"When people have great rooms," observes designer Katie Leavy of Capital Design in Washington, D.C., "they put their television in there, their kids play in there, they'll even eat in there."
If you've got the space, try to narrow things down and let the room's real purpose decide the decor. Decide, for example, if your room will be a living room that you'll entertain in on just a few occasions or a family room you're going to use every day. A room's purpose should be one of the strongest cues for the decor.
Make decorating a no-brainer by choosing furnishings that are family-friendly. Will children use this space? Will pets play here? Interior decorator Jackie Glisson of Just a Decorator in Memphis, Tenn., notes that while silk slipcovers would be a sophisticated choice for an adults-only room, they wouldn't make it through one season in a space that routinely hosts kids and pets.
Do Your Homework
Most designers want to see any photos you've earmarked from your favorite design magazines. In fact, one design company insists that all clients compile and share their favorite looks as a "homework" assignment. When you go back and look them over, these images tell a story of what you like and what your room should be.
Keep Size in Mind
One of the biggest issues facing homeowners today is the ever-expanding scale of sofas. "When I'm called in to rescue a room, it's often because the furniture pieces really don't fit the size of the room," shares designer Jackie Glisson.
The solution? Take out a measuring tape and a piece of graph paper. Draw a floor plan of your room to scale (let one square equal one foot, for instance). Or if you can find your blueprints, use them and make extra copies. As you consider buying additional pieces, mark off their intended location and make sure they'll fit before bringing them home. As a general rule, it's best to always match furniture's scale to the room's overall scale. An oversized sofa in a small room will look out of place and make the space feel cramped.
Create a Consistent Look
A beautiful home should have continuity from room to room. You wouldn't wear a yellow shirt with purple pants and green shoes, so why would you decorate each room in your house with an entirely different color palette or style?
"When you do one room, you have to think about everything that touches it, all of the spaces that connect. And stay with the whole scheme of the house," says designer Stephanie Henley of Beasley & Henley Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla.
Start With a Signature Piece
Designers say that sometimes an item you already have and love can become their inspiration for the rest of the room. "It can be one tile, one chair or one pillow; it depends on who it is, what they like and what they've got and we go from there," explains Katie Leavy.
What looks do your favorite things inspire? Maybe Grandpa's handsome desk would be more at home in a '40s-themed home office. Perhaps the rustic seascape you picked up on your honeymoon could become the centerpiece of a beach-cottage bedroom. Or a vase of your prize roses might look just right in an English country living room surrounded by lots of floral upholstery.
Formulate a Plan
Be sure to create your own room-design file. You'll want to include key measurements and inspiring images. You'll also want to keep a shopping list based on things you've seen in stores, on websites and in catalogs that are a good fit for your dimensions, theme and budget (you may find something even better down the road, but it's good to have a point of comparison). Designer Stephanie Henley suggests keeping plastic baggies of the fabric swatches, flooring samples and paint chips you'd like to use (label their purpose clearly, she notes, but write in pencil because you may change your mind).
Clearly everything is flexible, but having this plan at your fingertips will help you make decisions and keep the momentum going.
Shop Around to Create A Look That's All Your Own
"Sometimes people buy the furniture showroom. They get a bedroom suite where the nightstands match the headboard and the headboard matches the dresser," says designer Jackie Glisson. "Instead we want it to look like we put some thought into it, so it's not something you'll see in your neighbor's home." The best way to accomplish your own unique look is to avoid buying matching furnishings from one store and instead, shop from a variety of retailers, auctions and flea markets. You don't need to buy everything at once. Establish a basic look and feel and let your style and decor evolve over the years.
Also, when they're shopping, the pros know that form and function are equally important. You'll never relax on a rock-hard sofa no matter how much you love the fabric and working from home won't feel right if your desk isn't big enough to keep everything organized.
Limit Trendy Pieces to Accessories
Do you plan on redecorating every two years? Can you afford to change things often? If not, you may want to avoid trendy patterns on expensive pieces. The pros suggest choosing neutral colors for large upholstered pieces (like your sofa) and using more of-the-moment accents (like pillows in a hot new hue) that you can easily replace when trends change. If you want to make a bigger splash, there's always paint. "Just painting a room can make it feel entirely different," notes Alia Myer.
Light It Up
"Lighting is some of the best decorating you can do," says Jackie Glisson, so be sure to have a variety of lighting installed in every room. Include task lighting focused on what you'll be doing in the room, whether it's reading or checking your e-mail, as well as ambiant lighting to set the appropriate mood.
Designers suggest converting your light switches to dimmers and including a few different lamps to provide a number of lighting options. "You can never have too many lamps," says Jackie.
Make It Personal
Your room should be a reflection of your style. In fact, designers consider their work a success when clients say a room feels like their own, explains Alia Myer. Blow up a beautiful photo taken on a recent vacation. Devote a shelf to favorite books or a seashell collection.
Designer Jackie Glisson also observes that buying original artwork is more accessible than ever. At art shows and online galleries, an original painting or unique print can cost the same or less than mass-produced art from the local furniture store. And there's no way your neighbor will have the same thing.