Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cool, Calm and Collected

Cool, calm and collected is not really me, at least not all in the same sentence. I know one person though, who is always like that, cool (but not cold), calm (but never boring), collected (and very interesting). She was always relaxed and that's what draws me to her. We can all aspire to be that way I guess, or for the mean time have it in our homes. The hallmarks of a relaxing home atmosphere--the colors, the sense of space, the sounds-- speak to us on such a psychological level that achieving it can easily be a science. Nevertheless it is true that we grow into the spaces we live in, and we are all calmed and agitated in different ways. For example, I think zen-like uber-minimalist homes are fabulous, and it relaxes me if it's in a spa, but if I have that ambiance in my home, the bareness of it makes me more restless because my mind gets so bored. 

A true cool, calm and collected home, may yet inspire us to be like so.

Cool is like a perfect autumn day. Quiet yet not silent--life scurries, preparing to retire, but is still about, unlike in winter. Interesting yet not animated--with colors that are rich yet multi-tonal, unlike spring. The air is brisk yet not exhausting--neither cold nor very warm, unlike summer.

Cool is the color green. It is like a forest standing still, deep but not boundless like the sky, mysterious yet not  unfathomable like the sea.
Green is cool yet friendly and inviting. Unlike blue, greens with yellow undertones visually cool while maintaining a sense of warmth. Being in a green space slows our heart rate. Undemanding of attention, it creates a quiet mood.

The greens used on the walls complement the reddish notes of the wood floors. Temper the harsh natural lighting of a home facing west, and cool down rooms that tend to get a lot of sunlight. Create a tranquil mood in a space that's meant for relaxing.

Calm is a palette of whites. It is a landscape blanketed in snow, peaceful and quiet. Soft and undulating, only slightly changing in tone, getting brighter or darker in the sun and in the shadows.

Achieve a sense of calm in a room by dressing it up in multi-tonal creams and whites. No need to use the boring refrigerator or contractor whites, there are literally hundreds of whites out there with a wide range of undertones. This means that there are blue-whites, yellow-whites, green-whites and so on. Having white walls need not be boring. Start with two or three whites in varying degrees of intensities, use two for different walls adjacent to each other, and one for the ceiling. Pick a more standard, crisper white for the trim to pop everything out. The key is using different whites with the same undertones--this makes the colors flow together and make the room seamless without getting boring. A typical paint color card from the hardware store will have varying degrees of one color; it shows the color (say, yellow), decrease in intensity and finally turn to white or a white enough neutral at the top or bottom of the trip. Or, a card could just show you a white that has an undertone in that color. For a more seamless transition, pick two or three of these from the same color family (all blues, or all yellows), and pick out three of the whites. If you're craving a little more color, pick out the last two or three lightest tints from the same strip.
Collected is the way nature randomly arranges itself; how everything that seems to be just thrown together with so little effort can look so outrageously beautiful. Achieve a sense of collected-ness in your home with these simple tips:                                                                               
  • Resist the urge to buy too much from one look displayed in one store. Pick just a few items that really speak to you and personalize it by mixing it up with what you already have.     
  • Take your time. There's nothing wrong with allowing your home to fill up slowly with the things you find over time.
  • Pick up something when you go on a trip. It's these little items that are the most meaningful.
  • Don't go matchy-matchy. Mixing up a leather couch with a fabric or woven chair keeps things more interesting and solves the problem of the "showroom" look.                      

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where Sofas Go To Die

Goodwill and the Salvation Army won't take it. You left it out on the street for three days and no one took it. You added a "FREE!" sign and it was still there. Animals are starting to live on it. What to do??? Just like that car that you ran into the ground, there are times when something is simply not re-usable anymore.

The cop-out is to call waste management for a bulk disposal pick-up, and you know where that sofa will end up. Obviously, this is not the best solution.

I searched around and found some sites that do something called De-Manufacture. They take the parts apart, screws, etc., and save what can be used. In my opinion any recycling that involves the use of automotive transport (which ultimately means fuel and carbon emissions) and any type of machinery to flatten or artificially decompose a product reduces the green benefits of the recycling done by using energy anyway. For example, instead of having to recycle plastic bottles, why don't we just not use them in the first place. The upside of recycling though is, we are not contributing to the landfill problem.

Check out these links for more information:

You can also check your community for charitable organizations that will take worn sofas and do the repairs themselves.

"Should I re-upholster a sofa or buy a new one?"

I got this question today: 
"Should I re-upholster a sofa or buy a new one?"

Undoubtedly millions of discarded and unwanted sofas end up in landfills. There is the option of donating, but centers such as Goodwill and Salvation Army will only accept items that are in generally good, sell-able condition. In other words, if your sofa has stains or tears, they will not accept it. So you are only left with two options--toss or repair.

Don't be surprised: Unless what you have is a high end sofa upwards of about $2,000, the cost of reupholstering will always be higher than what you had originally paid for the sofa in the first place. If you are not planning to upgrade, you will most certainly find a replacement that costs a lot less than reupholstering. Why? Fabric is not cheap. Remember that the cost of the original fabric on your sofa cost a lot less coming from the factory. This is the same way that a custom-made dress costs more then an off-the-rack creation. Then there's the cost of filling, repairs, and the labor. 

Choosing to reupholster though gives you more choices as to the quality of covering material you want, texture and pattern and filling. This options are all available at most showrooms, though it will also increase the price of your sofa. 

Check if your sofa is worth saving and how you use it. The true value and lifespan of a sofa lies beyond the attractiveness of its shape or covering. It's the bones that matter! A good quality sofa is worth the expense of re-upholstering.
Above, left: 4-way hand-tied springs, above, right: 8-way hand-tied springs

  • Weight: Lift your sofa. Heavier (note that sofa beds will be heavier because of the bed frame inside) generally means better. The sturdiness of a sofa has to do with the frame--the type of wood and the construction. Sofas made of hardwoods such as oak and mahogany last longer. You can easily reupholster these sofas and keep using it for as long as the life of the new upholstery.
  • Springs: The best kinds of sofas are crafted using a method called "8-way hand-tied." This is a labor-intensive process that produces the best quality springs. The cheaper ones use clips or 4-way ties. Ask your re-upholsterer about the quality of your sofa's springs and if it can be re-tied to relieve the sagging.

Below, right: Inexpensive cushion with inner polyurethane foam and Dacron batting. Below, left: Better cushion with inner springs, foam, and outer layer of feathers (Note: Ikea now also carries lines that are feather-filled!)

  • Cushions: A super-quick way to determine the quality is by opening the zipper. If you open it and the polyurethane foam is right under the fabric--you've got yourself a cheap cushion. Better cushions have layers consisting of an inner core of springs or foam, surrounded by batting (quilting material) and covered with a liner fabric. Again, re-upholstering allows lets you upgrade on this.

  • Level of use: If the sofa is in a high-use area such as the family room, it needs to stand up to the wear and tear. In this case, re-upholster if you have a good sofa in your hands, and just buy a new one if you really don't (unless you're hard-core on the eco-factor). The cost per use of a new and better quality sofa will be less than salvaging a sofa with poor bones. If the sofa is in a formal living room where hardly anybody sits, it does not matter so much. Recover it in a pretty, new material and you're good to go.
  • If you're worried about the eco-factor: Consider that if your sofa is on the lower end of the price spectrum, re-upholstering it also puts the old  foam, the batting and the fabric in the landfill. Toss in the light woods used in it and it's not that big of a difference. Chances are, you will end up having to re-upholster again. On the other hand, upgrading to a better quality sofa gets you one that will last longer. The better quality also means you may not have to re-upholster for a long time, so it really is more eco-friendly.
Calico Corners--offer material and re-upholstering services.

In South OC:
Five-Star Upholstery and Drapery
23854 Vía Fabricante
Mission Viejo, CA 92691-3153
(949) 770-6504

We-R-Fabrics, Inc.
25782 Obrero Drive
Mission Viejo, CA 92691-3103
(949) 770-4662

Mid-range stores--such as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Ethan Allen all offer sofas with good-quality woods and eight-way hand-tied construction. When buying for a high-use area, consider spending a little more--again, think cost/use. For a formal living room, you can just go for the looks and shop at the lower-end of Ikea or the likes of Pier 1, Living Spaces and Easylife.
Homegoods--will sometimes have good-quality furniture if you're willing to work with the limited selection.
Consignment--stores always have better quality furniture on stock. The price point will almost always tell you about the quality of the furniture. The store should also have information about the brand and origin.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fancy Full

On March 5, Tim Burton's spin on the Lewis Carroll classic hits theaters. Summon your inner child and indulge in something just as fanciful and and fun. Know though that there is a fine line between whimsical and cute. Whimsical is Tim Burton's spin on the classic tale. Cute, is well, the Disney version. Whimsy is the one (or two) item that is playful and a little off-kilter, takes the edge of the serious everyday and makes you laugh. The piece that makes them wonder.

         "Would you

              like a little

     more tea?

Top to bottom, left to right: One Lump or  Two Lamp table lamp, $198, Monogrammed mugs, $6, Orquidea teapot, $48, Anthropologie. Teatime clock, $32, Brighton.


  "If I had a world of my own

        everything would be

  nonsense . . ."

Who's The Fairest? mirror, $148, Plucked Petals measuring spoon, $24, Anthropologie. Perched Birds accent table, $49.95, Pier 1

          "What key?"
Castle Key bottle opener, $12, Anthropologie. Vintage Keys, $19 for set of 7, Pottery Barn

       "The mushroom of course!"

Decorative glass mushrooms, $8-10, Pier 1
"Did you notice

her petals?"

Multi-flowers wall decor, $49, Pier 1. Blacksmith Blossom chair, $248, Anthropologie

     "Off with her 

Recycled glass head, $19.95, Pier 1                       

Over or Under?

Have you ever seen those funny Cottonelle commercials? Word play or any other kind, when it comes to over or under, hey, it's all good. While some would insist that over is the right way, it all comes down to who is saying it. Who's to say what the right way to roll is? It's all a matter of preference.
Here's a video clip of the commercial:

Over or under. There still are matters that are best left being either way.

Filling up a display cabinet or a console table with everything you own and everything that's ever been given to you--OVER.
Edit, edit, edit! Not everything has to be on display. This is true in dressing yourself up or decorating your house. If you can no longer dust your display shelf or fireplace mantle because there are a hundred little things on it, it's time to take a long hard look at what you've got and decide which ones really deserve to seen in public.
Design note: When creating an arrangement of objects or a vignette, odd numbers work best (unless that number is something like 17). Have a variety of sizes and heights for visual interest.

A little bit of everything: This vignette of five items combines function and sentimentality and proves that you can express yourself on such a well-edited scale.

An empty coffee table--UNDER.
Sure, they were made for propping your feet up while watching TV, but even a simple vase of fresh flowers now and then can lift up your mood and bring color into your room.
Design note: A coffee table must be around 3/4 the length of your sofa and must be neither too high or too low for the seating around it.

Light and fit: Note the simple forms and lines on the flowers, the vase and the table. The transparency of glass allows you to add objects without adding much visual weight by allowing you to see through it. Right: Tanner Coffee Table, $399, Pottery Barn.

Pillows and throw pillows that occupy half of the bed--OVER.
In your room, the bed is your oasis, promising of comfort and pleasure at the end of the day. It should beckon you to jump in with abandon. The last thing you want to have to do is to remove eight or so small pillows to make room for you (and put them back on in the morning). You need to be able to fall into bed, to read, to sleep or whatever your business is. There should be no sweeping involved--they only do that in movies, and it's usually a huge desk in an office penthouse.
Design note: For a queen bed, a good formula would be two shams for visual bulk, for cushioning and for leaning, two or three regular pillows for sleeping, and one or two small-ish accent pillows for interest. You might also add a colorful throw for flourish and to cover yourself when you just want to sit up in bed without messing up your covers. 

Sweet slumber: A bed should look inviting and must fulfill that promise when you dive in. Left: Pia duvet set,$129,

Big wall, small picture frames--UNDER.
Scale and proportion. The issue at hand here is the relationship between objects or parts of a whole.  A big expanse of wall calls for a bigger piece of framed art, or a carefully chosen collage of smaller pieces that read as a whole. For general purposes, most frames should hang at eye level or just a few inches above that, and there should be no more than 12-15 inches of negative space (the empty wall space) on the left and right sides of the frame or collage of frames. A really small picture frame just gets lost when hung on a big wall. 
Design note: Photos too small? Mat them! An 8" x 10" photograph can be blown up using a larger frame with a mat.

Vary and unify: The different sizes and orientations of the frames are unified by using the same kinds of frames and all black and white photos. Right: Esquire Collection wall frames, Aaron Brothers

Small room, huge sofa--OVER.
Again, scale and proportion. It was a sad day when I had to tell a friend there was just no way we could rearrange her living room unless she parted with one of her two overstuffed leather recliner sofas. The problem was she had this small living room and these two huge sofas. This is a common mistake when selecting living room seating.  Why? Viewed in a large showroom with high ceilings, these sofas don't really look big at all, but in any given standard 250 sq. foot living room, they are simply what they are--oversized. While they would fit in a large family room, they are too big for most. There should be enough space left for other items and for proper circulation.
Design note:  There should at least be 18 inches of space between your coffee table and the edge of your sofa.

If you must have leather: Choose carefully. This leather sofa achieves balance by toning down the heft of leather with its slim scale and straight lines. It is all leather but looks light because it is raised up on legs. Avoid monotony by picking a chair covered in fabric, no more need to be matchy-matchy. Also note the open design of the coffee and side tables used to balance the visual weight of the leather sofa.
Right: Photo from
Not enough lighting--UNDER.
The better stores can make that dress look really good on you in the fitting room, you buy it without a second thought. The furniture looks so much better at a Crate and Barrel store than at any Walmart not just because they mostly are, but because even the finest cherry cabinet will look dull and washed out under Walmart's high ceilings and stark, industrial white lighting. Even the prize (and/or taste) difference of a burger at a Chili's restaurant  and at a Burger King has something to do with the lighting at either stores. A Burger King Whopper (albeit in harsh, flourescent lighting) often tastes better than the restaurant variety, but sometimes you are willing to pay more for the pleasure of eating your burger at a dimly-lit Island's or Chili's. We will eat and run in one and tend to linger in another. Lighting is one of the most important elements in the design of a room. An improperly lit space can have the best looking furnishings but still look dull. Colors and textures are dulled when there is not enough proper lighting in the room. A room can look smaller if there are too many dark corners, and we cannot perform our functions well if there is not enough task lighting.
Design note: Have at least the two basic kinds of lighting: Ambient and task. Ambient is the general lighting you have in the space, such as your recessed lights. No recessed lights? Floor lamps and table lamps scattered around the room fill it with beautiful pools of light. Task lighting is the kind you use for tasks such as reading. For example, a side table beside a chair or a couch must have a table lamp for reading. 
Go Green!: That being said, there are now CFL (Compact Flourescent Lighting) bulbs for every purpose. The technology has come a long way, they now come in various sizes and shapes and the light is much warmer you'd think it was incandescent. 

Placement is key: Most overhead lighting such as our recessed can lights, only provide general light, and on low ceilings can cast unflattering shadows on people's faces. Otherwise they are too high to light up tasks such as reading. Floor lamps like these, double-duty as ambient and task lighting. Above left: Tripod Floor Lamp, $350, Design Within Reach. Right: Pleated Shade Floor Lamp, $249, West Elm

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pipe Dreams

One in eight people on the planet do not have safe water to drink. There is a small town in the Philippines where 50 people share an outhouse that empties out into the sea. For more on this story, check out our Outrreach and Community page.

Above photo: A drinking well is a rarity in places like Rwanda. Photo courtesty of

Fashion Sense: Design lessons from New York Fashion Week 2010

 "I'm going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars and I've got to go looking like a queen!" 

Blame it on Scarlett O' Hara. Who could forget the Portieres Dress--that dress of moss green velvet fashioned out of the sun-faded drapes of Tara? It was a symbol of Scarlett's will to survive (and her astute fashion sense), proof that there's a fine line between fashion design and interior design that can in fact sometimes be crossed. There still are prints out there that should only belong on a chintz sofa, but now and then there appear some hybrids or crossovers, if you will, that are just genius.

In 2006, Brizo, Delta's high-end brand that makes faucets look like fine art, took this idea to another level. A collaboration with hot young designer Jason Wu (he designed Michelle Obama's inaugural gown) now brings us faucets and dresses that influence each other. During the recent New York Fashion Week Fall 2010 show, Wu presented creations inspired by Brizo faucets. They also came up with ads featuring Wu's frothy, diaphanous dresses also inspired by the faucets.

Other trends worth noting from the show are the fabrics that are touchable, the bold and artful colors and the emphasis on texture. For our purposes here, we can learn something from fashion in that if there is one thing you can change in a room for maximum impact, focus on color, texture and adding dimension.
One of the most inexpensive ways to instantly change the mood of a room is to paint. Sometimes one wall is all it takes. Take a wall that you would like to emphasize and paint it a bold, statement-making color.

No pastels here. Saturated colors predominate these collections by Cynthia Rowley (left) and Jason Wu (below). Used sparingly, they are bold enough to make a statement without overpowering a room. Photo credit:

Note the transformation in the room below. The gutsy purple on the accent wall complements the yellow base in the neutral color on the ceiling and on the opposite wall.          

Below, right: Paint by Sherwin-Williams: Majestic Purple (no. 6545) left wall, Latte (no. 6108) right wall, Yellow Beam (no. 7123) ceiling and Java (no. 6090) trim.
Texture is the way to go when you want to create interest without commiting to a pattern. Choosing a pattern is trickier, more personal and more involved. While the wrong pattern can be a disaster, some textures that read as pattern is a safer way to go. The genius of texture is that engages our eyes first, and then invites us to touch.

Proceed with caution: Clearly this is not one of the best in Oscar de la Renta's (yes, Fall 2010) collection, but think of that top reincarnated into a pillow, or a lamp that makes a dramatic modern statement Below, right: Woven Pendant Lamp, $199 West Elm.
Photo credit:

Lastly, do as fashion does and add some things that are unexpected. Three-dimensional wall art add  punctuation to an otherwise bare wall, or an otherwise bland arrangement of wall frames.

Below, left:  Spiral Wall Art, $49 West Elm.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Take Me Away

      “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
                                                                                       - Mark Twain

My son, exploring the woods of Andrew Molera Park in Big Sur, CA
Longevity runs in my family. My maternal grandmother lived until she was 97, a more sedate, mellowed, skinny and gnarly version of herself. My memories of her tell me that she spent at least 90 of those years being the fiery, dynamic, hardworking and fast-talking woman that she is. The rest she spent in quiet solitude on her favorite chair, weaker and quieter, yet just as feisty. She was an amazing woman; somebody whose accomplishments far exceeded the lot that was given her. Yet one of the things I would never understand about her was that she did not go out much. In fact she spent her last few years being exactly where she always was--at home. 

Walk (or cook) on water. Photo left: Hiking at Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park, Below: Detail of back-lit blue agate countertop,

Given the luck to inherit those genes, I still do not think I will have enough years left in me to visit the great number of corners and places that I have on my list. Though I always perfectly happy where I am, rarely a day  goes by that I'm not wishing to be somewhere else;  hiking up and down the valleys of Yosemite, staring out at the majestic vistas of the Grand Canyon or swimming in the warm, opal waters of Boracay, Philippines.
Let this chair take you to Bali. Above: Barcelona Bronze Sun Chase, $999/set of 2, www., Below: Animal Jacquard bath towels, $14-24,

With each separation, the welcoming familiar smells and light of my home that I love so much, gathers depth, intensity. Each motel and hotel , good or bad, cheap or expensive, is a curiosity because it is not home. Over the years I have noticed that the best hotels are the ones that go to great lengths to make you feel at home. Yet when at home, it is sometimes nice to be transported somewhere else.
 Dream of exotic places. Photo credit: Ralph Lauren Home,, Below: Ghana vase, $24.95, Z Gallerie

Ralph Lauren, the most successful American purveyor of glamour largely bases his success on the idea of escape--safaris and ranches, rocky beaches, shiny white boats. His clothes are supposed to be able to transform you into a tan, weathered sailor, a preppy polo-player, an experienced traveler back from a safari adventure. Even if they weren't the real deal, an ensemble consisting of a striped t-shirt, crisp white pants and a blazer in the color combos of red, white and navy blue---will make you feel like you're really going sailing. He specializes in transporting his audience out of the everyday experience. It was said that his art was an expression of his own "yearning for something beautiful and timeless that conjures up a world and takes you there."
Sail to faraway shores (or Dana Point, CA below) with vintage nautical lighting. Below right: Maritime pendant, $495, Below, center, Royal Master Sealight pendant, $359, both from Restoration Hardware

This credo I think, has a lot to do with the timelessness of his design. A striped t-shirt, whether it is a Ralph Lauren original or from Target, will always look right. In the same way at home, if you surround yourself with the things you love, or that tell stories about the places you've been (and would like to be), you will never get tired of it. You can change the carpet that is worn, or buy a new sofa, but your rooms will always have that soul that is not apart from your own. You will imbibe your quarters with a timeless allure that will never cease to inspire and provoke.

Pick color combinations that either speak to you or about you. Look out into the sea with an accent wall of turquoise, or stare out into the amber sunset with orange. Express a modern attitude with striking combinations of gray and primary colors, walk through an English garden with dusty lilacs and pale yellows.
Vintage luxury train ride to Istanbul by way of wall sconce. Above: Meridian demi-sconce, $219, Restoration Hardware
Beyond the photographs and the souveneirs, other items like plants, the fabric on your sofa and pillows and the kinds of flowers that you bring in; all have the power to transform. It all depends on the choices you make. It does not have to be a lot. A single, large artisinal vase made from your birth country or your favorite place, filled now and then with your favorite flowers, so simple and basic yet speak volumes, will always please you when you behold it. Neither does it have to be obvious to everybody. When it comes to having a look that will be pleasing for years to come,  a room's real power lies in it being able to speak to and satisfy ones who inhabits it the most--you.