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Interior design: The 8 most important principles

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Less really is often more

A Brooklyn home by General Assembly.
Matthew Williams

According to designer Joelle Nesen, "there are no rules" when it comes to interior design, but everyone can use a few tips and tricks. We spoke with Nesen, founder of the Portland-based firm Maison, and Jenny Guggenheim, of Guggenheim Architecture and Design Studio, to get their insights into the interior design process.

"If you do [interior design] well," says Nesen, "you can do anything" in your space. To find home design nirvana, be sure follow these eight underlying principles.

1. Plan for real life

In the interior design process, "Space planning is first," says Nesen. According to the American Institute of Architects, space planning includes blocking out interior spatial areas, defining circulation patterns, and developing plans for furniture layout and equipment placement.


Both Nesen and Guggenheim advise that every interior design project begins with an assessment of a room’s functional deficiencies and how the elements can be manipulated to better fit the people who live there. "We try to be really thoughtful about how people use their spaces," says Guggenheim. She often asks: "What do you need in your space and how do you move through your life everyday?"

The goal of space planning is to create efficiency. For Guggenheim, this means eschewing resale dictums and trends, including unnecessary additions. "We’re finding that most of our clients come to us thinking that they need more space, more storage, more of everything," she says. "We try to gently guide them toward simpler solutions."

For instance, she recently had a client approach her with a request for a large addition to their home, but the designer realized that reorganizing the existing footprint and incorporating a smaller addition would deliver what the homeowner needed. "If we’re able to give clients all the function they need without just getting bigger and bigger, I think that’s good for everybody," she says.

2. Create a vision

Once the designers have an idea of how the space should function, they mesh those requirements with the client’s desired aesthetic and atmosphere, to create a concept for the space.

"We take a global approach versus just picking a paint color or a sofa," says Nesen. "It’s really about creating a vision. There’s a timelessness and longevity [to the interior] when you can implement that vision that’s been well thought out."

For a designer, communicating the concept is akin to storytelling. Says Nesen: "You have to be able to tell a story about how the interior is going to come together with all the different elements and pieces."

3. Be thoughtful about materials and construction

"Quality is key," Nesen says, as materials and construction affect how a person experiences the finished room. Good quality materials have "a sound and a feeling that’s different than poor quality materials," says Nesen.

Natural materials reign supreme. The designers at Maison often incorporate fabrics like wool, silk, and linen, and favor furniture with solid wood construction and or well-made antiques. Nesen cautions that spending a lot of money on something does not necessarily mean that you’re purchasing a quality piece.

Instead, evaluate whether something is made of an enduring material and built to last. "It’s not that everything has to be expensive," she says. "There can always be some great finds [at lower price points]."

4. Juxtapose contrasting elements

When a designer combines different materials, shapes, patterns, and textures, the differences between them can enhance their innate properties. Understanding this can be counterintuitive, says Nesen. "Some clients will say, "I want this fabric, lamp, and chair. But those items will all have the same visual value."

"Many clients come to us thinking that they need more space, more storage, more of everything. We try to gently guide them toward simpler solutions."

Juxtaposition is needed so that the eye can appreciate the difference. "For instance, they may all be geometrics because the client is drawn to geometry," she says. "But you can’t have all squares in your house." Throwing in a circle makes us appreciate the square so much more and creates a better flow, she says.

Guggenheim offers another example. "If a client loves a particular tile pattern, but it’s a very strong pattern, it’s important to me that the other elements in the room are quieter, in order to make that really important element stronger," she says. "I want to make sure those things are seen and not muddied by adjacent elements."

5. Layer the details deliberately

The sweeping strokes of an interior design concept are nothing without the supporting details. Whether that’s the scale of a lampshade or the stile width on a cabinet door, a good designer must be detail-oriented and will specify all of the particulars in order to best support the overall vision.

"We always check ourselves and make sure were going down the right path to meet that big picture goal," says Guggenheim. "It’s so easy with so many products on the market to say, ‘I love this, this, and this.’ If you don’t go back and ask, do these meet my goals for the space, they may not be the right choice."

6. Be authentic

Every interior design project should be personalized for the user, beyond just catering to their aesthetic taste and preferences. Nesen makes sure to integrate clients’ everyday belongings, as well as heirlooms and antique items.

"You want some things to have authenticity, originality, and uniqueness," she says, whether that’s Grandma’s candlesticks or a one-off vintage find. "Even if the goal of a design is simplicity and modernity, we choose to incorporate something a little quirky, which I think makes the room a little more interesting."

7. Strike a balance

Guggenheim prefers to evaluate a room’s overall composition for balance rather than deliberately create focal points. Nesen agrees, suggesting that finding a balance starts with the room’s architectural features, like windows and doors, and then adding in pieces until equilibrium is found.

She also likes to read the room and evaluate sightlines from different vantage points. "Spin yourself through the room and think about what you’re looking at from each angle," she says.

8. Edit

"Hiring an interior designer is like hiring an editor," says Guggenheim. A designer knows when to add or take away elements to achieve the desired effect. "I might say, there’s too much of this one element or these two elements are weakening each other, so let’s remove one," she says.

This includes bringing in "breathing room" and incorporating negative space into the overall design, in order to present the strongest composition possible. Don’t be afraid to get rid of things.

Watch: An Architect's Colorful Home Stands Out

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