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Bedroom design: Tips for creating a quiet retreat

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7 tips for creating the bedroom of your dreams

Ball & Albanese

The key to creating the perfect bedroom, according to San Francisco-based interior designer Emilie Munroe, a 15-year veteran of the industry, is thinking about the space as a retreat.

"Our lives are so scheduled and dynamic. We’re on at all times – whether it’s through technology or our work life," says Munroe. "The bedroom is the last secret place of refuge and peace in a home." Here, she outlines the seven key steps to creating a quiet escape.

1. Plan for function

"Always start with functionality," Munroe says. In bedrooms, this means tackling the largest element in the room: the mattress. When buying a mattress, there are many factors to consider, from the size to the firmness to its composition, like memory foam or spring coils. Delve into your preferences and make the mattress the first purchase in the room’s design. Mattress heights, with or without a box spring, vary widely, and will affect which headboard can be purchased. Once the mattress is chosen, the rest of the room’s selections can flow from there.


Next, Munroe reviews other living requirements. Do the occupants stay up late? Do they want blackout shades for early morning sun? Are focused reading lights, or a television desired? Will dressers or an armoire be needed for storage? This will all inform the selection of furniture pieces and the room’s layout.

2. Pinpoint mood and aesthetic

"The bedroom tends to be the place of relaxation and refuge, the quiet space within the house," says Munroe. "But what ‘quiet’ means can be different to different people." For some, a refuge might only include soft neutrals or dark walls, whereas others will want to be surrounded by bright colors and patterns.

Perhaps you can’t sleep unless the room is empty of all knickknacks, or you want to recreate the hotel scheme from a favorite vacation spot. Consider what colors and surroundings help you to relax, and how that can be translated into a decorative scheme.

Details in a black and white bedroom that Munroe designed in a San Francisco home. Photo by Thomas Kuoh via Studio Munroe.

3. Create balance

The default focal point of the room is usually the headboard, but Munroe says that’s not always. "You may want an incredible large patterned headboard and then have everything else in the room be really neutral," she says.

Or, you might choose a neutral textural piece for the headboard, such as this one from Made Goods, then add brightly colored bedding. The goal is to have all of the pieces in the room strike a balance between functionality, color, scale, pattern, and texture.

4. Mind the gaps

The ideal clearance around the bed is at least 30 inches, in order to provide a comfortable walkway for occupants to reach both sides, although Munroe has done less in smaller footprints. To that end, 30-inch wide nightstands on either side of the bed provide a good amount of tabletop space and storage.

Munroe likes the assortment at Bungalow 5, and prefers it if the nightstands aren’t exact replicas of each other. "I like matching in style but different configurations," she says. One nightstand might have all drawers while another has an open cubby, depending on user needs.

"They’re coordinated but customized," Munroe says. The key is that their height should be the same approximate height as the top of the mattress from the floor. Too much higher or lower can make the scale of the nightstands look "off" beside the bed.

5. Choose appropriate lighting

With the bed taking up so much space, bedroom light fixtures become the designer’s trick for drawing the eye up from its horizontal plane and add a decorative element. "Lighting can be an amazing feature," says Munroe. For functionality, Munroe prefers to install a central overhead pendant in every bedroom to make it easy to illuminate the space upon entering.

When choosing bedside lights, the important factor is getting the sizing right. "A bedside lamp should be at least 28 inches tall, so it has presence next to the headboard," says Munroe.

When hanging sconces, the light source should be about 20 to 24 inches off the top of the nightstand, "emulating where a bulb would be in a lamp," says Munroe and preventing an awkward reach from the pillow. For an unexpected touch, Munroe likes to hang pendants on either side of the bed as well, with each one centered over a nightstand. She likes browsing the selection at Urban Electric.

Munroe likes the patterned sheet sets from Serena and Lily. Shown here: Cut Circle Sheet Set, $128.00 - $258.00.

6. Collect bedding

"It’s important to first talk to clients about the way they sleep and what is comfortable for them," Munroe says. Do you prefer sleeping under a pile of blankets with a mound of pillows? Or would you rather go the minimalist route, with just a bottom sheet and a duvet?

Once you know your needs, Munroe recommends choosing individual pieces from different manufacturers. "Having a collected feel to your bedding brings warmth and interest," she says.

She often incorporates patterned sheets. "People forget that the sheets themselves can be part of the decorative design," she says. Different styles can be mixed and match, for coordinating patterns and contrasting textures, like a cotton coverlet and chunky knit throw (she loves Homelosophy Designer Throws) that stay true to the color story.

7. Put a rug underfoot

Going barefoot in the bedroom is inevitable, so "a rug in the bedroom makes it feel cozy and warm." Munroe likes a layered look: She spreads a large neutral rug that’s cut to fill the space, leaving a border of 4 to 6 inches between the rug edge and the walls. Then she adds a second, more interesting rug with different pattern and texture, over top the first and under the bed.

"The trick with the rug on top is that you want at least two feet of rug sticking out around the bed," Munroe says. Be sure to walk barefoot on it before you buy, so you know how it will feel against your toes every morning.