An Exercise: Designing "undesigned" spaces

There are many different types of rooms to love.  The types of rooms I'm thinking of today however, are "undecorated" decorated rooms.  The "undecorated" rooms feel as if they were created effortlessly & naturally.  They're very personal, just as a decorated room can be.  They can be done in any design style- be it traditional, modern, cottage, etc.- but they just feel as if they've been created over time, without a ton of thought, and if they've come to be almost by way of  chance.  They work, but at first glance we don't necessarily know why.   But when you see them, you just want to be there. 

(image above, Atlanta Bartlett)  Although these rooms look effortless, it often takes great thought to create these "undesigned" spaces on a schedule.  Often these rooms develop naturally over time...  Things get added in, others are removed.  Sometimes function trumps beauty.  I personally find it much more challenging to create a room that looks as if it's been created without much effort.  When I'm hired by a client, I'm on a timeline.  I can't just say, "Well, let's do this and that and let's let the rest develop over time."  I have to create a space that looks as if it's been created effortlessly & naturally over time.  It's a very fine line to walk.  On one side you have beauty & perfection and on the other side you have mismashed & junky & odd/cluttered or unfinished.  (The room below is a location offered by Beach Studios...  not finished)  I want to create rooms that are beautiful yes, but that also feel extremely personal & a bit "off"/ not perfectly done.

There's something intrinsically beautiful & interesting about imperfection or the not-so-pretty to me.  I don't mean worn finishes or chips, but something "off." Aspects of a room that just shouldn't quite work, yet do. In my wall of Leonardo Da Vinci sketches, I couldn't help being drawn to the "grotesque" drawings of people that Da Vinci did. (He believed that to truly appreciate & create beauty, we had to first understand the grotesque. Hmm.... Deep thoughts. But I see that. ) But something about the ugly drawings & purposefully hideous & gnarled faces is interesting and somehow beautiful to me. I can't quite explain it... Dave kept asking me why I was putting up all of the ugly pictures. Can't help it!

 Don't get me wrong, it takes a a ton of skill/ talent & an amazing eye to create a space where the room is coordinated beautifully and is perfectly "designed..."  I'm in love with plenty of rooms that look carefully coordinated, with the right blend of new & old, high & low, color & texture and creativity.  I ooooh and aaaaah at rooms with tight matching color schemes.  Some of my favorite designers often create these types of spaces.  I know I do.  But right now I really want to delve into the "undecorated" rooms.  When I do a client's home, for the most part, I want it to look as if I haven't been there.  I don't want it to look as if a designer did the space...  more as if they're just a homeowner with an amazing eye & style.  (Now of course, some clients do want the "designed" look & if so, we go for that.)  But in general, my goal is to tread softly while still creating something unique & beautiful & stylish & real.  It has to be "perfectly imperfect." (below pic of our LR as it was this past fall with paintings that aren't perfectly balanced.)

 I've been noticing lately that a lot of photographers have this look in their homes.  Check out photos of Victoria Pearson's home featured in House Beautiful a while back.  (One of my favorites, the photos are taken by Victoria herself):   

 A lot of the other rooms I've noticed with this look also belong to designers themselves.  I guess it's beacause they have more time, more freedom to create these amazing spaces.  They can throw things in without knowing they "why" and do it "just because."  Or maybe we're just more fearless in our own homes...   I think this also comes when there is a high level of trust between designer and client...  when the client is willing to take risks with the designer.  Design blogger Alek of From the Right Bank totally has it nailed down:

In these types of rooms, things seem to be almost thrown together by a truly stylish person, although I'm sure in reality, the {stylish} person doing the room took great care & put lots of thought into the process.   It seems like a lot of beautiful rooms come about through a long process of tweaking & editing & rearranging.  Color combinations are often a bit more complex or even extremely simple.  They're often unexpected or layered.  (image below from Downtown Chic)

For example, in my aqua family room (below) when deciding on a fabric for my white to-be-slipcovered ottoman, I was deciding between 2 fabrics: 

The first was a pretty linen damask in aqua & brown  (the colors are off in the pic but the aqua pretty much perfectly matched the walls)

and the second was an orange & golden geometric print with tiny spots of aqua.:

As you can see, I went with the geometric print in golden hues, even after my husband told me he thought it was ugly.  I knew it was the less obvious choice but it was the one that gave the space more character & a sense of age & I just loved it.  (Also knowing that it's a slipcover that can be easily removed made me feel better...  although we haven't taken it off yet ;)

Creating "decorated" or "designed" rooms vs. creating rooms that feel as if their creation was effortless, unplanned, and happened over time & possibly on a whim takes both thought and planning, especially when doing it for others.  (The space below is photographer Amy Neunsinger's home featured in House Beautiful, photo by Amy herself)

Since this is a learning process for me and I haven't quite figured out what element it is exactly that created this type of room vs. a perfectly designed room, I just wanted to jot some notes down.  I've included some pics but mostly random thoughts.  (And of course the characteristics I've listed aren't present in every "undecorated" space but they're trends I've noticed.)

 "Real" home vs. Gorgeous "Showhouse" or "Pottery Barn"

1) Color schemes & Depth: 
          -Their color schemes aren't perfectly coordinated or "matchy"...  (I know 'matchy' is regarded almost negatively these days, but I'm not referring to it negatively...  just stating that it doesn't really work for this "undecorated" look.)
          -They sometimes have unexpected color combinations:  often an "off" color added in can do it. 
          -It seems to be harder to get this "undecorated" look with bolder color combinations (which can feel "plastic" or flat to me if there's not enough of a range or depth) but it can be done & when it is, it's awesome.  ...I think it seems to work when lots of texture and/ or older furnishings/ finished are added into the mix 
          -There are often colors that are subdued or fairly neutral with hits of color.   (room below by Nate Berkus & Assoc)


2) Formality:
         -It seems more difficult to create this feeling in more formal rooms because formal rooms often feel decorated/ designed because of their very nature..  yet it's still possible.  Think of a large formal dining room with the goal of getting it to feel "undecorated."  It much more difficult than it would be to do this in a small intimate dining room with doors flung open to a patio.. (image below, Southern Accents)

3.  Age/ Patina
        - Even in a modern space, there needs to be some items with age/ patina:  possibly in furniture, rugs or fabrics..  This creates a sense of history & makes the room look as if it wasn't done in a day (or 3-6 month period, etc.)  (See Nate Berkus room below)

4.  A mix of finishes in both woods & metals
          -"Perfect" rooms (which I do love) often have all of the same metal finish, but "perfectly imperfect" rooms do not. Check out {the insanely talented} Brooke Giannetti's gorgeous powder room with varied finishes for example:

5.  The Personal Aspect
           -When a room feels extremely personal it feels "real"
           - Decorators should draw out a client's passions & create spaces that embody them
           - Truly personal style is much more interesting & beautiful than a beautiful "everyman's" (or "everywoman's) room     (As seen in the totally personal child's room done by the super-creative & fresh Anna Spiro of Absolutely Beautiful Things.) 

6.  Fabrics:  Patterns vs. Solid
             - Sometimes it's a mix of patterns and/ or artwork that come together uniquely and could possibly be perceived as "too much" but somehow isn't and is instead "just right."  (See master of "undecorated" rooms Celerie Kemble's room below)

     -Sometimes there's not much pattern at all, but rather a combination of solid, textural materials:  (room below by Atlanta Bartlett)

   -And sometimes it's a natural-looking  (vs. perfectly coordinated looking) combination of patterns & solids  (See room below by Steven Gambrel)

7.  When art/ prints are personal vs. mass-produced:  Again, this goes along the lines of personal.  But it does make a difference.  For example, think of flea market oil paintings vs. beautiful glicee reproductions...  (I do use glicees but try to limit them to unique works that I've never seen before.)

8.  How the room is accessorized:  is it "perfect" or "lived in?"  Not overstyled, not overedited yet not cluttered.    In magazines & online, I also think the way the room is photographed & styled has something to do with it...  All photographers & stylists & magazines have their own unique styles and  as I learned through the BHG shoot:  If your house was shot by 3 different magazines, it would have 3 totally different looks/feelings depending upon what they wanted to focus on & the look they're going for.   In 'real life' the way  you style a room can really change its mood/ feeling and turn it from looking perfectly decorated to "undecorated."  (Think about informal balance.)

...  Ok, I could go on & on...  But in the end it all comes down to creating a room that's loved.  Include lots of things that the homeowner truly loves in the space and create a mood with color & pattern & texture that sings to the homeowner's very soul.  (yeah , I know I'm getting cheesy ;)  Use  items full of memories, fabrics that really speak to them & show who they are, furnishings that will be the comfortable backdrop for life.  Personal choices...   include items "just because they're loved" rather than because they "go."  This is often really a challenge when working with clients (many of them younger) because not everyone really has "stuff."  If people haven't really collected or acquired things over the years, it's the designer's job to help find things the client loves & that speaks to them without forcing it.    It's why the designer must be insanely perceptive & able to draw people out of themselves. 

One of the best classes I ever took in college that's prepared me more for design work than almost ant other was Nonverbal Communication.  I find that it's not so much what people say they like, but it's how they react to suggestions or pictures or ideas that shows me what they really like.   What excites them?  What deters them?

So how to design the undesigned room??  Again, I think that these spaces need to be & look "loved."  I know that might sound like a cop-out because it's not a tangible thing you can just do, but I think I'm really coming to the conclusion that all of the spaces I'm talking about are deeply personal & loved & used.  These are the spaces I want to create for people.  They can be beautiful, they can be interesting, they can be spare or cluttered, but they must be loved. 

Your thoughts?


ps- Happy birthday to my mother-in-law Sharon!!   She was probably one of the first people who truly believed in me when I first started out decorating.  She trusted me & let me experiment on her house and gave me confidence when I wasn't so sure.  She's supportive of all we do even when our crazy ideas scare her.  She reads every single comment on this blog because she cares that much & feels she knows so many of you.   Not only is she incredibly good to Dave & our kids, but she's good to me & I love her.  Happy birthday Sharon, because I KNOW you're reading!! ;) ;) 


Aimee said...

Such a great post! I really enjoyed it... Thanks.

~Grace Happens~ said...

wow. what GREAT rooms! thanks for the great information too. i'm so inspired now!

happy bday to your MIL!

Kate Spears said...

i am drawn to ecclectic rooms every time over rooms that are so "matchy" because the ecclectic, hodge-podge rooms have more of a story to tell. as a southern girl, i love a good story and i love to see a piece of furniture with wear on it. i think it is a special gift to be able to mix things that at first glance, don't seem to go together, but the end result can be fabulous! love your blog!


abodewell said...

Lovely post! So thoughtful. I often pay attention to the way I feel when I walk into a room. Even if a room is beautifully "decorated," I can often feel my body contracting when I enter. I think rooms that are too decorated make us feel like we're walking into a museum, where nothing can be touched. But thoughtfully decorated rooms loosen us up, make us want to explore and most importantly, make us feel at home (much like this thoughtful post). Great work! Truly inspirational.
Frank @

Design Esquire said...

Wonderful post. It was so thoughtful, and you included so many great points and illustrations.

Also, happy birthday to your mother-in-law!

Lesley said...

that playroom is FANTASTIC. love.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I enjoyed reading it and really thinking about all your thoughts and insights. I've been trying to make some changes in my home regarding personality and space issues and I really appreciated all your work on this post especially with the perfect pictures ~

Jaime Rogers said...

Lauren, this is a great post with really nice images...I am going to comb right back through and may repost on our Facebook page, nicely done. I've said it before and I am saying it again, you did an amazing job on your space!


Mom About Town said...

What a great post! I have always felt the same way myself... admired the "perfect" looking designer rooms but been more drawn to the personal, lived in kind of rooms. Even before having three kids the idea of too much perfection in a home made me a little nervous.

So excited for you and the bhg article/shoot and really admire what you are doing here!

♥Adrienne said...

Wow... Very long and thought out post... I TOTALLY AGREE with you. Personally, I think the "decorated" look is a little bit cheesy. In my own home, I AM collecting things over time, creating the art and layering the real things that I have in my life. That makes a HUGE difference. I hate when I walk into someone's home and it looks like "anonymous" lives there. Just because someone hires a decorator, doesn't mean their personal style should be abandoned (if they have any!)

On the flip side, if people try TOO HARD to look like things are undone, the house can start to look like the home version of those people who style their hair to look like they just got out of bed, and BUY $300 jeans that look like they have had them since the 80s!

Thanks for the post! -

LindsB said...

OK, I read this whole post and then got to the end when you wrote about your mother-in-law and now I have tears in my eyes, that is so beyond cute!!

Happy Birthday Sharon!!

Alright, totally forgot everything i read because I just got a little emotional about the birthday wishes...back to read it again :)

Tasha Roe said...

the window bench with the bookshelves is heavenly!! my little 2 year old would love to cuddle up with me and read books all day long.

Hamptontoes said...

Great post! I think the perfectly designed home is one that embodies the spirit of those that reside within whether done by a desinger or a homeowner. Some people know a look that they like, but can't get their on their own...hence, why you and I have careers. I do think as designers, leaving our mark on the home is done by creating a space that is functional, practical, beautiful and representative of the homeowners, not the designer. I champion your thoughts. Happy Birthday to your mother in law! How special that she has supported your career change.

shi(f)t said...

totally agree with mixing metals and woods--thanks for the great post!

Annie Wilcox Designs said...

I wish I could call myself a professional designer, but I can't and I won't. I leave that up to you guys who do great work. However, I did hit most of your points when decorating my house, an ongoing process of course. It is "undecorated" mostly cause we have four children. Thanks for helping me focus more on living in rather than looking at, my home.

Linda Merrill said...

Excellent post! I too like to create that perfect "happens over time" look. Sometimes I struggle with being a little too rigid in my desire for the perfect match, which is always a challenge!

simply seleta said...

Wonderful post! Loved everything about it! In reference to a brightly colored room feeling aged and not at all plastic-y, I think Miles Redd nailed that. I'm usually pretty neutral, but love his dose of color and quirky style.

Leah Moss said...

What a thoughtful post Lauren!

I can pretty much rely on the fact that your posts are going to feed me exactly what I need to hear. I'm working on a home right now that is calling out for this sort of thing, but sticking to a timeline and making sure that the rooms reflect the clients (not me!) are my big challenges at the moment. This post is super helpful. Thanks!

Elizabeth Given said...

Great post!
I am a designer too and I really have a hard time "accesorizing" for clients because I think these things or collections should mean something to them...not just something I picked for them. I love the concept of a "loved" room...going to try to accomplish that in my next project.

Linda@ Lime in the Coconut said...

Here here...Who was it that says"matching is overrated"?

Use what you what you use. It'll all work out in the end.

Great images to frame your words BTW!

Carolyn said...

Great post. I esp. don't like it when one fabric is repeated over and over in the room in different places. I think this 'undecorated' look is hard to acheive, but sorta the 'it' thing.

pve design said...

Your personality shines forth and what a lucky MIL to have you. Happy B-day to her! Just think if you did not have the love and support to love what you do while living life. You are so sweet to give a shout out in a ps. I think you are truly so precious.

Acanthus and Acorn said...


I definately fall onto the eclectic, under decorated category.
I love that our interiors are attractive, comfortable, and attainable.

But, most important to me is that contains our history, interests and clues to where we have traveled.

There is nothing more depressing and confusing to me as a designer when someone says I want my house to look like PB or your house or this page from a magazine. Those things are fine for inspiration, but it shouldn't be the goal! I am always most excited and thrilled when someone says something like "I have this (fill in the blank) and it is important, inspiring, my favorite,etc...can you design a space for me/us to include it?"

Wonderful thought provoking post!

Happy Birthday Sharon!!!

Windlost said...

First of all, HAPPY BIRTHDAY Sharon! I just love Dave and Lauren, so you, by extension, must be double awesome!! Happy Birthday to you ~

(my birthday is Thursday!).

Next, Lauren, what an amazing post. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. I see these well-loved, artistic, free form rooms most often in English decor books and magazines. They live in these amazing "character" spaces and then don't decorate them within an inch of their life. I love that look, that casually collected-over-time look. I notice even with the English "House & Garden" and "Homes & Gardens" that the rooms are not quite perfect, often. They seem to use what they have when decorating instead of going out and buying matchy perfect things. A lot of times, I notice the scale seems wrong - too small a painting, only two pillows on the bed not masses of them, very simple arrangements of flowers, just a very lived-in, use-what-you-have look. It is always artistic people, people with natural style you know.

I looeked recently at the Vogue Living hard cover book - have a look if you see it - there are so many great old English rooms with this lived in but gorgeous quality - I loved Stella Tennant's house and baby's room.

I am so happy to hear you are trying to analyze this look and get to the bottom of it. It is something that I notice over and over again too. Sometimes at bedtime I decide whether I want formal or informal, and pick up my "Suzanne Kasler" book or my "old English cottages" book. Two totally different vibes and each night I want something different - sometimes formal perfection and other times, laid back achievable rooms!

Great post!!!! But I don't know how you achieve this without a lot of time and effort, or very good shops at least. If you have very good shops around with a range of antiques and flea market stuff, I think it might be possible to put this look together without taking forever, and once you nail the colours, those muted old will have it. Your house is totally like that too - undecorated decorated.

Perfect post about imperfection!!

xo Old Man Terri xo

Red Door Home said...

So enjoyed reading this post. One of my favorites. Although I appreciate the look of a decorated room, "undecorated" rooms have always been my favorite. They appear to have developed over time and don't look like they could just be picked up all at once at the nearby furniture store.

Maria Killam said...

Well the space I just had photographed for a client does not have this 'undecorated' look. They specifically wanted it to look like a show house so that's what they got. I think this look is something I like to strive for though because I agree that it's the most interesting! Wonderful and thoughtful post Lauren, you are a truly talented woman!

Sixty-Fifth Avenue said...

This was such a fun post to read! Thanks for the great insight!

Jennifer said...

wonderful post! I love it when you get deep on us :) I have been thinking about this exact thing lately, and you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that how a room is photographed makes a difference. for ex., Erika Powell's rooms just published in Southern Living and Coastal Living look completely different than the photos she took. an interesting thought. I'm finding myself wanting to undecorate my own house a little, and that it takes a lot of effort to look effortless!

Jennifer said...

and happy birthday to Sharon!

Sami said...

I think this is my favorite post to date. Thank you!

Sami G

Wendy said...

I love this post. So much to think about. (and I love what you said about Da Vinci and the's very true, isn't it?) (and I have your stairwell in my inspiration file for someday when I have a deep stairwell with tons of wall space...just's how I first found your blog when Kimba featured it on ASPTL).

Kerri - Driftwood Interiors said...

What a fantastic post Lauren. You would have to be one of the most generous bloggers, always willing to share your knowledge and ideas. I couldn't agree more, and i find the 'undecorated' look is very popular in Australia, and in particular, Queensland. As you mentioned, the trick is getting it right within strict time deadlines.
Thanks again for your generosity
Kerri x

Tina said...

Such a great post Lauren - I just learnt so much!!! Love your slipcovered ottoman:) Happy Birthday to your Mum-in-Law, how wonderful to have such a lovely support. Wishing her the lovelist day ~ Tina xx

A Perfect Gray said...

I have been reading shelter blogs for quite some time and have recently started my own. For me, this post may be the single most helpful one I have ever read. SO much has just gelled in my mind about which direction I will take in my own home. Thank you so much for the time and work that went into that one. I am constantly amazed at the quality of blog that you are able to maintain with a young child and newborn. Many thanks for the wonderful insight and inspiration.

purple area said...

Great post, love it!!

Unknown said...

A wonderful post- I have been struggling for a term and I love "undesigned". I guess it is the style I have been going for. I have always taken decorating and a journey vs just getting to the destination. Thanks for the post.

Things That Inspire said...

Love this post! I think about when I moved to Atlanta in the late 90s, and either because I didn't have a clue or because it was more 'the way' back then, I ordered a matched set of family room furniture, and worried that my living room looked bad because I did not have woods that matched in my side tables and coffee tables (they were mix and match from relatives). We have come a long way since then!

Three Men and a Little Crazy said...

What a well done post! I love everything you said -- exactly what I'm looking for in my home.

And Happy Birthday, Sharon!

Nadine said...

This is an amazing post and I had to save it so I can read it over and over again. I love the 'undecorated decorated style' and always find myself drooling over pics showing rooms that are not perfect, yet seem spot-on. You put into words what I wasn't able to put my finger on. Undecoarted decorated! That's exactly what it is!

Jennifer Sergent said...

The thing I loved about my wedding is that my friend, an amateur makeup artist, did all our makeup in a way that made us look beautiful, but we didn't look like we were wearing any makeup. I never thought to translate this notion into interior design, but it's a perfect comparison. Thanks for such a well-researched and thoughtful post -- I'm sure you'll be able to achieve this at the shelter -- I wish I could go with you today!

Rhoda @ Southern Hospitality said...

Love this post, Lauren! There are so many things that go into a room & studying them for the "whys" are a great way to learn. Your thoughts & comments on all of this are great. I love tweaking my own house to make it look more loved and more "me". And I've got some plans to change things out that aren't working anymore.

You have such a great style & I love learning from you.

Dorothy said...

Wonderful Post! I love it!

I do have a question- what was the website and style of the frames you used for your foyer Da Vinci pics? I want to do a collage of some sort like that, but havent found frames and I remember you posting about how cheap they were...since I need about 10 or so.

I love your blog and read it everyday! Thanks!

Barbie said...

GREAT post! Love all the pictures! I covet your entryway. You really did a great job w/it. I plan on coming back and devouring this more in detail later. So much to take in!

LaurenFaythe said...

Awesome post! There's a reason why I read my Domino mags over and over. The rooms featured were "undecorated" and had that special "offness" that I love! I think that is one reason I love the images of your home so much - I can't wait for my Dec. issue!

Mary Frances said...

I love your beautiful home, and enjoyed this post immensely...however I have to agree with your husband on the fabric you picked for your ottoman! I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and it reminds me of the hideous fabric on our sofa my (usually stylish)mom thought was "groovy"! Years later, looking at old pictures, she laughed and said, "Your dad was right, that fabric was awful...what the hell was I thinking?!" All in the eye of the beholder!!
Mary Frances

Susie @ Maddie G Designs said...

I've read this post twice and it is really thoughtful. I remember when I was growing up our designer (who knew my mom very well by this point in a total gut and remodel) showed up at our house with a truck of accessories for my mom to "shop" through. When they were done the family room and playroom looked like they had been pulled together over many years. New items blended in with ceramics we'd made in school and "treasures" we'd found on family trips. I think it really takes talent to accomplish an over time look that is not cluttered, but beautiful.

Jennifer said...

posted about this (sort of) on my blog today!

Kathysue said...

LOVE this post Lauren. I so agree. I would much rather see a room that looks as if it has evolved over time.An interesting room that tells a story. Design is a process not an instantly done room just to get it done. Those are the rooms that often look as if they were purchased from a show room floor. Finding treasures to put in a room is so much more interesting. Great post, Kathysue

MFAMB said...

great post lauren. really inspiring.

Melkorka said...

Great post! so much information and examples - it was like sitting through a great lecture! best!

Velvet and Linen said...

I absolutely love this post Lauren. It's a lot easier for me to achieve the undesigned rooms for myself than for my clients. I have finally accepted the fact that I will never be one of those designers who complete an installation in a couple of days and have the home look finished. For me, it takes time to collect the special pieces that give a home that undesigned feel.
Thank you, Thank you for including my little powder room. Even that room took a while to figure out. We also used pieces that I collected for over a year!

xo xo

Mona Thompson Providence Ltd. said...

Great post. We are completely about the undecorated decorated room. Spaces that are just too decoratorer (that's a word we made up)make me crazy.