Home & Garden

Books: A thinking person’s guide to home design

The Paris home of interior designer Sarah Lavoine boasts this dramatic dining room. An eclectic mix of furnishings is contained within a strong color scheme of yellow, black and white.
The Paris home of interior designer Sarah Lavoine boasts this dramatic dining room. An eclectic mix of furnishings is contained within a strong color scheme of yellow, black and white. Polly Wreford

Building or remodeling a home is a complex undertaking, involving thousands of decisions and details. Professionals get used to the process and develop the skills and experience to juggle all those disparate elements, but a lot of homeowners get overwhelmed. They might have a sense of their favorite styles or features, but navigating the marketplace of design ideas and products can lead to a sort of paralysis, an inertia where too many options or the fear of mistakes makes them slow to take the next steps.

That inaction can be a homeowner’s friend, if it’s used as an opportunity to imagine more possibilities, sift through them mentally, and eventually focus on the ideas that hold the most promise for that home, person and budget.

Judith Wilson, a London designer, encourages that kind of thoughtful approach in her book, Think Home. In fact, Wilson sees the wishful imagining of design possibilities as an essential part of doing renovation right, even when it looks like inactivity.

She calls it “careful contemplation” and recommends it as the first stage of getting concepts and plans determined for each space, even before scouting websites or magazine pages for inspiration. Better to let one’s own instincts and preferences surface spontaneously before introducing ideas others have pursued.

Wilson’s approach isn’t only about daydreaming, however. Once a general wish list emerges about how the changes might look and live, specific planning becomes the natural next step, and it can happen seamlessly enough to prevent the paralysis that often rears its head when actual decisions have to be made.

The book’s format takes readers through a sequence of deliberate stages, each one getting closer to the final details that will give the design its signature look. Here’s a sampling of her process:

▪ Think architectural bones: When renovating, the given structure of an existing home isn’t an absolute limit on the options, but it’s the best place to start assessing the strengths and weaknesses.

Look at the major structural elements — walls, beams, ceilings, windows and doorways — to see what contributes to the inherent character of the home and its individual spaces. If any are real impediments to the look you want, explore the possibilities of adding or removing interior walls, bumping out an exterior wall, adding a window opening or doorway, changing floor or ceiling levels and so on.

Also, get consistent detailing in moldings, millwork and other installed or built-in elements, and clean up any stylistic irregularities, such as an ill-conceived modification done by a previous owner.

▪ Think size and shape: The “open-concept” floor plan is all the rage these days, but Wilson warns against losing separate spaces entirely. For starters, large spaces are often great for entertaining large groups, but can feel cavernous and empty for everyday living.

Aim for a balance by keeping room sizes varied and making transitions between spaces fluid and seamless, with partial walls, area rugs and furniture groupings among the tools for differentiating one area from another.

Private spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms should keep their original enclosed character, unless transitioning to another private area such as a reading nook or dressing area.

▪ Think budget and resources: Budgets shouldn’t rule your project with an iron fist, but the amount of funding available for renovation is an inescapable factor in the outcome. Develop a plan that considers all your funding sources — existing savings and potential borrowed funds — and use this knowledge to balance your priorities. Spend to get the “shell” right first, then plan to fund new elements or furnishings as your finances allow. A budget is a tool to manage your project, Wilson insists — not a constraint.

Subsequent chapters follow this direction more specifically, urging the reader to think about each new aspect of the renovation effort — whether that be lifestyle goals, general decor themes or the particular features of kitchens, baths, bedrooms and other individual spaces. Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of food for thought on all these pages.

Book information

“Think Home” by Judith Wilson; Ryland Peters & Small; 2014; $29.95; hardcover, 160 pages; (646) 613-8682; www.rylandpeters.com