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As we're now losing the last of our beautiful New England fall foliage for the bare branches of winter, I can't help but think about the spectacular palettes we just witnessed. It's no mystery why people flock here for the fall, mother nature puts on such a show! The outdoors becomes so layered and the colors have texture, you can practically hear the leaves crunching underfoot.  How can you not be inspired when you're surrounded by such vibrant, rich colors? While nature makes it look easy, any designer knows it’s tricky to put together harmonious color schemes for our clients. Here are a few tips to help clients explore new color options for their home.

Take cues from their wardrobe

What colors does your client look good wearing, and tend to choose for themselves? The classic approach to buying a wardrobe in your ‘season’ works for clothing, and it can be put to use for interiors too. You want the colors in the home to complement the colors your clients can wear. It’s also a good way to gauge what they are already attracted to and comfortable with, even if it’s unconscious.

Determine the type of energy they thrive in

A low contrast bedroom provides a soothing environment, and a high contrast sitting area creates a higher energy

What's the mood your clients want to create for their home?  High contrast colors offer more energy, low contrast and neutrals have a lower energy and often a soothing tone. Every person responds to color differently, so explore how different colors affect their mood and use that response to determine what colors and energy levels are best for different areas of their home. You might find some differences between extroverts and introverts here, but you can’t make assumptions.  Ask questions!

Complement the lighting conditions

Ample natural light allows navy walls to feel rich instead of overwhelming

What is the light quality like in terms of both natural daylight and the available electric lighting in their space?  Colors can appear drastically different in daylight and under different types of light sources (you can read more about that here).  You will need to adjust the saturation of the color depending on sunlight, light fixtures and the shadows in the space. This is why it’s important to never just pick a paint color in your office – it's all about how it looks in the client’s home.

Go back to the books

Don’t forget color theory and the color wheel. Using these principles can help you choose colors that go together more harmoniously, and avoid other combinations that can fight.  Colors are never a single hue – all have undertones and often that is what determines if we like a color, or how well it plays with other colors in a space.  Have you ever watched the hardware store mix your paint?   Gray is not just gray.  Weave this theory into your conversations as you explore their palette.  For example, if you are creating a gray, blue and white palette, make sure your gray doesn't have an undertone of green or it will clash with the other colors. Adobe Kuler is a great tool for playing with color using these principles.

When it comes to picking colors, there is no simple answer, and no right answer! Make sure you always ask lots of questions, and remember that this is a personal process. And never be afraid to tweak a color once it's up – even the most careful designer can misjudge the effect a color will have once it’s in full scale. It's better to take the time to make an adjustment to a paint color than to have a client who feels that the color is a bit off.

When autumn rolls around and the seasons start to change, many of us can’t help but think of heading back to school.  For the past 12 years I have as well, as I teach at the Boston Architectural College.  In the spirit of the season, let’s take a moment and talk about design education.

For those on the more architectural side of the design field, educational requirements and licensing are quite clearly spelled out state by state.  Of course you want to work with a licensed architect if you are building structures, and large scale projects demand this kind of education.  Health, safety, codes and the study of advanced design techniques are incredibly important as we have seen tragedy when structure and codes are not maintained.

But what about on the more decorative end of the field, what type of education is necessary to begin a career on that side of the spectrum?  I once had a coworker say to me, "No one is going to license me to chop a pillow." While those of us in the profession know that there is far more that goes into pulling a space together than a solid chop, how much education – or any – is enough?

Elsie de Wolfe is credited as America's first interior designer, and emblematic of the socialite decorator that grew the profession in the early 20th century (Photo source: Architectural Digest)

The decorative end of interior design was born in an era where people with good taste and access to money set the decorative tone in their social circles. Many of the great designers of the 20th century followed this pedigree.  It came from having more than just great taste: access to travel, museums, higher quality fabrics, tradesmen, and the luxury of time to think about their environment allowed these designers to hone their trade.  Their life was their education and their internship.

As the design field became more developed and matured over the course of the 20th century, education became more important, and regulations were established. I imagine this development and structure would have continued to evolve, if it hadn’t been for the advent of things like HGTV and Pinterest.  With online shopping, people feel like they can source anything on their own.  In some ways, I know that this has caused the field to take a step back in quality over convenience, as well as the devaluation of design skills.

This brings us back to the question of how much education is enough to consider yourself an interior designer on the residential and decorative end of the field?  I know many talented designers who are self-taught, and there is a full range of available options in terms of education – how do you decide what is right for you?

My short answer is if you want to decorate, you should get as much education as your life will allow. Also, think about what kind of work you picture yourself doing.  If you want to just deal in picking colors, then take a few color theory classes.  If you want to do light residential decorating, take classes in studio design, lighting, color, textiles and materials at the least.  If you love kitchens, then complete a certificate in kitchen and bath design. Ask yourself honestly what do you have to offer someone that they will pay for?  What sets you apart from someone who would seek the services of a designer? Do you have enough knowledge to advise clients in a professional manner?  Do you respect what the limits of your skill set are?

Photo Source: Kelly Sikkema

It's not about just having good taste, we also need to understand the rational and functional motivation behind our design choices – and courses in design can provide the technical know-how to back up that good taste. Remember, just because you love design doesn't mean you have enough education and experience to be a professional designer.  You know what though?  If you feel like you want to make that leap, you can start to explore your interests through continuing education classes.  Then try a few basic design classes at an accredited college for interior design. If the bug really hits you, enroll in a certificate, a bachelor’s or a master’s program in interior design.   Get as much education as you can so that you are contributing to the professional development of this field we love.  A day in the life of most interior designers is not at all what we see on HGTV. Education and experience in the field can help prepare you for what your clients need so that you feel confident you are working in their best interest.

In the end, no two people will take the same path anywhere, and interior design is no different. But if you want to grow your skill set and experience, and venture into a new field, education is always a great place to get started.

When I make the suggestion to a client that we consider creating a custom piece of furniture for their home, their first reaction is usually concern that it would be too expensive. However, in my experience, that is almost never the case. I’m going to share my experience with the benefits of designing locally made custom furniture, and a few examples of work I have created.

Custom furniture

When I design a custom piece, it’s usually because I have shopped and the right piece just doesn’t exist yet to suit my clients’ needs. If that means there is something that is almost right, sometimes it can be customized by the manufacturer. However, when a furniture piece is made by a national manufacturer, there is usually an upcharge to customize it. This is because they need to adjust their production system to accommodate the change, and often national furniture makers aren’t set up to do so easily. The cost may be more to customize through the manufacturer, but you will definitely get the exact look.

To avoid this cost, when I create a custom furniture piece I prefer to have it locally made, and be an original design. I draw inspiration from other pieces, kind of like making a new recipe. I might take a leg here and a finish there, but the final result is totally new and unique. I find almost 100% of the time the price is about 40% less when going local. You also get the added benefits of supporting local businesses, and having a direct discussion with the person who is working on your piece. The teamwork is wonderful and energizing. The final result is a piece that fits perfectly in scale, proportion and style in my client’s home. It’s completely unique, and truly their very own furniture.

A custom media console designed to complement a 70" TV

A word of caution about copyright laws: it is important that you are producing something that is uniquely your own design. If you remember the first season of Ellen’s Design Challenge, the winner created a piece that we later found out was almost an exact knock off of another designers existing piece. So while it’s important to have inspiration, I challenge you to be creative. To be in compliance with copyright laws, you need to have at least three points of difference between your furniture piece and other items like it on the market. This can be the dimensions, materials, finishes, or lines, it’s easy to do if you give it some thought.

So let your imagination go, and think about what you could design. Anything you can design, there is someone out there who can make it for you.







Lighting is such an important and broad topic, I had to split it into two posts! Last time I talked about choosing fixtures, and now we will cover choosing the type of bulb – or lamp in design lingo -  for a project.

Beyond the fixture, you have to consider the type of light it is casting in the space. Mood can be created through not only through the mixture of ambient and task lighting you have designed, but also by the attributes of the lightbulb itself.

I once did a design consultation for a friend who was selling his home. The living room was painted in a very flat, institutional shade of green, which I encouraged him to repaint in a sage color. When I returned, I complimented him on the new paint color – and he told me all he had done was change the lightbulbs! That transformation taught me a lot about what can be done with the quality of light, and how important it is to choose the right type of bulb.

Lightbulbs are hot topics these days!  ? Seriously, technology is changing our typical bulb. From the intensity to the color or temperature of the light, there are many attributes to take into consideration when choosing bulbs. What’s more, the light bulbs you buy now can last up to 20 years, and use almost no energy. A lot has changed!

Image source: Birddog Distributing

The space you are lighting can also affect the way lighting behaves. What works in one home won't work in another. I always purchase the light bulbs for my projects myself, and I try out several options in the space. From the newer and warmer LED bulbs to older school incandescent bulbs, each home and homeowner have different preferences and lighting needs.

Incandescent bulbs: The original light bulb

  • Warmer glow
  • Decorative shapes available for candelabras
  • Increasingly hard to find, as they are highly inefficient: regulations restrict manufacturing them unless they are at least 27% more efficient than the traditional incandescent bulb
  • Lifespan: Approximately one year

Image source: Philips Lighting


Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

  • More efficient than incandescent, this was the first alternative available for the standard lightbulb fixture
  • More energy efficient, but produce a narrower spectrum of light and tend to look bluer or cooler
  • Difficult to fit into 3 way bulb size under a standard harp
  • Not typically dimmable
  • Candelabra bulbs are less attractive than other alternatives
  • Contain mercury, and need to be disposed of through specific recycling programs

Image source: Philips Lighting

LED bulbs (Light Emitting Diode)

  • Incredibly versatile, and come in multiple shades of light
  • Available in many sizes and shapes, including candelabra bulbs
  • Emit zero UV rays, and are safe for use around works of art without risk of damage
  • Charts on the packaging translate the current energy usage to the comparable traditional incandescent lighting
  • Ideal output is between 2,700 and 3,000 lumens
  • Dimmable
  • Very low energy use
  • Lifespan: 10-20 years

Image source: Philips Lighting



We all see light differently. Always experiment to find the best combination of elements for your client, the mood of the room, and the function of the space.

Cover photo: Álvaro Serrano







Light is one of the most important elements to consider when designing a room, and one of the most underestimated.  Light provides not only illumination for functional purposes, but it also has the ability to give mood and style to a space. The quality of the light cast can lead a room to feel oppressive or inspiring, and the correct fixture will change the way you use a space.

I find the key to a successful lighting design is incorporating multiple levels of light in every room. This helps satisfy the practical aspects of lighting as well as giving you options for creating various moods within a single space.

Ambient Lighting


The first step is establishing basic ambient lighting. That's either daylight, or the switch you flick when you cross the room.

Task Lighting


You will also need task lighting for different zones of use.  What needs have to be met to make the room come alive? Take table lamps, floor lamps, desk lamps, kitchen island pendants.

Accent lighting


While the first two levels of light are most important, considering accent lighting is key to highlighting features like art or interesting architectural lines.  Think wallwashers, or gallery lighting.

There is so much to consider when designing lighting, this only scratches the surface. Keep an eye out for my next post, which will delve into choosing the types of bulb or light source for a project.

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