budget for a nice window treatment or a slipcover. Combine that with some good professional advice and your own pieces, your collections, and good quality sofas and chairs, and you’ll soon have a home ready for creating even more wonderful memories.

Kerry Ann Dame is an interior designer, owner of Posh Living at Kerry Ann can be reached at (843) 238-0078, or by email at

© August 2004 Kerry Ann Dame. May not be reproduced without permission.

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