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Like almost anything in life, mastering interior design is the result of a lot of trial and error. Whether you’re a professional designer or just decorating your own home, you have to try things out to see what works and what you like. For example, maybe you fell in love with a table at the store only to realize it’s completely the wrong size when you get it home. Or maybe you painted an entire room based off of a paint sample and forgot to consider what the color would look like in your low-light space. Mistakes happen, but the good part is that we learn from them. So, we asked the designers from the 2023 Real Simple Home to tell us about the biggest design mistakes from their careers—and what design lessons they learned as a result.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Bobby Berk: “After years of having roommates, I was very excited to furnish my very first ‘adult’ apartment. I ended up ordering a bunch of furniture online, including a new sofa, dining table, chairs—pretty much everything. When it all arrived, the sofa would not fit through the door (no matter what we tried), the dining table was way too large, and the chairs were teeny tiny. Instead of having a fully designed apartment, I ended up with a huge hassle and a bunch of furniture I had to repack and haul into my elevator.
This experience definitely taught me a valuable lesson as a designer: the importance of planning and measuring. I learned to double- and triple-check the dimensions of everything before ordering to make sure it all fits. For large pieces of furniture, I will even lay down tape to see exactly how large the footprint will be in the room. It also helped me evolve into a designer who is always aware of the details, and thinking about how each part of an interior needs to work together (and fit together) to create a successful room.”
The Lesson: Grab a tape measure! Bring one with you to the store, jot down the dimensions of your space, and follow Bobby’s lead: tape off the area a rug or piece of furniture will occupy to make sure it feels right in the room.
Being Too Hands-Off
Linda Hayslett: “In my career, a mistake I made early on was not realizing that even if you have the best notes, layouts, elevations, and renderings, that many contractors and subcontractors [may not read them thoroughly] to help a project go smoothly.
As a designer, I’ve evolved in taking a more hands-on approach to job sites and projects. Going on site and seeing progress, answering questions subcontractors may have, and seeing even small changes really helps in keeping a project on track and looking good in the end. It’s important to be a part of the team, even if you’re not directly employed with my team. Showing up to help makes it smoother for the project timeline.”
The Lesson: When you’re embarking on a home reno, whether big or small, don’t be afraid to check in with the pros you’ve hired to manage the project. It doesn’t mean you’re micromanaging if you check in to make sure things are going according to plan.
I often find myself regretting the times that I didn’t make the bigger, bolder choice.
— Kim Vargo
Playing It Safe
Kim Vargo of Yellow Brick Home: “I often find myself regretting the times that I didn’t make the bigger, bolder choice. Next time you find yourself considering safe vs. bold, go BIG—and watch the compliments pour in.
I’ve learned that the more I truly do what I feel in my gut—whether it’s unusual, trendy, or somewhere in-between—I fall more and more in love with the spaces we design. Our kitchen is a great example of that. I knew I wanted red/terracotta cabinetry, but I had a tough time finding inspiration photos to get Scott [Kim’s husband and design partner] on board. But the more I shared my idea with passion, the more he knew we had to go for it. Now, our terracotta kitchen cabinets make me smile every single day! I’ve never once regretted making the bolder choice.”
The Lesson: Just go for it! Build a Pinterest board or moodboard to get your family on board with your design idea.
Not Considering Scale
Michelle Gage: “You learn to do better, but my biggest regrets have always been with scale: a sofa that’s too small for the room or a rug that’s too large. Floor plans are a crucial part of the design process to help determine what fits best in the room.”
The Lesson: Try using a 3D program to help visualize elements of a room before you buy bulky furniture. Or follow Bobby’s trick above and use tape to measure out the area a piece of furniture will take up.
Forgetting to Back Things Up
David Quarles IV: “I would have to say not backing up my photos and measurements on my devices [is my biggest mistake]. After a trip to Puerto Rico, I ‘left’ my phone in the ocean, but just the week before had captured all of our before photos and space planning on the phone—but I backed nothing up on the cloud. That mistake set us back two weeks during the planning phase, since I had travel scheduled right after the first trip, and the rest of the team was also out.
To combat that, I now have my design assistant take the measurements—because she’s a rockstar—and I will also ask that our contractor team grab an extra set of measurements just in case. This way, we’ve actually improved and shortened our process since we’re able to compare notes and provide each other measurements one may have missed. We’re able to cover more ground in less time, allowing us to take on larger projects without much strain in planning!
The Lesson: Take photos on your phone, and don’t forget to back them up! This way, you can access images of your space when you’re out at the store. Similarly, save measurements in the Notes app on your phone or in a shared doc that you can access from anywhere.
Doing Too Many Accent Walls
Megan Hopp: “One thing I would say in the beginning of my career was that I was not as good at advocating for correct decision making in regard to paint and wall coverings. Because it is a very expensive endeavor often and eats up a large portion of a client’s budget, it’s something that triggers an anxiety of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is permanent, what if it’s too much?’ So in the beginning of my career, I would sort of fold a lot and let people do a lot of accent walls—and I am very personally against accent walls … It’s just not enough. Like in my opinion, it’s always, always, always better to wrap the whole room.”
The Lesson: Rethink that accent wall! Why not do all four (or maybe five) walls instead?