Baltimore-based designer Mona Hajj, one of Architectural Digest?s top 100 designers to watch, joined the weekly chat.

Apr 14, 2011

Baltimore-based designer Mona Hajj, one of Architectural Digest?s top 100 designers to watch, joined Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza for their weekly Home Front chat. Together, they gave advice on interior decorating and home improvement.

Good morning everyone! Thanks for joining us on this beautiful spring day. Great piece on Mona in today's Local Living by our producer Megan Buerger. We're delighted to welcome Mona into today's Home Front chat. Terri is out today so Mona and I will be answering all of your interior design questions. If you're not familiar with Mona's work, check out her website. The person who has the best question in today's chat as chosen by moi - will get a prize of a free copy of Mona's new book Interior Visions published by Monacelli Press. Let's go!

Good morning, thanks for joining!  I'm looking forward to our chat.  This should be fun.

I finally have room for a true vanity so I don't have to do my makeup sitting cross-legged on the floor but now that I am in the market I can't seem to find any. Are they simply old fashioned? Should I settle for a console table and a mirror or has anyone seen cute ones around? All I have been able to find are princessey ones for a little girls rooms or monstrosities made out of craved maple! Thanks!

You're absolutely right!  We don't have many vanities on the market and they're definitely in my mind a very essential part of a woman's daily dressing.  Saying that, I always custom design them for my clients, but probably if you used a pretty knee hole desk with side drawers for storage and a pretty mirror behind it and of course a chair that should resolve your problem.

Our kitchen is open to our dining room, which has beadboard on the lower half of of the walls. The beadboard and trim in both rooms is off-white, almost ivory. We want to paint the kitchen cabinets a creamy white, but wondered: do we need to paint the cabinets to match the trim, the trim to match the cabinets, or is it okay for the two to not match? Thank you!

It's okay for the two not to match, but you need to be careful with selecting a color for the cabinets.  I always recommend to my clients to keep everything simple.  If you think you want to change the trim color go with something that is really a shade lighter than the cabinets.  But doing them the same color is a safe bet, it would look much more finished and clean.

My two-bedroom condo is short on storage space. There is a reach-in closet in each bedroom. That's it. I've installed closet organizers which has helped a bit. My master bedroom is approximately 10' w x 14'8" l, which, for an 1920s apartment, is a decent size. I'd like to install a window seat and bookshelves along the back wall, and nearly 6 ft of that 10 ft wall is all window. I'd like the idea of the window seat because that will allow me to store large items, such as, my a/c window unit and suitcase. Do you think adding the built-ins will make my room look cluttered and small? Do built-ins appeal to potential buyers?

Storage is always a plus.  A good idea is to make it with closed drawers or cabinets, so it will look nice and clean and you can store things.  So go for it!

Good Morning! I have an ugly flourescent light in my galley kitchen which has a drop ceiling. How do I go about a). shopping for a new light fixture and b) go about getting it installed? Is this a 3 part job requiring 3 different services(lighting shopping, electricity, ceiling repair) or is there one place to go that does it all. Thanks so much!

One handy man can take care of the job.  It's a good idea to take off the dropped ceiling.  You don't know what is underneath, but it's worth finding out.  Once removed it will need to be drywalled and painted.  There are a lot of good sources for pendant lighting on the market, maybe circa lighting or visual comfort and they are very reasonable.  You probably would need 2-3 depending on the size of the Kitchen.  If your handy man cannot do electrical work, you will need an electrician to hang it for you.  Hope this helps!

I'm looking for super long curtain rods (200"+) for my Asian transitional living room. Oak gunstock floors, BM Windham Cream walls, ceiling is standard apt height, and I'd like to use clip rings. The only rods I've found in this size are Smith and Noble's wrought iron line. I'm stuck re: the rod finish -- black, burnished pewter, oil rubbed bronze. Can you advise?

With an Asian look, hardware with a dark grey back finish is quite appropriate.  If you can't find it at Smith & Noble, check Pottery Barn should have something similar.

I live in a lovely historic 1920 home. The window trim is beautiful but one window is too short for my taste. Any ideas how to elongate it? I'm not fond of elaborate window treatments, even most curtain panels. The walls and trim are white, so maybe simple white linen panels? Including on the room's other window, whichj is nearby and plenty large? Off-white cellular shades on on them now. We use the shades often for privacy or room darkening.

Always panels from floor to ceiling is a good solution to elongate the room and therefore windows and your'e right, a very simple treatment, like soft cotton linens is always a good solution.

We recently installed sage green-ish roman shades (from Next Day Blinds, the Bellini in the color they call mint green, but I think of as closer to sage, since it's silver-y) in our bedroom. We like them a lot, but chose them with plans to paint the room, so just chose the color we liked and figured we'd figure out the wall paint later. Now it's come time to figure out the wall paint, and we're just not coming up with anything brilliant. We have dark wood furniture (bed and sidetables) and a fairly small, but light, bedroom, if any of those things make any difference. We prefer low or no VOC paint (we've used the Freshaire brand before, but aren't wedded to it). Any suggestions? Thanks!

A cream white or a sage color are your best bet for wall colors.  Keep it consistent.  You don't need to introduce another color on the walls.

Mona - I saw that you're speaking at the Corcoran next week! What are you doing to be discussing? Will your book be available to buy at the event?

I will be talking about projects that I have in my book and yes, the book will be available there.  Please come and introduce yourself.

Readers who post often complain about tile, laminate and kitchen cabinet colors they hate, but without a budget for extensive remodeling. RustOleum has new products to transform outdated finishes. These could be at least temporary fixes for offensive colors and finishes until larger scale re-dos are possible. I'm just a DIY reader. I have no connection to the company. The new stuff is featured on RustOleum's homepage.

Good point. Thanks for the tip.

mona - what are your favorite home stores in Baltimore?

I am the worst person in the world to ask.  Honestly, I don't have the time to go out shopping.  I travel a lot and I buy through my trips.  Sorry I am not of any help.

Jura, have you ever done a session on lighting within the home? I live in a townhouse and it's always my biggest problem. Are there any lighting consultants who can help with this issue? Love your column and thanks for this opportunity. Vienna

A lighting package would be a great idea. And we could have someone online answering lighting questions. A good architect or designer is trained to come up with creative lighting solutions. I personally do not know a lighting consultant. Does anyone out there?

Hi - Can you tell us how you got your start in decorating? And who are some of your favorite designers?

It is a cliche, but I truly always wanted to go and design.  I have a lot of favorites, among them, is Rose Tarlow, Alberto Pinto, Edwin Lutyens.

I'm going up to Balitmore for the weekend. Are there any good design shows going on up there? What museums should I visit if I love interior design and antiques?

The Walters Art Museum is great.  Baltimore Museum of Art and Howard Street downtown is a good place to hit.

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed today's House Calls. Considering that this is a weekly feature, I can imagine that it was getting hard to keep it interesting. But not only was the double-page article today a welcome change from the same-old same-old, I thought Joanne's designs were fantastic and the layout was attractive. Well done!!! (I would have submitted this as a comment on the actual page but it seems the comments link has been inactive this morning)

We will check into that!!!  And thanks for your kind words.

Can't get enough of these fabulous Q&As. Last week's with Jeff Hollender was inspiring and today's with Mona is wonderful. Hope you'll keep 'em coming! - Sandy in Falls Church

Megan rocks.

(For Mona) On your website it says you decorated a Manhattan Apartment. Where was the apartment and what was the interior's final product like? Most of your work seems very traditional, so I'm curious about what a NYC "look" for you would be! Loved the Q&A!

Actually what I have published is quite traditional, but I am a modernist at heart.  I do a lot of contemporary apartments that I am not at liberty to publish because of privacy.  It is in the MOMA building.  It is on my website, if you would like to have a look.  Thanks for your interest.

I am planning to decorate my new living room with floor to ceiling red velvet curtains (think a red with blueish undertones). What would be good complimentary colors to use in the rest of the living room? I am thinking white walls and silver accents but would love to hear other ideas.

Sounds very dramatic. I like khaki with red. Silver would be a nice accent with that. Any other ideas?

My husband and I have finally found a house that we're considering purchasing. One of our main drawbacks is a slightly awkward addition. The wall between the living and dining/kitchen areas was taken down making that whole area of the house an open room (with an island demarcating the kitchen) and then an addition was added behind the dining area. So right now the living flows into dining where you'd set a table and have to walk around it to get to a 16' x 20' family room. The family room is really too big to be dining on its own, but we don't like the idea of having the table block the entrance to the room. How could we get creative with this floorplan and make it work? Moving the kitchen back there, as fun as it would be, is probably not an option.

It's really hard to know without being in the space and seeing the plan.  Your best bet is talk to an architect or designer to give you a more realistic answer.  I wish you the best.

Hi Jura. Have you ever considered adding an FAQ document so that we readers don't have to search through everything or re-ask? I am thinking about painting a room white and I'm sure you've answered about your favorite white before, so rather than ask again, I'd rather just hit the FAQs. Just a thought!

I think we are working on something like this. You are right - there has been a lot of great information dished out on this chat over the years. And a paint color resource would be really helpful.

Mona Hajj! This is so exciting. I love the colors that you use in the interiors featured in your book. They're strong, yet subtle, and always seem to compliment the room -- not work against it. How do you go about measuring what shades/colors your going to use in a room? My husband and I are re-painting two rooms on the first floor of our house, and while we were inspired by your interiors, we can't seem to land on just the right shade. Whats your trick??

I wish I was a fly in your house so I can give you the right color.  Unfortunately, I cannot give you a solid answer.  Color for me is a feeling and you go with what makes you feel good.  Saying that, a very soft neutral color is always comfortable.  Hope that helps.

I'm looking to decorate my kitchen. I know what you're thinking -- don't kitchens have enough clutter already!? But my kitchen (I live in a modern loft apartment) is almost TOO blank. It's all stainless steel with no home-y touches. Now, I really am not into country-time knick-knacks (like those "no place like home" paintings) but I would love to add at least some pops of elegant color or warmth in the room. What would you suggest?

It is truly hard to give you a color without seeing the space.  If you are afraide of the starkness, big pieces of art in a loft situation will humanize the room.  Also beautiful fabrics and rugs will warm it up.

You have an interesting background, Mona. What are some of your favorite pieces in your own home? (I'm very curious about the paint colors you have in your own home!)

Thank you for your kind words.  The colors in my home are all custom mixed.  One of my favorite pieces is the Esser painting over my sofa in the Living Room and in the Foyer the collection of Near Eastern antique pottery.  The overall design is collected pieces I have had from family and travels and thats what holds close to my heart.

What is your favorite white paint color?

Where do I start?  Benjamin Moore has a few.  Niveous and Floral White, among others.

My daughter's room is painted a strong tiffany blue, almost turquoise, with white trim and she has a black and white quilt. Can you recommend an accent color for sheets, pillows, etc?

Frankly, I would stick with white sheets and maybe black and white pillows.

Our chat hosts have decried the use of runners on dining room tables, but Mona, you seem to have some interesting textiles (wider than the typical runner, but not a full cloth) on the tables on your website. Where do you find these beautiful coverings?

These are antique textiles I collect from all over the world and then offer them to my clients, from Paris, Italy, London, Istanbul, India, Beirut, Syria to name a few.  But textiles are so dear to me.  Actually I am working on a textile line now because sometimes I cannot find what I really want.

Pottery Barn has a small white desk you could use for a vanity. They show photos of it with a slipcovered chair or an ottoman.

Thanks! I love that it's a Technology Vanity Desk - two great functions...

It is in, modern and goes well with black and white colours too. Plus, it is the 'in' colour right now and girls will love anything pink = I do!

Love that idea!

What do you recommend be placed on top of a dining room sideboard? I'm having a hard time getting a good "look."

Candelabras are always nice with a collection of small pottery, but grouped together as a series.  Or a pretty runner with a vase of fresh cut flowers again with beautiful pottery.  Hope that helps.

We just had our wood floors refinished and we are thinking about rearranging furniture while bringing it back into the house. Any tips for books/software on doing this easily - I'd rather move the heavy stuff just once. Thanks!

Each space is different so there is no text book for it.  You need to decide where to put the large furniture first.  It's okay to make a mistake, you can rearrange it.  It would be good to have two people moving the furniture while you're directing.

Is there one paint brand that stands above the rest in terms of quality? My wife and I are finally repainting the first floor of our house, and we want the best. If there is a brand that blows the others out of the water, we'll take it. We just can't seem to get a consistent answer on what this would be. Thanks from Silver Spring.

What we can tell you is that many designers like Farrow & Ball paints because of their glossy, thick quality and ease of painting and the subtle yet rich colors. Benjamin Moore, especially the Aura line, is very popular. Behr is always ranked high for consumer satisfaction. C2, Pratt & Lambert and Sherwin Williams are other popular brands. Martha Stewart's paints have a great color selection.

Has anyone been to the DC Design House? What did you think?

The house is a beautiful place to visit on a spring day and the gardens and pool are knock out. Here is a link to my story on the rooms! Terri and I really enjoyed the house this year. By the way, Terri is on the chat today because she is on a photo shoot by the water in Maryland. Lucky dog!

Hi - I have a condo where the living/dining space is very small (14x20) - are there rules of thumb about how to position furniture to create an atmosphere for conversation (as opposed to an atmosphere where everything is facing the TV) without feeling too cramped?

This is a rectangular shaped room, so I would group seating areas together to give it the intimate feel, yet it can open up to be inclusive in conversation.  Meaning at one end I would do thd dining room, at the opposing end I would do the living room around the TV and then maybe in the middle create another seating area for people who do not want to watch TV.  Groupings need to be tight to achieve this look.

Ladies I appreciate you taking my questions. Love you weekly chats. I'm in the process or decorating my 8 yr old girls bathroom and need a balance with color. The shower curtain is turquoise with white circles. The towels are the same at the bottom but have stripes in pink, red & 2 shades of green (love them). I plan to paint the walls white with pink and red circles. As far as floor mats and coordinants, do you think that red would be too overwhelming. I love how the red looks against the towels. I also love lots of rugs and mats in the bathroom. Any advice you could offer with help alot. I have a very hard time envisioning how something will look. Thank you.

You sound like you love color.  I am with you on that, except sometimes we need to edit for the look to come through.  The walls might need to calm down a little and go with a bright, but subtle color.  It could be the tourquoise, pink or red.  Saying that, it's difficult for me to make a decision without seeing it.  So if you think the red, white and pink is going to give your little girl what she likes, go for it.

There are still a number out there of various styles. I Googled for "make up vanity" and found a variety ranging from classical to modern with variations of mounted mirrors, drawers/no-drawers, etc.

Good to know they are out there.

I hate to ask this, I'm sure you get it all the time. What is your feeling on fake flowers? My husband and I are both BEYOND busy, but love the look of flowers in our home. However, consistently watering them and replacing them with new flowers has proven to be a bit of a challenge for us! Are fake flowers really that bad? They look beautiful in our bathroom and living room windowsills... and well, they're so convenient! But, we don't want to be "that couple." Help!

You knew my answer.  I would get rid of them immediately.  I would rather have none, than have fake.  Saying that, I love how flowers make you feel so a good alternative is maybe to get whats fresh in the season and mix it with a lot of greens because greens live longer.  You can even have a full vase of greens like ivy or some small hypericum.  They truly live well.

Why would you let your home be overtaken by such dust collectors? We are all for flowers but spend a few dollars for real and not silk or plastic junk from the dollar store. NO ONE is fooled by such and only makes your home seem tacky. Unless you have a talking fish wall plaque or maybe some pink flamingo birds in your yard, well....


I have the same issue with being too busy for fresh flowers. My alternative is to get small potted plants that flower. The flowers last longer and even if when are no flowers, the green brings some "life" into my apartment.

this is a hot issue clearly

I have them in my house. Some flowers in the bedroom, and small ferns in the living room and kitchen. I like them and don't care what anyone else thinks. We don't get much light in my place at all, so plants tend to die. I've already killed 3 plants so I gave up. Without some greenery I think the place looks dull. The one spot that gets light in my kitchen, I have ivy clippings in a vase of water. The worst fake plants have large leaves. I've found some nice fake ferns with very small leaves at Merrifield Garden Center.

Fake it.

Try my new favorite . . . live mini calla lillies. They come in gorgeous colors and last a loooong time!


I have to admit I'm sort of blown away by the strong, negative response to fake flowers! Are they TRULY, THAT bad? Maybe it's just me, but I don't tend to notice them in other people's homes (maybe because they don't have them) but I don't think I'd judge them so harshly if they did. Flowers are expensive and hard to keep up with, but a home without plans seems cold and dead... What's the busy bee to do?

Busy bees like real flowers. Me too.

Why not some potted flowers it pretty containers? Find the easiest care varieties you can and you'll be watering every week or every other week tops. They'll do great in your living room windowsill.

This is good advice.

I'm not trying to fool my guests. I'm trying to make myself happy with something green. You are welcome to turn down invitations to my home if it's going to hurt your eyes.

You should do things in your own home to please yourself, not fool visitors.

Mona, I noticed in the article your comment about clutter. I have--ahem--a problem with clutter in my home office. Any good solutions? Or was my mother right and I should just keep everything picked up? I'm very unhappy with my office because it's so disorganized. I work out of my house and just never have time to address this issue. One thing I'd like to change is what's hanging over my desk. I currently have a bulletin board with pictures, cards, etc. But it's, well, cluttered, and I can't help but think a nice painting would help me focus better and streamline the look. Any thoughts?

Absolutely, get ride of the bulletin board and put a painting up taht will calm and inspire you.  The same day take a glass of wine and an empty box and get rid of everything you can live without.  That will start the de-cluttering process.

I've seen vanities at West Elm (search "narrow-leg vanity") and IKEA (I think they call them "dressing tables"). Also, don't discount a place geared towards kids or teens - Pottery Barn teen, for instance, has vanities and some of their things are very nice looking and could appropriate for all ages. Finally, a slim desk with drawer and a tabletop mirror could also work.

This would be a fun story to do - I might suggest it!

Jordans Furniture has a free 2D room planner. Or you can spend a little cash ($15 for one month, $35 for a year) and get Plan 3D


Your advice is correct - don't do anything until you see what's above the ceiling, and be prepared for a horror show, like surface-mounted wiring, missing chunks of plaster, water damage, etc. Same thing with paneling - it was put there to hide something awful. I've seen this in three different homes that I've owned.

I saw it in my own 1937 kitchen ceiling. Ugh. Not a pretty sight.

Turquoise and brown are a very popular color combination nowadays with a very modern look. You can find a number of geometric patterns using those colors. I've seen a lot of bed linens sets using those color combinations.


Ms. Hajj, I love nearly every room in your online portfolio. Regarding the gorgeous and extensive use of rugs: in looking at prices on 1stdibs, it seems as though the rugs are more expensive than many pieces of wall art. Do you tell your clients that they need to budget $300,000 or so for carpets? Also, I'm getting dizzy looking at the variety of orientals available. How do you begin to narrow down the selection? Is choosing a rug for a room something I can do myself? Thanks so much.

That is a very good question and the way I deal with rugs is through my travels.  I buy whatever I love and there is always a place for them in my client's houses.  So you really need to know or trust somebody who knows rugs because there is a lot of junk out there.   Take your time or call a designer who could help you.  Not every designer understands oriental rugs.  So be choosy.  

The bed coverings shown on your website, Mona, are unbelievably gorgeous. Are they Suzanis? Is there any way for us little people to replicate the look without flying to exotic locales overseas?

Thank you so much.  These suzanis ought not to be extravagant and you don't have to travel anywhere.  I can give you one of the people I have dealt with, he has a shop in San Francisco and the name is Cocoon.  You can look him up.

Reminds me of the 'cat lady' with 20 pets or my grandmother's home. I would be looking for doileys on the chairs and perhaps a no-pest strip in the kitchen. I HATE fake flowers and yes, your friends will point at you and say 'oh, that couple' with a smirk and giggle. My two cents.

This is definitely an article waiting to be written. Stay tuned.

They're a bargain at Trader Joe's and they last a long time, too. Put them in an east-facing window, water only when dry. They will last for a month. (just say no to fake flowers!)

Just say no. I'm with you. I buy those $14.99 orchids at Trader Joe's all the time. Even Whole Foods has small ones at around that price. They can last for several months in flower. A chic and cheap choice.

We have a few sideboard decorations that we've switched out at various times. We have a lovely hand blown glass bud vase and a glass rose that we sometimes put out. We also have a couple of very decorative plates and pasta bowls that have been gifted to us at various times that we sometimes put out on a plate stand to show off the plate. We have assorted place mats, napkins, etc and we often choose the colors of the sideboard decoration based on the table settings that we put out. Since this is the first room on the left as you enter our home, (with the sideboard on the wall that you face when you enter) we like to make it a decorative focal point.

Thanks for describing this.

When I flip through West Elm, Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware catalogs, the rooms look magazine-worthy, they're stunning. But nearly all designers do everything custom (and swear by it). Is this just to make more money? I feel like there are ways of decorating homes using regular stores and boutiques without paying 5 times more to get everything to-the-trade, hand-carved, hand-painted, hand-sewn.... but maybe I'm being naive. What do you think?

I'm sorry you feel that way about dealing with designers.  Probably you should talk to a few because it's not all that bad.  You need to understand that these places are very nice as you have said, but when you reach a time when you are more settled, you probably want to upgrade the knowledge, quality, variation and uniquness a good designer will give you cannot be found in a catalog.  Plus, what you see in catalogs have been set by designers.

Mona, What kind of dining table (which wood tone, or black, white ,etc.) would you recommend for a dining room with greige walls and white trim?

I always love rich, dark wood tones.  They are timeless and work with modern and traditional.

Almost as important as paint brand is the vendor. We use Sherwin Williams because there is a Sherwin Williams store near us, we have come to learn about the 2 guys that staff the shop most often, we trust their judgment to help us with questions and they keep all of our colors in the computer from the selected ones to custom ones. It's more than just a paint brand. And from our experience, the higher quality paints make a difference in both coverage and lasting over the cheap Lowe's/HD paints. We also love the no-VOC Harmony line.

Yes. The staff is very important!

Then those people are not my friends. My friends come over for my company and to have fun, not to judge my decorating.


One way to avoid "everyone facing the TV" is to set up so that the TV can be concealed. If you have an armoire or entertainment center that has doors, you can close off the TV so that it isn't a focal point when closed. I saw one home renovation where they had a wall mounted plasma TV and they build a "box with doors around the TV. They painted the outside in a decorative style (like a piece of art) and when the doors were closed, it looked like artwork instead of a TV.


I don't have any more time to defend my fake plant choices. I have to go heat up my velveeta, soy turkey and gluten free bread for lunch.


Nothing says I love you honey like some spring tulips or a bunch of grocery store less than 10 dollars spray of REAL flowers. I buy them every week and it makes me smile. Why not have REAL flowers - you only live once! Pretty flowers make us happy and we all need to be happy!

I love you.

My issue is not having time to care for something, it's not having enough light to keep plants alive inside. Even my philodendron died.


Great chat Mona! Thank you for being here. The person who asked the question about FAKE FLOWERS at 11:19 is the winner of the book! Please email with your mailing address and we will email you a copy of Mona's book Interior Visions. Thanks everyone for joining us today. And check out Mona's lecture at the Corcoran  next Wednesday. Bye now.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius uses her years of experience as a home expert and her network of well-placed sources to help you choose everything from paint type and colors to how to de-shed sofas from pet hair to where to find the best designer fabrics at a discount.

Home Q&A archive
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
Mona Hajj
Named one of Architectural Digest's 100 top designers and architects, Baltimore's Mona Hajj is a rising star in the design world. Catch her Wednesday, April 20, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art & Design where she will discuss her first book, Interior Visions, along with her favorite design projects. These include a beach house in Delaware, a New York City apartment, the Embassy of Luxembourg in D.C., and her own home in Baltimore.
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