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Interior Decorating 101

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How to Tackle a Decorating Project – 10 Tips for Getting Started

The bottom line: You can add some decor to your home, and it isn’t as hard as you might think to begin

Click here to go straight to the 10 Tips and General Decorating Advice

Decorating Nightmares?

You want your home to look “good”, but it seems like an awful lot of effort.  You have no idea where to start.  What to do?

Hey, I can relate.  My work life is incredibly busy (I’m currently working one official and two ‘unofficial’ jobs!) and I’ve been living in rental homes in a foreign country for the better part of the last decade.

My current apartment is spacious and has an incredible view, but my landlord is dead set on his wild paint scheme:  A nice deep green throughout the apartment, contrasted with oxblood red and some yellow stripes thrown in for good measure. 

Did I mention, my kitchen cabinets are lemon yellow.

I’ve been told it looks like a pizzeria, and I have to agree.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New

a man in blue shorts carrying a surfboard while running on the shore

Even though I have a diploma with distinction in interior design and decoration, I still can’t seem to get my home the way I would want it.

If I struggle, it must be even harder for someone who never learned this stuff. 

So go ahead and give yourself a break, here.  If you knew how to do it, you might have done it already. 

In my case, I don’t feel I have the time to do something about it.  

So I’m sure that many people, like me, wish they could get decorating done, but have a tough time getting started.

Saskia, are you telling us that you’re a so-called “expert” on decorating and interior design, but you don’t even like your own home’s style?

That’s exactly what I’m telling you.  

Luckily for me, I do know how to tackle a decorating project.

So back to the topic of today’s discussion: Getting started on decorating when you don’t really feel like doing it or are overwhelmed.

Putting myself in the shoes of a less than eager decorating friend, what could I recommend you do to make your home more livable and more appealing, starting today?

woman sitting on armchair under white patio umbrella

Sit on it – (for now!)

Well, first, this might seem counter-intuitive, but you actually don’t have to do anything unless you feel like it. 

Here I am, trying to motivate you to fix up your home, and I’m saying you don’t need to do it if you don’t want to!

Actually, it’s more like, don’t do it until you actually WANT to do it.  

Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the lazy guide for decorating! 

Why do you want a beautiful or stylish home?

This begs the question: Will that day when you magically feel like tackling your first decorating project ever come?

Another question: Do you care?  

If this sounds harsh, think about it.

Right there is your motivation.  You do care about getting this done, or you probably wouldn’t have googled this topic or decided to read this article.

Chances are, you just need to warm up to the idea of getting started. 

So think about it for as long as you like. 

Picture what it might look like if you took the tiniest first step and see yourself doing it.  If you shudder with horror, that’s okay. 

You can repeat the mental exercise next time you happen to think of it. 

light man people industry

One day you’ll actually find yourself going to do that exact thing you thought you didn’t want to do, and feeling pretty good about it.

Visualize it

So when you feel like you’re ready, go ahead and read the following list of things that you will want to do if you would like to have an amazing home that you are proud of. 

No guarantees about anything, of course, but think about what is it that you would like to achieve if you could.

What would your home look and feel like, best case scenario?

You are free to come up with as many “crazy” ideas as you like. After all, you are going to be employing yourself or a construction professional or designer if you need it. The only thing you shouldn’t do at this point is worry about how you will do it.  That’s not your problem. 

Not today, anyway. 

Basic Tips

Following are some best practices I’ve discovered on my own design journey, and that might help you, too.

A word of caution: Forget doing it all over a weekend. 

Take it easy and give yourself plenty of time in this process, and you might find that you actually start enjoying the process. 

(When you read my first point you’re gonna say, “Not likely”, but keep in mind that it’s rare that we love something that’s good for us in the beginning (ouch, the truth hurts just a little). 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably start to enjoy it about a third of the way through and then find yourself not wanting to stop.

man painting the wall

General Decorating advice

This is how I would go about the overall and very general process of decorating an already-lived in home from scratch:

  1. Cut down on clutter
  2. Organize your personal belongings
  3. Get your house clean
  4. Consolidate and make a plan
  5. Find your vibe or central theme
  6. Identify your biggest challenge
  7. Bring in some uniformity
  8. Commit to quality
  9. Plants make everything look better!
  10. Start a project and see it through to completion

1. Cut down on clutter

No matter how beautiful your home, if you are a pack rat, it’s pretty much all for nothing. 

All your decor and beautiful furniture will never be appreciated under layers of papers, stacks of books, and cobwebs.  

woman using laptop on the floor

Think of homes and interiors that you enjoy or admire.  Why can’t your home look like that?

Actually, it can. 

Think carefully about what every room you see in the interior design magazines has in common, and possibly the biggest commonality is this: They are all clean and free of clutter.

It’s not what people want to hear, but it must be said.  You’ve got to clear the clutter! 

Do whatever it takes to get you in the right frame of mind to tackle this task

Open up the windows to let the light and the breeze in, put on some old work clothes and blast your favorite music.

Your mission is to set a large box, container, bag or crate in each room and start tossing unnecessary items into it. 

Be ruthless. 

If you have even a little bit of hesitation that you actually need something, or if it doesn’t spark joy, as Japanese organization and de-clutter extraordinaire Mari Kondo taught us, just put it in there. 

I like to then sort through the box again on a separate occasion and decide whether the items in there are really needed in some way, or if they are safe to toss. 

Any of the items that still give me that ‘no, get rid of it’ vibe, I can safely part with.

If you want to hold onto some stuff just to be safe, make this stuff that you store somewhere. It shouldn’t be in areas of your home that you use frequently and where you should use the storage for something else. 

Mark the box clearly and put it aside to revisit 3-6 months later.

(Please, dear reader, be careful to use your own best judgement when de-cluttering and getting rid of junk. You must be careful to ensure nothing important is thrown out accidentally. Having a ‘reserve for later’ process works like the recycle bin on your computer.  It’s there in case you change your mind until you make the final decision.)

Having successfully rid your home of unnecessary junk, congratulations, you!  

Doesn’t it look better already?

2. Organize your personal belongings

concentrated woman carrying stack of cardboard boxes for relocation

The next most important thing you can do for yourself comes next. 

It’s time to get what’s left of your personal effects under control. 

You are going to need to get organized

Again, if you need help with this, there are some excellent resources both online and in print that can give you an idea of how to organize your home, but see if you can devise your own method.

I actually recommend that you try to come up with your own systems, based on your own logic.

Later, if you find that something you’re doing isn’t working, you can always find solutions for your particular problem or simply draw inspiration from others. 

Ultimately, any system that YOU devise is an easier system to implement as well as remember, because you understand the logic behind it.  

Why you should consider space planning before decorating

a pavilion n the middle of a sea

A lot of designing in school was thinking through the bigger picture and approaching space planning in a functional way. For this, we created “zones” and looked at adjacency; how one “zone” interacted with another.

An example of a common adjacency in many homes would be dining rooms next to kitchens, or en suite bathrooms in master bedrooms. These are spaces which are deemed to be good to have close to one another. Can you keep all the messiest activities to certain zones of the house or perhaps one general zone, for easier cleaning.

Another thing we learned in design school is to plot the circulation pathways throughout the space to make sure there was good flow and that the space was properly utilized. 

We also had to account for specific general measurements related to human body anatomy. 

There are standard measurements used which are actually easily found on a Pinterest search.  (Side note: Pinterest was of immense value to me over the course of my studies.  There’s a lot of good information related to construction that I’m sure many people aren’t aware of.)

If you’d like to check out my personal Pinterest profile, you will see many of the boards that I created through design school that might come in handy if you are interested in interior design yourself.

Please note that you will need a (free) Pinterest account to follow my profile or boards


Back to organizing your personal effects. Let’s use some space planning to help us get this done.

You will need to make a rough floor plan of your home or apartment.

Relax. This does not need to be to scale! Simple “blocks” marking out where rooms are is more than enough for this.

Write the primary intended usage for each space and add secondary and tertiary if needed.

Consider where you can put any storage out of sight.

crop man taping carrying box with scotch

How does space planning help your with personal organization?  If you can assign a distinct set of activities to a given space, you now have a category for the personal items that you will keep there.

You want to make sure that everything you keep in that space is related to the space’s function. 

So, if it’s your personal bathroom, you’ll want to keep everything related to your bathroom needs in there. 

For most people this includes personal grooming items and equipment, but it might also include the storage of cleaning supplies you use for the bathroom (in a separate cabinet, of course), fresh towels and stocks of personal hygiene products and toilet paper, etc.  

It’s not uncommon for the average home to have storage for the bathroom in a pantry by the kitchen, or for linen to be stored in an entrance or living room. 

Small homes especially, can have space constraints. 

However, sometimes when moving into a home, especially as a renter, we might move things into cupboards just to get them out of sight, thinking that we’ll reorganize everything later. 

And let’s be honest, we often don’t get around to it!

So, get a handle on your stuff.  Throw out expired items, and give away duplicates of things that you don’t need. 

Be honest about what you actually use and what, oh yeah, ‘sparks joy’.  As the old saying goes, “Have nothing in your home that you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  Someone a lot smarter than me said that, I believe it was William Morris, one of the early modernist thinkers of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Just following this maxim alone will solve a lot of our problems.

3. Get your home clean

baskets clean color cotton

I don’t really think I need to explain this one. Go ahead and clean your surfaces, ya filthy animal!

All joking aside, This is the best time to do it.

You’ll want to get it out of the way before decorating. I’m talking about the kind of cleaning that gets in the corners and under those furniture pieces you’ll be moving around.

You’ll also start to feel so much better in your space with clean surfaces. Be prepared to clean up again at the end of your prep, painting and decorating days.

4. Consolidate and make a plan

arts build close up commerce

To consolidate in this case means to take stock of what you now have in your home. 

Remember, this is after you have gotten rid of the clutter and organized your personal belongings into the parts of the house where they belong.

This is a good time to do a good home cleaning. 

You’re going to be seeing a lot more of your floor and your walls now that you’ve dejunked, so blast that indie or classic rock playlist and spend a little time on giving your home some cleaning love!

On Furniture

In the course of looking at your personal belongings, if you didn’t look at your furniture, now is a good time to do it

If you have furniture that is broken or really worn out, consider whether it’s worth fixing the items up or if it makes more sense to get rid of them or replace them

You might have more items than you actually need or use, or you may find you need more furniture in your home.

You could also consider any collections you have, artwork or photos you want to display and keep them organized for when you use them to decorate later.

Any furniture or decor that you will be using should be photographed and then you can make some simple photo grids for each room with all of the items that you will be putting in that room. 

By analyzing the images, try to determine if the general look of each piece works well with the others and in groupings, and if not consider making changes.

5. Find your vibe or central theme

photo of living room

Now we get to the fun part.  Having done all the organization and cleaning and sorting, we can start to focus on our vision for the space.

Some questions to ask are:

  1. What will I most likely be using the room for?
  2. What activities do I need to make space for?
  3. What do I want the space to feel like?
  4. What do I want the space to look like?
  5. How do I want to feel in the space?

So, let’s say my answers are as follows:

  1. Living room –Watching TV, reading and playing board games
  2. TV area (play board games around coffee table), reading area
  3. Relaxed and comfortable (lounge-y), but also a little dressed up
  4. More on the masculine side, kind of modern, but not too modern
  5. Relaxed if reading or watching TV, comfortable and focused if reading or playing board games

What I get from this is that my living room has two distinct zones: TV zone and reading zone. 

I will be creating two furniture groupings in the room (this is how I should plan my space!)

My style should be comfortable and relaxed, mostly modern and a little dressed up.

Time to get some inspiration!

Head over to Pinterest, Google or your favorite interior design website or magazine and look for ideas based on your keywords:


-Relaxed modern

-Comfortable modern

-Dressed-up modern (continue with synonyms for formal, masculine, clean, tailored, etc.)

See what pops up and start saving everything that catches your eye.  Put it aside to look at on a separate occasion.  This is to avoid information overload and fatigue. You’ll be able to sort it better when you’re fresh.

smiling woman doing her paperwork

Sort through your pictures one more time and be more ruthless about what you like.  See if you can whittle it down to five good pictures and find the common thread in the pictures you really like.  

The big question now is: Can you use your existing furniture to get the look you want?

-How could you modify the general idea or theme to work with what you already have

-It might help to identify the things that are easy to translate to your own home

Is it the wallpaper you love or the paint color?

Write it down.

Make a list of the things you would need to get the look, starting with the cheapest and simplest, and going up to the things that will take more time to source or save up for, like a new sofa.

If the look you want to achieve is too challenging, consider looking at other similar design styles in your general genre.

Make a list of the major to-dos for developing your new style, including adding pictures of items you want to buy to your existing furniture photo grids.

If you know how to make a mood board, this is a good time to group furniture and decor items by room as well as add your paint and wall treatment colors, etc. to see how it all comes together.

Ask any interior designer, mood boards are the part of the job that no one hates.

6. Identify your biggest challenge

spacious living room in studio

Let’s go really general here. 

If your problem is chaos, you will need to create some order

What do I mean by chaos

If you have a lot of items that when grouped together, don’t really form a cohesive look or ‘vibe’, this is chaos

If you have things that totally clash or don’t work together, even worse chaos  

This scenario is more likely if you have a lot of furniture that you have collected over time, or inherited, and that you want to keep. 

Again, if too many different furniture types is a big problem, you might want to be more ruthless about what you keep in order to stay in line with your vision.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.

-Some styles can actually pull disparate elements together and there are ways to make things work.  Just know that if you have a lot of mismatched stuff, you are going to need to work harder at the decorating to get it to look ‘finished’. 

Eclectic styles are good for dealing with this problem.

If your problem is empty space, make a plan to get what you need

This is actually an easier problem to tackle. 

You can look for items that help to bring your existing furniture together and bridge the gap between pieces

You might also want to save up for some really outstanding pieces that will be your showstopper

Some people say to ride the cow until you get a horse, but if you want to make fast progress on getting your home in order, then just make do without until you get the one you want.

You’ll be much more motivated to do it, and you’re less likely to end up living with a “cow” you didn’t want to buy in the first place.

(Again, please use your best judgment when deciding for yourself)

7. Bring in some uniformity

My next tip is one that you will hear confirmed by many interior designers and decorative specialists, and that is that the easiest route to creating a cohesive and pulled together look is to create some symmetry.

We won’t go so far as to create a perfectly uniform room in the classical decorating sense

(this was actually considered the only ‘right’ way to decorate once upon a time!)

We will, however, find ways to double things up, where appropriate, to create a more balanced look

Think about matching end tables, lamps or sideboards

This trick can also be applied to artwork, window treatments and lighting.

Try buying some items in two or simply get another item similar to one you already have in general color, style and size. 

You might even do something like have a circular wall clock opposite a round mirror. 

Not exactly the “same”, but a good visual balance. 

This is harmony.

Try to give the room a focal point, and avoid making it so busy that the eye has nowhere to rest.

8. Commit to quality

golden cup and basket with books

My next point is to help you with moving forward in creating a space that you can be proud of aesthetically: 

Commit to buying and keeping ONLY quality home items. 

One of the first things I did when I moved out and got my first apartment was to make the commitment not to have any plastic tableware or plastic containers out in the open. 

We live in Asia, and that means that cheap plastic goods are in easy supply and very common in most homes.

Making this commitment meant in practical terms that I refused to keep plastic cups in the house once my kids got to a to a certain age.

My kids quickly learned that kitchenware is breakable, and they learned how to be careful with things. 

Some other ways I cut down on plastic:

-I substituted plastic metal measuring cups for plastic ones (hey, industrial style!)

-I swapped wooden serving spoons for plastic spoons in the kitchen.

-I put my magazines in basket weave

-I housed my tissue paper in nice looking dispensers.

Making these simple switches really raised the overall perception of quality in my home.

I did make an exception for leftover food containers, but these are usually out of sight, and even then I generally have the ovenware glass type. 

You can definitely use plastic for organization in your home and storage containers can be useful! Plastic is, after all, I highly functioonal material.

On the whole, if you do need to use plasticware I would advise that you keep anything of that nature out of sight.

The result was that our home looked more polished.

Let’s be real. When was the last time you saw a beautiful home featured in a magazine that had any plastic in plain sight?

If there’s one tip I could give my readers about making a better looking space outside of ridding it of clutter and cleaning surfaces, it would be to have all of your visible storage and any objects on display consist of the highest quality that you can afford.

In addition to grouping things nicely, this one has a huge impact on the look of your home.

9. Plants make everything look better!

chair near white board on wall and potted plant

When looking at your personal belongings and decor, I hope you took the time to consider any plants you have.

If you’re not allergic to plants, and barring you already living in some kind of indoor jungle you absolutely should have more plants in your home!

Our previous point on uniformity can be applied with plants, too. 

Try framing an entrance with two large plants on either side of an entrance

Plants on opposite ends of the couch or in opposite corners can look quite dramatic, in a good way

Another benefit to decorating with plants is that you can move many plants around fairly easily to try out different arrangements. 

Plants can hide ugly or ‘unusable’ corners of your home.

In a general sense, lush greenery will help tie everything together in a space the way ‘that rug that ties the room together‘ does.  Yes, I am thanking his royal dudeness for that very sage piece of interior design advice.

Rugs can have that effect.

A note on rugs:

Many designers recommended that you choose your rug before choosing other decorative finishes and make sure everything works with it, as it can be difficult to find the perfect rug to fit an already decorated room, unless you go completely neutral.

One of my favorite neutrals in a warm climate? Sisal, a fancy name for seagrass. The best part is that it can withstand pets’ paw traffic and a ton of wear and tear.

10. Start a project and see it through to completion

If you’ve stuck with reading this thus far, congratulations! 

You now have a better idea of how to tackle the immense project that is decorating your home. 

If you’re lucky, you may be able to skip some of the steps I mentioned. 

If, for example, your home is cleaned and organized then you’re good to start decorating.

If, however, you do need to clean and reorganize, you can rest assured that it is totally doable and manageable

The way I would personally handle this is to spread the tasks over a series of weekend days. 

I have compiled eight pre-decoration and decoration “missions“, each with two tasks to complete

Each mission is theoretically possible to accomplish over a week or weekend of doing one whole day or a little every week day. 

Find the least painful way for YOU and then commit to starting your decorating project and seeing it through to completion.

A note on willpower: It is a muscle.

Once you have completed even one of these missions, you’ll find it so much easier to start on the next.  Having tasted one success, you are more likely to continue on.

It gets ‘easier’ as you go, and as you get closer to achieving your desired look, you’ll feel more pumped about the imminent results!

Having completed your first decorating project, you can rest on your laurels for awhile and take that much needed break.  Have a few cold ones. You’ve earned it!

You’ve also proven to yourself that you’re not actually that lazy after all.

Basic Home Decorating Schedule

General Tasks by Category

Cleaning1. Cut down on clutter2. Deep clean your house
Organizing 1. Organize your personal belongings2. Group items and create zones for storage
Planning1. Document and consolidate
2. Find your vibe
3. Make a list of things you need
4. Create a simple floor plan
Doing1. Wall and floor treatment
2. Furniture arrangement
3. Decorative objects
4. Artwork

Decorating Mission Outline

Mission no.ObjectiveTask 1Task 2
Mission 1Cut down on clutterGo room by room and rid yourself of unnecessary junkStore items you are unsure about for a temporary period
Mission 2Make a list of your rooms and their functionPut all items related a room in each room,and organize for ease of useFind additional storage space where needed, or better yet, trim down!
Mission 3Deep clean your house, or at least do all of the major surfacesMove all movable furniture away from wallsTake stock of and rearrange any furniture where needed (according to function/room)
Mission 4Consolidate all of the furniture and decor items you have decided to keepPhotograph each piece and arrange in simple photo grids by roomMake a list of any items that you plan to buy in the near future
Mission 5Find your vibe or central themeCollect all your inspiration and put it in one placeBridge the gap between what you have and what you will need to achieve your ‘look’
Mission 6Make a basic floor plan and mark out room measurementDo basic furniture measurements and create groupings of furniture on paper, making sure everything fitsConsider focal points and make sure that there is enough circulation space
Mission 7Take care of any minor repairs Do any wall treatments you need toSecure your ‘perimeter’
Mission 8Decorating dayPut down any floor coverings and move your furniture items to their assigned locationsCreate small groupings of decorative objects in each room, hang any pictures, artwork and mirrors, etc.

If you need more help with actual decorating tips, please leave your questions below and I will try to address them in upcoming articles.

In the meantime consider the following excellent resources on Decorating and DIY:

Apartment Therapy (website devoted to rental renovation and decoration)


Family Handyman (magazine publisher)

House Beautiful (magazine publisher)

New York Times Decorating Guide for Home Real Estate

Pinterest (inspirational and instructional image ‘pins’ which may be saved to boards on various topics)

Happy designing and decorating!

PS: Need a little style inspiration help? You’re in the right place. Get a sampling of every major interior design style out there all in one place with out Mega List 30!

Questions or need help?

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