How to instantly improve your home
The pursuit of Good Design can lead you down some pretty treacherous paths. What you seek is simple: to make your home more inviting, to make it a space that rejuvenates and inspires. But most of us think the fastest way to achieve this is by tearing through design catalogs and furiously filling our spaces with objects that may look spectacular but end up demanding more of our attention than they deserve. A cutting-edge sofa made by some designer of the moment quickly loses its appeal when you can't sit in it without needing a visit to a chiropractor the next day.
The fact is, design showstoppers have little effect on your overall quality of life—and what effect they do have is transitory. Each season will bring a new crop of ornamentation or color trends (that supposedly prove to you and your guests you've got "personality"). But the comfort and style of your home is really the sum of less noticeable details—the way the light falls, cleanliness, a sense of solidity in the basic tools of everyday life. To pay attention to the shape and function of objects is a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit, but there's a problem when you start to notice a plate more than the food on it, a light fixture more than the room it illuminates, the bed more than the woman lying in it. Design is meant to support your life, not become it.
So here are some simple upgrades that may not take your breath away but will instantly improve your sense of being—and continue to pay off for years to come.
1. Clear the Air
There are times when your home could smell better than it does. Correcting the situation usually requires proactive measures—releasing chemical aerosols into the air, burning candles with fragrance-infused wax—the effects of which are usually short-lived. For an easier olfactory fix, try using a reed diffuser, which will effectively disperse the scent of your choice without the need for pressurized canisters or open flames. The most tasteful ones we've come across are made by Linari (www.linari.com), which packages its finely scented oils in handsome glass bottles with lids carved from solid wood. You can adjust the intensity of the smell by adding or removing the included reeds. The kits are pricey, but each one lasts six to nine months.
2. Keep Your Rug Carefree
We've never understood the appeal of an exquisite rug, perhaps because we just don't feel comfortable walking on something that artisans have spent months slaving away over. We also don't want to spend the rest of our lives worrying about spilling something on it. A less precious floor cover makes much more sense. FLOR (www.flor.com), for example, makes a range of carpet tiles—most are twenty inches square—that can be combined to create area rugs or wall-to-wall installations. Carpet tiles have been used in office buildings and airports for decades, but FLOR was one of the first companies to make them appropriate for the home by introducing plusher piles and idiot-proof installation (the tiles attach to one another with stickers). The tiles can be detached and cleaned individually (we've scrubbed ours in the kitchen sink) or, in a worst-case scenario, replaced (FLOR recycles old tiles for free) without junking the other 98 percent of the rug. Beverage-related mishaps, therefore, become less grave.
3. INVEST IN A LOUNGE CHAIR
A great lounge chair may seem like an indulgence, but if you're going to invest in one piece of furniture, this should be it. Every man needs a chair of his own—a place to read, to listen to music, to power nap. Your lounge chair should be tailored to you, so devote the same level of attention to finding one that you would to finding a suit. The armchair shown here is Alfredo Häberli's Take a Line for a Walk (www.conranusa.com), which evokes Arne Jacobsen's famous Egg Chair but is more angular and enveloping.
4. CAST POOLS OF LIGHT
The coziness of a room has less to do with its furniture than how it's lit. Even the most thoughtfully appointed space will feel uninviting when flooded with artificial light. For spaces where you intend to relax and wind down, opt for lamps that cast distinct pools of light and place them in areas where you expect your guests to congregate. You may not be able to move your walls, but you can essentially rearrange a room by rejiggering the spaces defined by your lighting.
5. Be Sensible About Your Shelving
If there's one thing that doesn't need to be overdesigned, it's shelving. Closet-Maid manufactures white laminate boards that attach directly to the wall on a track (www.closetmaid.com). For a more high-end option, check out Dieter Rams's 606 Universal Shelving System, manufactured by VitsS (www.vitsoe.com). Whatever route you go, avoid shelves that are too deep, which encourage you to pile items in front of each other. Remember, too, that your shelves don't have to be perfectly arranged. The built-ins shown here, for example, are unkempt but beautiful.
6. Turn on Decent Bulbs
Using incandescent lightbulbs instead of the more environmentally friendly compact-fluorescent variety is pretty much the equivalent of wearing a full-length fur coat these days, but we recommend going with a filtered incandescent bulb like a Verilux or a GE Reveal in rooms where you spend any amount of time. These bulbs have a bluish tint that removes some of the yellow spectrum; as a result, everything illuminated by them looks more vibrant, less pale. Yes, you'll be using more electricity, but you can make up for it by being more conscientious about turning off your lights when you leave the room. Besides, being bathed in more-beautiful light will make you genuinely happier—which itself is an entirely worthwhile and efficient use of the earth's limited resources.
7. GET LOW-MAINTENANCE PLACE MATS
As a rule, your place mats should be clean and crisp (they're a reflection of your personal hygiene). Someday you may have the time and interest to launder and press your own table linens, but until then stick to place mats made of nontraditional materials. Publique Living makes a series from wood veneers such as rosewood and teak (www.publiqueliving.com). The easiest to care for are Sandy Chilewich's woven-vinyl place mats (www.chilewich.com), shown on the previous page. They can be rinsed in hot water and, if necessary, scrubbed vigorously with a bleach-based cleanser. Best of all, as long as you store them flat, they never wrinkle.
8. UPGRADE YOUR PITCHER
Even the most mundane beverages—tap water, supermarket seltzer, orange juice from concentrate—feel more refined when served from a more elegant container. For everyday dining, you needn't spend a fortune on a pitcher. An empty wine bottle is cheap and works wonders.
9. EAT WITH A DECENT SET OF FLATWARE
Your cutlery is the one series of household objects that you don't want to skimp on. Subpar flatware makes for a subpar dining experience, and a relatively small investment goes a long way. Your cutlery needn't be noticeably heavy (you're not trying to prove anything here), but it should have enough heft to feel substantial. You can't judge cutlery just by looking at it; you need to hold it in your hand. Two sets worth checking out: Alessi's Caccia (www.alessi.com) and Sambonet's Hannah (www.sambonet.it). If money is an issue, start by investing in just two sets: one for you and one for your partner. There's no need to save up enough to accommodate large dinner parties that you rarely host.
10. Rotate Your Photos
Every home needs a place for photos. But think of this display area as alive, not as an archive. Change the photos the minute you realize you've been looking past what you love. To facilitate this, try stacking a few photos in each frame to make them easier to swap out.
11. DECLUTTER YOUR SOFA The urge to accessorize one's sofa can be strong; it's where many home-decorating experts encourage you to express yourself --often by littering it with bold throw pillows. Ignore them. Your ability to relax decreases dramatically with each pillow you add, so go with one or two largish pillows, like the ones in the opening photo (from Judy Ross Textiles, www.judyrosstextiles.com), rather than a bevy of smaller ones. If you find your sofa feels barren after the pillow purge, try adding a luxurious throw of a similar (not contrasting) color.
12. Decorate With Life
Flowers and plants are living beings, and so they contribute something to a space that inanimate objects, no matter how inspired, cannot. Loose, monochromatic flower arrangements are the easiest to pull off. A handful of mini calla lilies (shown on the opening page), peonies, or tulips casually placed in a slender vase will do. (Wide vases require a shocking number of stems to fill; avoid them.) With plants, just be sure to get those that are within your ability to keep alive and healthy. If you have a history of killing plants, consider keeping them in Eva Solo's self-watering pots, which have a wick system that draws water from a glass vase underneath (www.evasolo.com). They'll buy you an extra week between waterings.
13. ELIMINATE THE SERVING DISH
Cooking is more fun when there's less to clean. For informal occasions, try serving directly from a beautiful cooking vessel. Some solid options: enameled cast-iron cookware like the kind from Le Creuset (www.lecreuset.com), which pops with color; iittala's Tools series (www.iittala.com), which offers a refined, machined look; and our favorite, Alessi's Pasta Pot (www.alessi.com). Although it was designed specifically for preparing pasta using an age-old technique espoused by Alain Ducasse, its tri-ply construction makes it suitable for cooking other foods as well. Its matching trivet and gleaming finish are nice touches, but its most brilliant design flourish is its integrated serving spoon, which fits neatly into the handle of the pot.
14. DUST. YES, DUST
Okay, maybe not your entire home, but at least the places where dust most visibly settles—side tables, nightstands, the tops of picture frames, and any other horizontal surface, no matter how slight. This undertaking is not as arduous as it sounds. Here's what you do: Get a bunch of microfiber dusting cloths—the kind with a thick nap. The advantage of microfiber cloths over regular rags is that they not only pick up dust but trap it as well, and they work without the need for cleansers or water. Each cloth holds a shocking amount of dust—which means you can use the same cloth for a week or two without having to clean it. Now the crucial next step: Hide these cloths within arm's reach of any surface that may need to be cleaned. For example, keep them inside the drawer of a dresser or a desk, or tuck a cloth under a sofa cushion for dusting coffee and side tables. By making dusting a no-brainer, it becomes less a chore and more an afterthought. Then, once every week or two, just wash the cloths with the laundry. Your girlfriend will be impressed. Everyone will breathe easier.
15. Rethink Your Sound System
Consumer electronics often confound as much as they simplify, but the Sonos Digital Music System is in a class by itself (www.sonos.com). Paired with a subscription to the Rhapsody music service, it's one of the few products that will completely untether your music collection from your personal computer. Ripping your entire CD collection to MP3s and continually keeping your MP3 player synced will seem quaint once you use Sonos to stream any of the 5 million songs available through Rhapsody. A Sonos system may not be cheap, but it will eliminate an ungodly number of wires from your life—a design coup in itself.