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Reader Decorating Dilemma:

Jules emailed me these photos of her living room and asked for reader help in figuring out how to make the room come together.

Jules says:

The furniture made sense at my previous house, but not here.  We had (no shock here) 20-ft ceilings and miles of open space.  All the dark furniture and accessories provided a nice anchor to the tall ceilings and 302 windows.  Now it just adds to the overall cave feel.  We didn't have the cheap TV cabinet in the picture.  Instead, we had one of those custom niches built into the wall.  Our goal is to buy a flat screen, hopefully soon, which is why we have the cheap cabinet for now.  The problem has been finding a reasonably priced unit with a mid-century vibe.  We've looked into getting an old sideboard redone, but so far no luck.

If my husband had his way, our house would be lifted from the pages of Atomic Ranch.  I like more of a mix of pieces, and could never be as resolute as my husband in defining my style.  We are pretty much looking to add light to the room and brighten it up.  We hope to one redo the fireplace, but for now we just need to work on it looking less like the inside of a pirate's lair.  The mantle needs the most help.  Those two little twiggy topiary things look ridiculous.  I forgot to take them down.  The clock is only up there because the boys play with the hands if it's at their level.  Again, no commitment to keeping it.

The couch is a leather beast.  We had it custom made for our old house and, to be fair, it is really comfortable.  For this house, I really think we need something with legs to increase the light, but for now I put a sad little throw along the back in hopes of cutting some of the brown; it hasn't done much.  The console table on the other side we hate.  We just haven't found something that we like and I haven't had the guts to paint it.  Again, we were looking for a mid-century sideboard, but so far no luck.  The chest we bought 8 years ago for $30 and used it to keep dog supplies at the last house.  I only just pulled it out of the garage last week just to have something to put my feet up while I'm looking at all the beauty that surrounds me.

I guess it's not bad, but it's not us--and it's definitely not this house.  For now, though, we have to spruce this little room up and make it work!


You can see additional notes about these photos from jules HERE.


Great Dame said...

I don't know that I have any great advice for the whole room, but here's a couple things... Can Jules replace the wood mantel with a larger, thicker one that spans further across the stone wall? The new shelf could/should have a cleaner, more contemporary profile. Then add some big, weightier looking accessories on it. Maybe even a large scale starburst mirror.

Also, it looks like there's some recessed lights in the ceiling and skylights. Is there enough ceiling height to add a dramatic light fixture in the center of the room? Something that would convey the MCM sensibility? Just some thoughts.

Jules said...

Hi Dec,

Thanks for posting my designer dilemma. My leather beast of a sectional is currently for sale. My son's allergies are just too bad, and I need furniture with legs so I can vacuum under it, as well as around. So, I think that might help your savvy readers with the dilemma.

My room sure does look ugly on the big ol' interweb.

LondonCalling said...

I think your art wall is going to be fantastic! I see something with more contrast for the rock wall. The current metal art is hard to see at least in the pictures.

Anonymous said...

okay, the good news is that fireplace wall is gorgeous. the bad news is almost everything in that room has to go (if you want to change the feeling and look of the room, of course). what's giving you that closed-in feeling is your furniture arrangement. the massive couches have their backs to the room. you might want to break up the room into 2 distinct sitting areas. one by the fireplace and one oriented toward your TV. i'd take everything out of the room. then bring back in only the things you love and work with those. also, do you really need this much couch real estate for the life you live? if mostly just 2-3 of you sitting down to TV watching, you don't need to furnish as if you're hosting for a superbowl gathering. most of us decorate our homes for those special occasions when we have company rather than our everyday lives.

magnaverde said...

I love the Atomic Ranch look, but, as you said, total immersion isn't for everybody. The good news--for you--is that even in the 195Os, when that look was hip, not many people's houses were as cool & perfect as that. Or as strict. Same thing.

Fortunately, that means that you can get still get an authentic Mid-Century vibe even without going whole hog & getting the expected Noguchi cocktail table or Nelson bench, since most houses didn't have them, even back then. I grew up just above the hill from a subdivision of bright pastel 5Os Modern houses, and I never saw an Eames chair or a Noguchi table in a single one of them. Yet they were clearly of their era. Anyway, that's the good news. here's more: your fireplace isn't close to being the hindrance to achieving the look that you think it is. True, the lighting isn't ideal--or anywhere close, actually: skylights can make any room seem stark--but it can be worked around. So the place itself isn't going to give you any problem.

No, the good news is that the barrier to the look you describe isn't the light, or the fireplace, or the TV cabinet. It's the other things that have crept in which are standing in the way of your achieving the look you say you want.

Big chunky mantel, skinny mantel or no mantel at all, those dainty little topiaries have got to go. I'm sorry. They say "TJ Maxx, 2006." But they're not all that's pinning your room right down to the here-and-now, and to catalogs everywhere. So do the busy rug, the skimpy curtain & its fussy finial, the floral slipcover on the chair, the leaning ladder/shelf and the intrusive white trim.

I'm not sure what the recliner says, but at least you already realize it has to go, so that's a start. The kid seat obviously has to stay, but it's nothing that an afternoon with some new fabric, a needle & thread & some non-toxic spray paint couldn't change to make it a little more in keeping with the MCM vibe. Expecting that it won't always be right where it is at the moment is just wishful thinking, but there's no reason for it to be the brightest thing in the room. Blue & white just don't cut it.

Anyway, once you get rid of--or remake--the things that are actively fighting the look you say you want, then it will be easy to you can work with the things that are aesthetically neutral: the cheap TV cabinet isn't nearly as big a problem as you think, and although the Jonathan Adlerish pieces aren't of the period, since you're not doing a strict interpretation, they can stay, as can--and I'm sure you'll be happy--your sofa, big as it is. besides, you need it to balance the visual weight of your firelplace, anyway.

So what would I do?

I'd paint your walls in a deeper--or brighter, but not lighter--color than the bland beige it is now. Maybe it's terra cotta, maybe its Jadeite green, maybe its Wedgwood blue. The extra contrast a pale color provides will just make everything else look even darker than it already does, but a darker color will warm up the stark look the room has at the minute, and, more importantly, calm down things such as the busy effect of the multi-slat bench against that light-colored wall. A dark color will also hide the skinny proportions of the piece, which, in such close proximity to the massive seating unit, looks almost anorexic. At the same time, with a new fabric on that bench, the dark wall color will emphasize the shape & color of the seat, and bring the piece into a better relation with the shapes & colors on the wall behind. However, whatever the wall color you choose, that contrasting trim needs to go away. You won't find a single MCM interior where the trim is emphasized the way it is here--with white paint, no less--and for no good reason. This would have been considered way too fussy for an interior that was trying to be Modern. So paint out the trim.

Maybe you want to have one accent wall in another color. Yes, I know some people are tired of accent walls, but it's a correct look for the era, and it will let you bring in another accent.

When that busy, dark rug goes away, you'll still need a rug for the little one. If your little kid is beyond the stage of constant spitting up, maybe it's a shag rug. If you think that's asking for trouble, go for a level pile, but either way, avoid big aggressive patterns in dark colors like the one you have. Find a color that contrasts with your walls. You'll be amazed at how much a light rug can brighten a room, much more so than the walls, and especially does that go double when there's a skylight in the room.

OK, so that's the big stuff. Now the little stuff. The pictures all over the place are too busy. I have absolutely no problem with clutter, so your little side table's tight arrangement cluster of framed pics doesn't bother me a bit, but then, I'm not the one going for MCM look, either. For that, this table is all wrong. Send some to another room & hang the rest. Twenty pictures grouped together in a single place--i.e., a wall--will take on the shape of their perimeter & read as One Thing, but sitting scattered all over the room--and angled like that--they just came across as fussy.

Same with that ladder/shelf deal. It's not terrible, and if you wanted to do a room that was all about 2008, it would fit right in. But, again, it's very Pottery Barnish and it's working contrary to idea you're working towards. And your floor lamp's dinky, polite little shade would fit right in at my grandmother's, but MCM lamps didn't look like that. You can keep the lamp, but it needs a much wider shade, one with straight sides, and probably with an interesting texture.

Mainly, start looking for opportunities to create long horizontals, the standard of fifty years ago. Your mantel is one. No, it's not very attractive, but if you were to, say, extend it to one side--without making it any chunkier--it would go along way toward capturing the Mid-Century spirit. Assymetry was big. Therefore, avoid inappropriate symmetry, especially with inconsequential accesories. Also, avoid jittery outlines--the pierced wood-thing on the TV to hide a 3-inch square, the extended uprights on that ladder, the show-offy finial sticking out. Such sticky-out things clutter up the place, and for no good reason. Go for compactness & clarity of outline, so that when you do want to introduce an extended vertical or horiontal as counterpoint, it stands out, rather than blending into a dozen silimar effects. Simplifying erratic outlines like that will also allow your eye to travel around the room unimpeded--those sticky-out things act as visual snags--and also allow your more personal accents--your license plate, the K-on-a-stick, the double-gourd lamp--to claim the attention they deserve, rather than make them fight for it with things not worth noticing.

After once you create a sense of calm & stability in the room & its background, then you can introduce those new things that specifically reference your aesthetic target, knowing that they'll actually be noticed.

Late breaking addition: when I started typing this--I'm really slow--there were no comments, but now I see that your sofa is outta there. Excellent. Now you can find a piece that's more in keeping with your desired aesthetic and more in scale with your room. Not to mention that's a new opportunity for some authentic 5Os color. Cool.

Jules said...


You hit the nail on the head. I have a terrible habit of decorating for the 3 times a year hermits like my husband and I have company.

Absolutely everything in that room can go. In fact, I'm currently taking pictures of everything right now, and the sectional is all but sold.

The only thing that must stay--for now--is the T.V. cabinet. We are buying all new furniture (haven't picked it out, yet) but don't want to buy a new cabinet until we have a flat screen. For now, the box, and the box it holds, stays.

We originally hated the fireplace when we moved in, but I now realize we hate it with our furniture. The fireplace will actually shine when contrasted with the midcentury styled furniture that actually belongs in this house. (It's a 50s ranch).

I'm intrigued by your idea of separate areas, but I think the room might be too small? Including the footprint of the fireplace and accounting for walk ways and the like, the size of the room is about 16x10. This does not include the picture window area adjacent to the fireplace. Ten feet is about 6 inches past the edge of the fireplace.

Jules said...


You crack me up. :)

To answer a few of your questions and let people know what is and isn't staying in the room:

1. What the recliner says:

Lawschool. I was pregnant and studying 14 hours a day. I needed to elevate my feet because I had a circulatory problem, so my parents bought me a recliner. :)

2. The little topiary things:

They don't belong there. :) I was trying to see what a grouping of white objects would look like against the fireplace, and I forgot to take them down. My husband thought I wanted them up there and flanked them. I honestly forgot they were even up there until after I emailed the pictures to Decorno and laughed out loud at how silly they look.

3. The ladder book case:

It was actually in the kids' toy room, but we moved it because I panicked thinking it would topple over on one of them. It's not staying, but I do like that it holds the many books I read.

4. The furniture and rug, in general:

All of this is furniture from our old house, a high ceilinged McMansion. I promise all the heavy and dark pieces (even the rug!) looked better with 20 foot ceilings and loads of light. :)

I don't think the rug says 2006. It says 2004, which is when I bought it. ;-)

5. The skinny lamp:

It's from the nursery! We just moved it there because we weren't committed to buying anything until we knew what to do.

6. The Pictures:

My husband loves pictures everywhere, so I'm working on that. :)

7. The Trim:

Already painted when we moved into the house. I'm not looking to bring the house to a MCM original, so I'm not terribly bothered by the historical snafu.

8. The Curtains:

Sad, aren't they? We bought them and were disappointed to see how lifeless they are. That one was just a simple mistake on our part.

9. The Bench:

That's actually part of a Crate and Barrel dining set that I am selling. :)

I think that's it? Anyway, thanks everyone for the advice so far, and please continue to chime in!

simply seleta said...

A few suggestions:

Paint a more substantial color to balance stone fireplace. Try Ben Moore Danville Tan HC-91.

Mantle: try for a reclaimed piece that's chunky. Lean a series of simple pieces of art in layers [with generous white mattes and black frames]

Sofa: You may consider having it face the fireplace. Don't go too big in your next purchase or you'll lose it's visual appeal. A great piece of furniture must be beautiful from ALL angles. Keep this in mind when you find the right one and inspect every angle. Go for hardwood frame, 8-way hand tied for quality. Soft wood frames sag over time.

Add two matching chairs + a chaise for comfort. Place two chairs on one side of sofa and chaise on the other. Keep the chairs' Finished Width to around 36-38" for scale. The two chairs can be a fun place to bring in a pattern. Try a slipcovered Lee Industries in Pine Cone Hill's "Scrabble Chocolate". It's modern, versatile and elegant. Keep the chaise simple and slipcovered in something like a linen.

Place an unexpected + modern sofa table behind sofa. Metal would be fun! Put two lamps on it [minimum 20" in height] for symmetry and soft lighting. Put baskets or slipcovered stools under the table for texture and substance. Use those cute ones you have!

Place a floorlamp next to chaise - Jamie Young makes a fabulous bamboo base lamp with drum shade.

Consider a big square ottoman for coffee table. Straight legs with a dark stain. No pattern, just plain. Stay away from tufting if you have kids. Crumb nightmare in those buttons.

Windows: take the red ones down and have double width panels made for the big window. An upscale tighly weaved burlap in a deep cream would be so fun. Your workroom will complain, because it's hard to work with, but it offers so much texture. Well worth the investment.

Bring in pillows with strong and modern patterns to pull everything together.

Get a rug such as sisal for texture and versatility.

On the big blank wall do a set of two modern shelves next to each other [try Ballard for a good price point] Dark wood stain would be nice.

studiolo2 said...

These pics blew my mind. It's a beautiful room in itself, but the stuff in it goes in about every direction possible. But--good for you for making do with stuff you've got, rather than dashing out and getting crappy Target-type stuff to try to bandage it.

Okay, I know you want to keep the cabinet, but I'd get rid of it forever and ever. No more TV cabinets ever. Get a coffee-table or cabinet to put your TV on top of. Why not? A lowslung media cabinet will work for whatever kind of screen you end up getting.

Your stone fireplace wall is AMAZING. Get rid of the mantel and the stars: just let it be its beautiful self. You could use the hearth itself for display area, since it's raised. Period pieces of pottery (or whatever your collectibles spirit craves) will move your decor wherever you want it to go.

Get a better fireplace screen and move all your accessories to the wall side of your hearth.

I agreed with most of what Magna said, except about painting the room a color. Amen to Simply's: "Paint a more substantial color to balance stone fireplace. Try Ben Moore Danville Tan HC-91" Yes: balance. The fireplace is outstanding, but you don't want it to contrast; you want to bring it in to the room.

Anonymous said...

The flowered recliner might look sweet in a corner of your bedroom. You could read there when you can't sleep, or throw clothes on it when you're too tired to hang them up. It has that comfortable bedroom look.

I like the wall color. It seems right for a young family with little kids running around, enjoying the sunlight streaming in.

I'd change out the rug for a simpler one, maybe a solid color. Even a nice bound remnant would be fine.

I'd ditch the ladder thing (put it in a kid's room) and get a couple of substantial book cases going if you like to be surrounded by books. A grouping of bookcases somewhere in there could balance the mass and color of the fireplace.

Your furniture is fine, it's just ready to belong to another family. A lot of people now go through two, three or more generations of furniture in their adult years. We don't inherit the way we used to (dying on the bedstead you were born in, and all that...)

Anonymous said...

Since you're iosing the sofa, my first reaction: slip covers, paint and rearrange can get more extravagant. With that mid century fireplace(A new mantle shelf would be nice), a few more midcentury arm chairs and some brightly colored cushions will help. I think I agree with the repainting clique, and I'd also paint or wall paper the tv cabinet. I don't like sectionals, because the always look over powering, and are less versatile. When you replace, get a trim fifties style sofa with legs, and then some seating. And I agree about sending the other chair to the bedroom. Then your cubes will be more useful. I think the blue and white thing could be picked up in upholstery, in drapes, in lampshades.

You need new drapes, even if you order retail linen ones from Crate and Barrel, or Restoration Hardware. I'd get something light and neutral, so that you can use a stronger wall color. Not dark, just not wishy washy. Even white looks like a decision as compared to beige. Can you improve the door casings. They are very undersized to the scale of the room. If not, I'd paint them the same color as the wall, to remove them as a focal point. To me, it also seems that a more consistent bunch of lights, floor lamps if you don't have side tables, with nice drum shades would help.

And I think the inset ceiling lights could be improved too, or at least paint the white tanks to match the adjoining ceiling color so they recede. I like the turquoise table lamp, but not with everything else, so bedroom with the flowered armchair? And yes, the topiary belongs in a garden room, or outside.

Do you have a ton of family photos you could create a scatter group on the wall with?

Anonymous said...

Good idea to move the lamp with the chair.

Cote de Texas said...

I'm very late to the game - just saw this and everyone has already written volumes but here goes:

1. the furniture arrangment is the biggest problem that i can see. Until you sell your sofa - break the sectional up into just a sofa and place it on the wall where the cabinet it.
2. Is that wall with the settee across from the cabinet wall? Place the tv there - either the cabinet or the hanging plasma. I don't mind the tv cabinet at all - i think it actually goes with the room.

3. with this new arrangement it will open your room up immediatley and immensely.

4. de clutter big time.

5. get three chairs - one for next to the sofa and two small, accent type, for across from the sofa - low enough to still see the tv. place a low bench/ottoman long - across the fireplace. this should make a big square seating arrangement in the room.

6. you need woven shades for your windows to add texture (!) to the room to contrast with the fireplace.

7. add drapes - can't tell if you need more than two panels to break up the large window, but two panels at least - and two widths per panels. the curtains you have are much too skimpy and too short.

8. the curtains will add softness to the hard edges of the fireplace.
be sure the curtains go up to the molding - to add height to the room, no lower! then place the shades right up there too. this will increase the appearance of the window and lift up the room. this is very important!

9. get a rug that fits the room properly - a plain rug. of course I would recommend a seagrass or some type of textured rug like that - custom cut.

10. you just have way too much furniture in the room. once you rearrange and break up your sectional, you will be so much better off.

11. paint - a deep rich color - caramel if you like warm tones. or you could go for a beautiful aqua that would contrast with the fireplace. OR a beautiful sagey green.

12. if you go light paint on the walls, I would paint the fireplace stone the same color - i know i know!

18. the ceilings are so low - i would paint them the color of the walls or 1/2 shade lighter. I can't see doing a light fixture with the low walls, but perhaps a set of sconces over the sofa - heavy, black iron types to offset the fireplace. Then

19. I would do one large vertical mirror over the sofa to reflect light and add a shiny surface. Large mirror only - and be sure its' vertical. Horizontal will
bring the ceiling down even more.

the fireplace is def. the focus point and everything should either go with or contrast it. it should be considered with every element you choose.

Hope this helps!!!
Let us know what you are going to do - or show pix!


Cote de Texas said...

I just saw some more pictures on that web site - the bench is in the back - so what is across from the tv cabinet? there are no pictures of that? If you can't put the tv there across from the sofa - you would have to float the sofa which I don't think is a good alternative. the best way would be for the sofa to be on that back wall I think. oh well! just curious what that wall across from the cabinet looks like.

Jules said...

Thanks, everyone, for the great advice so far. I'm normally a Tracy Flick kind of person, so being so clueless isn't the best feeling. :)

I'm not surprised everyone hates the wall color. I hated it the minute it went up. I was originally waffling between a gray/brown or a silvery sage (similar to the popular RH color) but my husband's family convinced me it was to "wild." Hah!

Anon-- we're looking for a sofa right now. We want one with a tight back. We like the Bantom from DWR, but don't want one solid seat cushion. Holly from Decor8 recommended this sofa from Macys last year, and it was surprisingly nice when we went to look at it. I think it might be too big at 81".

My family pictures are in a grouping along the hallway to the bedrooms. Above the bench (part of a dining set we are selling) we have planned an art wall. I collect indie art and have quite a bit sitting collecting dust.

I tried the chair in the bedroom, but it doesn't fit. Off to Craigslist it goes. :)


The wall with the settee is across from the fireplace. If you are looking at the TV cabinet you are sitting on the longest portion of the sectional.

To the left is the fireplace.

To the right is the settee wall. Three feet from the settee is a doorway into the hallway/bedrooms.

Behind the sectional (across from the TV cabinet) is the dining room. It's a classic ranch/mostly open floor plan.

I don't see how I could avoid floating the sofa, which is why I planned on a console/sofa table. Similar to what I have now, but not ugly. ;)

The ceilings are 8ft, and currently the same color as the walls.

The room is about 16x10, although it technically only has 2.5 walls.

I would love to show you all pictures as I update. In fact, I would prefer to run by all my purchases by you guys before I even make them. ;)

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