9 questions an interiors expert gets asked the most

Kate Watson-Smyth
Photo credit: John Lewis

From Red Online

In her latest book, journalist and interiors guru Kate Watson-Smyth, aka Mad About The House, answers the design questions she’s most often asked.

Here are some of the secrets she’s learned along the way, along with sharing a few of her own interior design ideas...

How do I make a smaller space look bigger?

Here, we are really talking about the art of illusion. When painting, a good approach is to pick one colour and use it on everything. White woodwork and ceilings in rooms with colourful walls, for example, will only draw attention to the edges and the expanse (or otherwise) of the walls.

Try to keep furniture away from the edges of the space, even if it’s only by a couple of centimetres. Look for sofas and chairs that have narrow arms – which means more sitting space – as well as those that have taller legs so you can see the floor underneath. The more floor you see, the bigger the room feels.

A glass or metal coffee table will also allow light to flow through. Mirrors bounce light around and alter our perceptions of space and perspective to make rooms feel bigger.

To elongate a wall, hang curtains near the ceiling rather than the top of the window. And try to leave something empty – a corner, some wall or a space under a shelf. Empty space looks like you could afford it.

Photo credit: Michael Sinclair

How big should the rug be?

As big as you can afford. The front legs of your sofa should always be on a rug. In an open-plan space, use a rug to ‘zone’ a whole area (or multiple rugs for multiple areas) by making sure all the relevant pieces of furniture are on it.

In the past, I’ve even bought a carpet remnant and had the edges hemmed – this is a good trick to get the exact size and shape of rug you want while saving money. It only cost us £200, whereas I’m sure an equivalent rug would have been five times as much.

What colour should I paint the ceiling?

If you have spent lots of time choosing a fabulous colour for the walls, wouldn’t it make sense to choose something equally fabulous for the ceiling? You could even wallpaper it, which is particularly fantastic in a bedroom, where you’re mostly lying down anyway.

If you have a high picture rail, flowing the ceiling colour down to meet it can look great. I live in a period house with 8ft-high ceilings, and chose to extend the ceiling colour over the walls as we can afford to lose a bit of height visually. The ceiling is often referred to as the fifth wall, and once you think of it as such, it makes sense to show it off.

What's the best way to dress an awkwardly shaped window?

British houses are full of oddly shaped windows, from circles to arches and skylights. The most common culprit is a bay window – they’re big, so need a lot of curtain. Sometimes, blinds really are the only option.

Consider fixing blinds to the windows and having small curtains at the sides that are for decoration only and never meant to be pulled. It’s a compromise, but many things in houses are.

Another common problem is a window that goes right up to the ceiling, leaving no room for a curtain pole. Usually, you will have to cheat, and fix it either side of the window frame. If that looks odd, add a tailored pelmet. In some cases, do consider whether you even need to cover the window at all.


How can I make a room lighter?

It’s a strange thing that these days we seem to be very comfortable with the idea of moving (or removing) a wall but don’t follow the same approach when it comes to windows. Why not see if you can add a window, or perhaps a roof light?

Sloping windows, for instance, appear to let in twice as much light as vertical ones, because they allow light to penetrate further into a room.

Internal windows, too, are a great way of letting light in from the room next door. You can do this between the hall and the living room, or perhaps from a landing into a dark back bedroom.

If adding windows isn’t an option, then stick to the paler colours on the paint spectrum when decorating. Choose a soft white, or a light green or pink (or anything you like, really, as long as it’s pale) and then paint the skirting boards, walls, ceiling and doors in the same shade to blur the edges and create a calm sense of space.

Photo credit: Pluck London

When it comes to furniture, when should I splurge and when should I save?

Generally speaking, it’s hard to advise on this, as one person’s dream piece will be another’s nightmare. That said, it’s always worth buying the best appliances you can afford.

Invest in anything with moving parts (taps, handles and light switches) as well as pieces where you spend a lot of time, such as beds and sofas. Occasional armchairs can be more statement than comfort, and occasional tables more trend than investment.

It can help to think of things in terms of the cost-per-wear equation that we all use to justify buying an expensive piece of clothing: if you are going to use it every day, then it’s worth spending money on.

Open shelves or cupboards: what works where?

This one is going to come down to personal preference. Open shelves fit with the contemporary ‘kitchen-but-not-a-kitchen’ look, but you do need to create enough hidden storage, too, for hiding ugly appliances or things that won’t look so pretty on shelves.

On a practical note, open shelves will get dusty. Cupboards can create a tidier and more minimal look, with everything stored out of sight, and if you live in an open-plan space, that can be more desirable.

Make sure that cupboards go all the way up to the ceiling, which will not only make the ceiling look higher but also prevent you putting stuff on top of them that will just sit there and collect dust.

Photo credit: Bauer Media Group

If I don't have room for a home office, how do I set one up?

You will have to carve out a little spot from another part of your home to work at. If that needs to be the kitchen table, then that’s fine, but do find somewhere to neatly store paperwork, and a spot for the printer.

I worked at the kitchen table for many years, and kept a wheeled trolley with a lid under it for all the ‘officey’ stuff that I needed on a daily basis. If you have the luxury of a spare bedroom, it’s all about making clever furniture choices – I’m astounded by people who don’t think of buying a sofa bed.

It frees up so much space, and I think that working in a room with a bed in it is an inherently bad idea. If you can only spare a corner of a room, see if you can fit in a room divider or decorative screen so that you can hide everything from view in the evening.

When can I get rid of the bath?

Many estate agents will tell you that removing a bath is a mistake as you may deter future buyers. But I say you have to furnish for the people who live in your house and how they live now – not for a fantasy purchaser who may or may not turn up in 10 years’ time.

So, if you use your bath as a giant towel rail and your family members prefer to shower, get rid of it. If you like to luxuriate, then keep it. It’s your house, not the estate agent’s.

Kate will be answering your interiors questions every month in Red. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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