While home design is certainly an art, it is also a science. And even for professional designers, the process includes trial and error.
But when you have limited resources -- and less training and talent than the pros -- it doesn't make sense to cross your fingers and hope that a $3,000 sofa, 60 square yards of carpeting or 30 rolls of wallpaper will work out.
The risks involved in making the wrong choices are all too real for most of us. No wonder the prospect of redecorating an entire house, or even just a room, is fraught with anxiety. We could end up living with our mistakes for a long time.
A realistic alternative for those of us whose DNA is missing the decorating gene is to work incrementally. Instead of viewing a problem room in its entirety, break it down into manageable parts.
In other words, divide and conquer. Identify individual problem areas. Choose one zone -- a dull corner, a bay window, a fireplace wall -- and define its shortcomings. Then ponder possible solutions to that particular zone.
Don't even try to visualize the entire room as finished. Don't get distracted by the room's other flaws. Instead, stay on target and focus your full attention and efforts on that single area.
Experiment freely. Shuffle things around. Does that easy chair look better pushed up against the wall or positioned at a slight angle? Should there be a table next to it, a lamp on the other side, framed artwork above it, a big plant behind it or a footstool in front? Borrow furnishings, accessories and artwork from other rooms just to get an idea of how your composition can be arranged -- particularly before you go out and buy new furnishings.
From small to big
Naturally, the decisions you make about that one small area you're working on will influence the decisions you make down the line. But that's good. It automatically limits your choices, reduces confusion and establishes precedents -- in terms of style, color and pattern -- that you can follow as you move on to other areas of the room.
Besides, for most of us there's simply less risk, both financially and emotionally, in making small-scale commitments than large ones.
There are several advantages to the divide-and-conquer approach to decorating. For one thing, you gain a sense of control when you have a project of manageable proportions. Also, your confidence grows as you build on your successes a little at a time. You can find enormous satisfaction in doing a small project well.
What you will almost certainly discover is that, once you've redecorated a specific problem area, the rest of the room doesn't look nearly as bad as it used to. Little fixes can go a long way toward improving an entire room.
Sometimes all you need is a new slipcover on the chair to bring a corner of the room to life, or a new painting over the fireplace or new pillows on the sofa. Or perhaps all that's needed is a fresh coat of paint for the walls or new window treatments.
Building on success
If multiple changes need to be made, just repeat the process. Let the decisions you made in one problem zone guide you in a second problem zone. But ponder options and alternatives as you go. Instead of a sofa slipcover in the same fabric as the chair, choose a different, but compatible, fabric and then use more of the chair's fabric for pillows on the sofa or trim on the draperies.
What you should be aiming for is compatibility, not uniformity. Matching is less effective than mixing.
At the same time, be realistic. Acknowledge your shortcomings and play to your strengths. If you have an eye for color but lack the ability to mix and match patterns effectively, then stick to solid-color neutrals. If combining traditional, contemporary and antique furnishings befuddles you, then take a middle-of-the-road course and stick with transitional-styled furniture.
If taking on a large room is still too intimidating, start with a smaller space first and work your way up as your abilities and confidence grow. Practice on a foyer, hallway, powder room or guest room. In small spaces you can have the satisfaction of achieving big results fast.
Working on small rooms or small areas of a big room gives you a chance to get your feet wet, to try your hand at arranging furniture and artwork, choosing paint colors, coordinating area rugs or runners, and selecting decorative accessories. The choices you make can set the tone for larger spaces to follow.
Your individual efforts will have a collective impact.