10 Tried-and-True Decorating Rules

Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Bierman shares his favorite decorating lessons, some he's learned the hard way
Article: M. Lindsay Bierman

I don't like to admit it, but I've blown through a lot of money I really didn't have on not-so-pretty ideas while redoing several apartments and houses. But with age and experience comes wisdom. So while I'm in the thick of redecorating for the zillionth time, I thought I'd share 10 tried-and-true decorating rules that have worked for me in most situations.

1. When you just want a room to be "warm white," meaning not too yellow or too peachy or too anything else, then go with Benjamin Moore Ivory White (925). Don't overthink this—I've already done enough agonizing for everyone and can say for sure that it works pretty much anywhere, unless you're going for museum-like sterility, in which case you're reading the wrong magazine.

2. When it comes to sofas, you'll never go wrong with these two styles: a square-armed tuxedo or the curvier, more traditional Charles of London. (Google each term with the word "sofa," and lots of images will come up.) I'm issuing a moratorium on gigantic roll arms!

3. If you can't afford the antique Oushak rug of your dreams—it's often a choice between that and, say, a year of college tuition—then embrace the khaki pants of carpets, plain ol' sea grass. Although it comes in plenty of standard sizes, it's usually pretty cheap to get a custom fit by the yard. (I got mine from Myers Carpet in Atlanta.) Over hardwoods, I suggest leaving a 1-foot-wide border around the room; if you're trying to obliterate some awful tile, make it a 6-inch border. It looks nice when installed wall-to-wall too.

4. As your budget allows, you can always soften the sea grass with striped cotton dhurries, flokatis, or wool area rugs. (For a great look with a cowhide rug over sisal, see this month's cover.)

5. Hang your curtain rods about 2 inches or so from the ceiling or bottom of the crown. It will make the room and windows look taller. Adjust your curtains accordingly, letting them hang no more than 1 inch onto the floor—unless you live in New Orleans, where it's perfectly acceptable to let them puddle with abandon.

6. It generally looks best to extend your curtain rod 4 inches beyond the outside of the window casing (excluding finials).

7. Here's another trick I learned for windows: Hang an outside-mount Roman shade to align with the top of your curtain panel, and close the shade just enough to cover the top of the casing. It gives the whole room a better sense of proportion. This works if you have no more than a foot or two of wall above the window.

8. Hang your chandeliers about 33 inches above the table, give or take an inch or two. Everywhere else, just make sure a tall guy can walk under them.

9. If you're looking to upgrade your countertops to stone, price the 2-inch-thick slab versus the standard 1¼ inches. Everyone who sees it in my kitchen flips out.

10. I've saved the best for last: a more refined alternative to the ginormous plantation shutters mounted on chunky, clunky frames you see everywhere. Visit shutterblinds.com, and get them to help you figure it out. They hooked me up with inside-mount 1 7/8-inch-louver cafe shutters for my baths, custom-painting them in their Atlanta workshop to match my trim. A major upgrade for a minor upcharge.

That said, I usually advise Southern women, who always have a certain flair, to be bold and take risks. I've learned this, too, from my mistakes: Happy accidents can make the room!