Home design for non-designers Part II: Finding your personal design principles

Yesterday we shared some basic lessons we’ve learned about home design:

1.The first step to creating a nice home is determining what kind of “nice” you want it to be.
To create spaces we love, we have to figure out what kind of space we want.

living room decorated in romantic style

While this would be nice for some--and obvious care has been taken to make it so--this would never in a hundred million years be our kind of nice.

2. The particular kind of nice you choose needs to complement the house you have.
We’ve got to work with (not against) the design elements that come with the space.  For us, that’s a Mediterranean-style fireplace, narrow gold windows, and a split-level floor plan..

70s split level decorated 90s style

Our house during the pre-buy inspection. It's a 70s split-level--which you can clearly see in the fireplace and its flanking windows--but the space had been decorated in a style we think of as 90s suburban. There's definitely a coherent sensibility to the wall and carpet colors, the chairs and table, and the window treatments, but to us they don't really work in this space.

While these ideas are a fine start, we’ve found it’s not enough. Today we’re back with a crucial third component to our design approach.

You don’t have to be a designer to design a great space…

Although Cane has a fine arts degree, neither of us is a designer.  Most of us aren’t. Yet, we all have to figure out how to design our homes.  This can seem daunting, but many home bloggers have made it clear that we don’t have to have formal design training to create comfortable, functional, attractive spaces for our families to live in.

Cane and I have talked a lot about what kind of house we want, but we haven’t yet been super-intentional in creating it. We haven’t known how to be. The few choices we’ve made so far have been largely a matter of luck and experimentation.

70s light fixture

We didn't really know if this light was going to work before we bought it. We liked it, but we weren't sure why.

Last week, putting together our house tour, I found myself writing that this wall is the only part of the house we’d consider “done”–meaning, we like it just as it is.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since, wondering how we might use this one, small finished part of the house as a guide to help us with the rest of it.

Here’s the thing:  This wall is a happy accident. It just happened to come together in a way that we find really pleasing. That’s great and all, but we don’t want to have to count on such accidents to get the rest of the house right. Or go through a bunch of expensive and time-consuming trial-and-error (which we all know ends up being mostly error).

…but maybe you have to have some principles guiding you

Cane and I started talking about the traditional elements and principles of design (you can get a basic introduction to that here), and we know those play a role in what we like about this wall:

Balance: We like the balance between the credenza and the painting, and with the small objects on either side of the red planter. We also like the balance between cool colors and warm colors.

Space: All the open spaces (from the painting to ceiling, between the objects on the credenza, between the painting and credenza) help us really see each object and create a spacious feeling we like.

Repetition: The two big rectangular shapes help this space feel unified, orderly, calm.

We like the colors, the textures, and the mix of organic and geometric shapes.

We realized, though, that universal design principles don’t go far enough. We could create lovely rooms that adhere to design principles–but that wouldn’t guarantee they’d be the right lovely rooms for us. And, it takes more than that for the rooms to be us.

catalog living room

This room from a popular retailer has many elements we like, nicely put together. It's warm and comfortable and casual--just what we want. Still, this isn't the kind of room we're aiming for.

We don’t want a generic home that looks like a page from a catalog.  So, we began playing around with the idea of principles specific to us–ideas to guide us in making our design choices.

The other night we sat down in front of the wall and examined it through that filter.  The result?
We came up with this list of design principles that help us understand why we like this space–and, more importantly, how we can make the whole house something we like:

Cane and Rita’s Design Principles for (Our) Great Spaces

credenza with painting over it and ficus next to it

One thing we love about this wall is that it contains connections to things we value. The painting and pots are a connection to Cane’s past creative work. The mid-century credenza evokes the time of our childhood. The ficus was a gift from a friend. We love objects with ties to things we value–people, places, memories.

While we admire the looks of the credenza, what we like even more is that it serves a crucial function for us. Each of us has a file drawer to store important papers. The shelves behind the sliding doors hold old photos. One shallow drawer hold office supplies we use all the time, and the other our camera equipment. It’s a decorative piece, but it’s not just a decorative piece.

See those round brown balls on the plate?  Those are Cane’s dorodango balls. He made those just for the fun of it. We like things that evoke fun or that we use for fun. We don’t want a super-serious space. ‘Cause we just aren’t super-serious people.

clay pots

The painting, pots, and durodango balls aren’t just about connection and fun; they are also things that have been created by one of us. All five of us are creative beings, and we want our creative artifacts around us. We also want spaces that support our creative work, which means we can easily access our supplies and have places to use them.

credenza with ficus plant

We could drive to Ikea and find a cabinet with the same function (which we know because we’ve got Ikea pieces in our home), but another reason we love this credenza is that it’s not something new.  We found it at a warehouse filled with old office furniture.  With a $150 price tag, we got some MCM style at a fraction of the usual price.  And we kept a great piece out of a landfill and didn’t contribute to the use of more resources in making something new.  We find that preservation and frugality often go hand-in-hand.

jade plant

We’re city people, but like to surround ourselves with reminders of the natural world.  We were surprised to notice how many natural elements this space contains:  plants, wood, clay, fibers.  A landscape. Guess we like to bring the outside in.

We like things visually simple. While we own lots of stuff that fall under the umbrella of the principles already listed, too much of a good thing makes us feel claustrophobic and cranky.  We believe in editing.

We like simple materials. Wood, clay, cork–those all feel good to us. We prefer these materials to more luxurious ones.

We like living simply, and more stuff complicates and crowds our life. We’d rather spend our time creating and playing than acquiring and caring for lots of stuff.

close up wood credenza

A simple space that’s too cool isn’t for us.  We think a simple, uncluttered space can feel cozy if it’s warm. We love the warm tones of all that wood in the credenza.  We like the warm browns in the balls and the pots, and the shot of red coming through the planter. While the wall is grey, it’s a warm grey, not a cool one.  We like things that evoke warmth or literally keep us warm–blankets, fire, light.  This wall faces a bank of windows that let in the morning sun (the reason for the gold glow in all the photos), another reason this is a space we like.

How will identifying these principles help us?

If you’ve been here before, you might remember my angst at letting go of a great furniture find.

mid-century cabinet with hutch

This was only $50.00. It didn't come home with us.

While we hadn’t formally identified principles to guide us in making choices about our space, we let it go because we didn’t have a good place for it. Identifying design principles that matter to us helps me see more clearly why walking away from it was the right choice.

Although the cabinet was a great choice in terms of frugality/sustainability, it would have violated our desire for simplicity by crowding any space we might have put it.  We didn’t have a functional need for it. If it were a piece from one of our pasts or had some other kind of connection to something, we might have chosen to remove something else, but none of that was at work. It was just a cool piece of furniture we liked, but that’s about all.

As we continue to make choices about what to bring in to our home, I think having these principles clearly in mind will help us make decisions and prevent us from making mistakes. 

The principles we’ve identified help us understand why we really like some parts of our house:

cabinet full of games and books

Family room game cabinet: fun, connection, function

reading corner in bedroom

Bedroom reading corner: simplicity, connection, preservation

small table set for dinner

Library table: simplicity, connection, frugality, function

mantel with candles

Living room mantel: warmth, nature, creativity

girl reading book in front of fireplace

Living room fireplace: warmth, fun, creativity

But enough about us.  How can all of this help you?

We’ve got some ideas about that, but we’re saving those for Thursday.

We aren’t designers, but we are both teachers, and we’ve got an assignment for you…the fun kind.  Spelling won’t count and there won’t be a test.

Hope to see you then.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think.  What would your design principles be? 

Oh, and PS:

Later today hope to post an update on our foray into the Imagine the Impossibilities Challenge. Don’t know what that is?  You can read about it here. (And yes, the update is late.  It’s been a weekend.)

Here’s a sneak peek at it:

Cane under the tub

 UPDATE:  Progress report posted