Joanna Thornhill, author of My Bedroom Is An Office & Other Interior Design Dilemmas, reveals her take on common decor conundrums. By Gabrielle Fagan.
Even true decoristas, who pursue trends on Pinterest and Instagram with the dedication of truffle hounds, can struggle to keep pace with today’s fast-changing looks. In the blink of an eye, fashion can consign your furniture and fittings to the decor dustbin.
Proving this point, John Lewis has just announced the demise of the three-piece suite. The store’s seen sales of the traditional seating combo plummet, which confirms a trend picked up by the Office for National Statistics.
Vases of twisted willow, wallpaper on a feature wall and rectangular mirrors are all out – while modular furniture, a sofa (preferably velvet) accompanied by separate ‘accent’ chairs and footstools, wallpaper on the ceiling, gallery walls and individual ‘hero’ cushions are in.
So, what if you don’t want a ‘past its sell-by-date’ interior, but can’t afford expensive mistakes either? To the rescue comes interiors stylist and writer Joanna Thornhill, with her brilliant new book, My Bedroom Is An Office & Other Interior Design Dilemmas.
It’s packed with answers to many of the most common home styling conundrums – because, as Thornhill says: “Many people can get overwhelmed or struggle to make decisions about their homes these days. While some love to renovate, others just don’t know how to begin.
“Whichever camp you’re in, it can be daunting to navigate all that Pinterest fodder and Instagram #inspo to get to the nitty gritty and decide on your style.”
Here’s her advice on five of the most common home decor dilemmas…
Should I go open-plan?
While large, airy open spaces are undoubtedly more in vogue now than warrens of tiny, dark, disjointed rooms, Thornhill advises giving careful consideration “before racing to knock down every internal wall in sight”.
She says: “Think carefully about how you’d use the opened up space, and if it would work for you both now and in five years’ time.” Otherwise, that bold move could lead to “regret”, if it leaves you no escape from facing “piles of washing-up/sofa-eating dog/acres of ugly plastic kids’ toys”.
In recent years, she notes, there’s even been a shift back towards separate living spaces. Somewhere in the middle might be most ideal. “For most people, a modicum of flexibility and defined separation is still the best option. If you do open up, consider installing sliding doors or a floor-length curtain to enable you to turn your sitting room back into a cosy, intimate den when required.”
DECOR TIP: A dining space incorporated into a kitchen will certainly get more use than a dining room that’s shut off, Thornhill points out. She advises considering consolidating these areas, while retaining a separate living room. Alternatively, retaining an element of boundary by creating a large opening between two spaces, rather than removing all walls completely, can be a compromise.
Is a feature wall a cliché?
“It felt as if the world reached ‘Peak Feature Wall’ several years ago, as we all fell over ourselves to turn our chimney breasts into statement centrepieces,” says Thornhill. “It’s by no means over for the feature wall – but it must be handled appropriately or it will feel dated.”
It’s often better, she suggests, to use your statement colour or paper inside the alcoves on either side of a chimney breast, which will look more subtle but no less striking. “Choosing a darker tone or pattern will create the illusion that the walls are receding, enhancing the feeling of space,” she adds.
Likewise, adding dark patterns and colours to the end walls of a long, narrow room can help it appear less tunnel-like. In a bedroom, a “bold design behind the bedhead will add impact without distracting you when you’re trying to sleep”.
DECOR TIP: Using colour and pattern to punctuate certain spaces can be useful in a large or multi-functional room, by visually ‘claiming’ the different zones. “But do carry the colour through into accent pieces, to stop it from feeling random,” says Thornhill. “If there’s a nagging little voice inside you desperate to plaster that cool chevron print over all four walls, go for it: It’ll only feel half-hearted if you don’t.”
My windows are overlooked – how can I create more privacy?
“If net curtains aren’t your thing, try clever blinds or frosting films,” suggests Thornhill. “Semi-sheer blinds can block prying eyes and diffuse the light, but the loss of view or context can feel a little oppressive. Bottom-up blinds – which operate the reverse way to standard roller blinds – allow you to control exactly what you can and can’t see.” she adds. “They can be a great option where privacy needs can change throughout the day.
“An unsung hero, window frosting film, has experienced a boost in popularity lately. Designers are beginning to collaborate with manufacturers, so it’s easier to find interesting, on-trend patterns, which can turn your windows into a real statement.”
As an alternative to shutters, which can be pricey, she suggests a cafe-style curtain covering the lower half of a window, as an effective quick-fix. “All it needs is some fabric, a line, and if sewing’s not your thing, some clips.”
DECOR TIP: Plants and foliage can make great natural screening, says Thornhill, whether that’s a strategic hedge or tall grassy plants outside a window, or window boxes. “Train vines up a trellis or window grille, or hang trailing plants in front of a window,” she suggests.
Am I stuck with my existing wall tiles?
“You might be stuck with (your tiles) but that doesn’t mean you can’t transform them,” says Thornhill. Tile paint may have a bad ‘rep’ (think crudely updated pub loo or budget rental flat), but, Thornhill insists, if it’s done well it can look surprisingly slick.
“For a great finish, make sure the tiles are immaculately clean and bone dry,” she says, advising that fungicidal wash, limescale remover and even a light sanding with fine-grade sandpaper can all be beneficial, especially if tiles are particularly stained or very shiny. Apply the paint with a foam roller to avoid brush marks. “Standard emulsion paint will work if you combine it with an appropriate primer and waterproof topcoat. Finish with a grout pen to complete the illusion.”
Laying new tiles over existing ones is another route, but this will only work if the original tiles are clean and sound. “If tiles are plain but feel bland, spruce them up with a coloured grout,” she adds. “Grout’s available in a range of colours, from pastels to metallics. Use a grout-removing tool to get rid of old, flaky grout, then add your new colour.”
DECOR TIP: “Tile stickers have the reputation of being gimmicky, but these days there’s a surprisingly on-trend selection available,” enthuses Thornhill. “For a small area, go bold and add the stickers to every tile, but for larger areas, where the cost might become prohibitive, display in a striking strip or use only on random tiles.”
How do I choose art to match my interior?
If you think you need to match your art to your decor – “don’t, as it’s a bit naff”, declares Thornhill, adding that telling an artist you’re looking for a painting to complement your curtains is a sure-fire way of upsetting them!
“It’s a fair niggle; most artists favour creative integrity over work that sits nicely next to some scatter cushions,” she says, advising instead that you take any planned artwork into consideration at the redecorating stage.
“Let it inspire your design scheme via one particular element – colour, pattern or style – without being too literal and ending up with a matchy-matchy space,” she says. “If you find yourself seeking artwork to dress an already decorated space, do still try to let your taste in art be your guide, rather than looking for something that matches your rug. You can always tweak the odd interior accessory afterwards to help it all hang together more cohesively.”
DECOR TIP: “Pick up on abstract shapes in the artwork and bring elements of them into a few accessories, or add a black-and-white photo print to a mainly monochrome interior palette,” Thornhill suggests. “For colourful works, seek out a hue that features sparingly in the painting, and use it as an accent in the setting.”
My Bedroom Is An Office & Other Interior Design Dilemmas by Joanna Thornhill is published by Laurence King Publishing, priced £14.99. Available now.