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Where and How to Start Decorating an Empty Room

While there is no one right way to start a scheme from scratch, this helpful expert tips do provide excellent starting points

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By House & Garden | May 1, 2024 | Interiors

If you're staring at a lot of empty rooms and wondering where on earth to start with the decoration, this is how the professionals do it

The thought of taking a blank space and pulling a scheme together as deftly as the interior designers who grace the pages of House & Garden SA do can be somewhat (hugely) daunting. How do you take a whole lot of nothing and turn it into something beautiful, meaningful, personal? There are paint colours to consider, fabrics, finishes, furniture, not to mention flooring, fixtures, trims, lighting and the list just goes on.

Start with the Art

The thing that some will find daunting and others liberating, is that there is no concrete answer on where to start. Sophie Ashby of Studio Ashby famously says “start with the art” and chooses an artwork from within a room “and that’s the diving board for the mood and feel of the room” she explains. Others may start with a paint colour, whereas Nicole Salvesen of Salvesen Graham admits that “paint colour is one of the last things we choose!” Robert Kime famously based entire rooms around rugs, and a recent Sarah Vanrenen project was entirely pulled together on the client's existing armoury of beautiful antique furniture and art.

Studio Ashby procured a number of antique suzanis and worked closely with an upholstery team for the placement on their Spaniel armchair. Image: Kensington Leverne.

In fact, for Sarah, “the starting point for a scheme can come for a number of different places”. “Sometimes,” she muses, “you will walk in to a room of a new project and instantly know it needs to be a certain colour or tone by the size and the light in the room, but other times it can be a painting, which I bought for a client before she even completed on the house. I knew it would fit perfectly in the centre of the house and create a sunny happy spot from which to build on the rest of the downstairs scheme. It was such a happy chance – it fitted like a glove above her desk and we built the bookcases around it.”

Set the Tone of the Room with Fabric

On the other side of things, Mary and Nicole of Salvesen Graham take an altogether more granular approach. “We tend to use a fabric as a starting point for a room scheme,” Nicole says, adding that “this doesn’t necessarily become the main fabric in a room but it helps to define the look and feel of a space and the colour palette.

This interior is informed by a bold use of pattern and colour, which is challenging to pull off successfully. Photography by Tim Salisbury.

When we start working on a project we will select along with our clients a number of key favourite fabrics that we want to include based on their suitability for the home's architecture and feel as well as general gut instinct. Those favourite fabrics then form the starting point for schemes and look of the rooms.” That all sounds like a straightforward place to start, as you can extrapolate colours and motifs from a fabric to then add layers which create a sense of cohesion. However, Nicole continues that “this might not be an expected fabric – it could be something that throws a scheme off and stops it looking too contrived or a vintage textile to help the room feel grounded. From that we will then select a number of other fabrics ensuring we have a range of textures and weights to make the room feel layered.”

How to Create the Visual Building Blocks of a Room

Anna Haines also comes at things from a textile point of view but follows the Robert Kime route and bases schemes around the starting point of an antique rug. “They help set the tone for the room and are a good building block to visually work up from,” she explains. Anna picks out two or three colours from the rug, “which become the impetus for the scheme to evolve. These colours are the base from which we can layer in pattern and texture. Much like a jigsaw puzzle, we then piece together a larger scale design with a smart stripe for example, add a smaller scale pattern and throw in a rogue textile so it doesn’t all feel too contrived.”

For this home library and office, the owner’s book collection forms the visual building blocks allowing other furnishings and decor to take cues. Image: Supplied.

Look at Your Existing Art and Furniture

Virginia White goes about things a little differently to others on this list – she looks first at a client's existing art and furniture and says “for me, doing an interior without some art and good pieces of furniture as the anchor is quite difficult”. From this, and of course having taken the practical considerations of the client, such as whether children will live in the house, pets and so on, she draws up a furniture plan room-by-room. The “mood images” come next, offering fabric choices and window treatments and the like for the rooms. “At this stage nothing is totally locked down,” she explains, “but it opens up the discussion and sets the tone and the start of what I feel I have understood would work for the client and project.”

The material and palette in the dining room of this South African home are informed by multicultural interests, creating a space with a distinct personality. Photography by Banda Design Studio, Ben Anders

There is no one right way to start a scheme from scratch, other than to choose something you know you love and want within a space and build it up from there. One note is that no one here starts with paint, and it's a decision that people find agonising to make – so perhaps take heed from the professionals and let the rest of the scheme dictate the paint colour. For anyone still feeling daunted, take comfort in Anna Haines' final thought: “I find the process completely infuriating and uplifting in equal measure! I will often return to a scheme and tweak fabrics and layer with antique textiles, before the ‘aha’ moment when it all sits together happily.”

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.

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