Home Front: Good Bones, Great Pieces bloggers dish design essentials

Jun 07, 2012

Suzanne and Lauren McGrath are a mother-daughter interior design team who operate the blog Good Bones, Great Pieces, also the title of their first book that was published last month. In it, they outline seven key pieces that can go in any room and stand the test of time.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself (or call-in-a-pro) advice. She can even help you cope with the eternal pets vs. furniture battle. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Home Front Live Q&A archive Older Home Front Live Q&As

How do you balance style and longevity? That question is answered by mother/daughter design duo Suzanne and Lauren McGrath who pen the blog Good Bones, Great Pieces. They have also just written the book "Good Bones, Great Pieces: The Seven Essential Pieces That Will Carry You Through a Lifetime" (Abrams; $29.95.) . We are excited to talk about their ideas and their tips today on the chat. So let's get going. 

Hi everyone,

We're so excited to be on this Live Chat with the Washington Post this morning. We love helping people solve their design conundrums. Whether it's your first apartment or your third or fourth home, we're here for you!

My living room contains dark wood pieces, ebony piano. Area rug in blue/cream with hints of dark red and gold lies on oakish toned hardwood floor.I want to recover the camelback sofa which is in a dark stripe now and the floral-covered wingchair. Am thinking about cranberry for one of them. Your thoughts, pls. Love these chats! Thanks.

I am not a huge fan of cranberry as I think it is a dark, dramatic color for a room. I would do the sofa in a neutral solid, such as possibly tan and I would find a small print or texture or jacquard for the wingchair that would have blue and cream in it. Good luck!

I'm in my first real apartment since college and I really want to feel like a grownup in my space. But I still have a lot of mismatchy furniture that I like, but doesn't feel cohesive. How can I pull it together without buying all new furniture?

First apartment dwellers are often on a budget and you definitely don't need to buy all new furniture for your first apartment. Many of our clients are moving into their first apartments and what we usually suggest they do is put together a list of things they love that they really want to keep, as well as a realistic budget for what they can buy. Try to keep in mind that you no one buys everything in one go, and that furnishing your home is a lifelong process. If you're going to buy new pieces for your apartment, choose quality over quantity. Buy furniture that you love now that you know you will love 20 years from now. You can find great furniture at dirt cheap prices at places like your local Salvation Army and Consignment stores. A coat of paint does wonders! Also, don't forget the power of some great accessories. Nothing pulls a room together better than a few colorful pillows. The right combination of colors in a room can help feel it cohesive. Choose two complimentary colors (check out the color wheel) and one odd ball color. 

So, this is a logistics question. I really want to start frequenting some of the flea and antique markets in my area but since I'm in the market to get larger pieces, how do I get those pieces home? Do I rent a truck before I go? What happens if I don't find anything I like? Do I pick out/pay for a piece and then go back with a truck? I'm just curious how the logistics work.

I would suggest you look at the websites of the fleamarkets you are interested in and see if they mention furniture delivery. Often there are people with trucks available at fleamarkets to deliver a piece for you. Many dealers will also have arrangements with local truck owners who might be hired to do that. If you have a friend who has a van, you might invite them to go with you on a flea market expedition, as many pieces could probably be carried home in a standard van. Most dealers are flexible and if you buy something from them, you can arrange to pick it up at a later date or even another location. I would not rent a truck before venturing out on a scouting trip as you might not find anything you love, or you might be pressured into buying something you don't really need just because you have gone to the expense of renting a truck. Enjoy your new passion!

My 13-year-old daughter needs a new dresser for her room. We like a dresser from PB Teen. It the right size and color (white.) It will be delivered and put together for about $1000. It seems like a lot. But when I have looked at other places we haven’t seen anything we liked. We have checked West Elm, Crate and Barrel and CB2. Of course, Kellog Collection has a beautiful piece for $1800. Does anyone have any other suggestions or should we just go with PB Teen and be done with it? Thanks!

We just used a great one from Crate & Barrel that we used in a recent room makeover for Teen Vogue. You can check it out here: http://bit.ly/LrPgiP. It's a really great piece that is both modern and feminine. 

My kitchen cabinets are flat white laminate boxes with tired faux-wood-grain pulls. The structure and layout is fine, I'd just like them to look better. I'd rather not go through the expense of replacement doors. If I paint them and change the pulls, they'd still be plain and flat. Any suggestions to gussy them up?

I would just go for a nice glossy white paint. And if you want to make a statement, then do something fun with the pulls. You can find cool ones at Anthropologie or Restoration Hardware.

The sofa with matching ottoman in my den have had it. Worse, the fabric around the piping that runs around the edge of the ottoman has frayed in several places. They are both a blue and yellow plaid. I LIVE in this room along with new puppy and grandkids who often visit, etc. Walls are camel, medium toned hardwood floor. What color/color combo would you recommend for recovering? Is it OK if the two pieces don't match? Thanks.

Lucky for you it sounds like your space is quite neutral so you could recover your sofa and ottoman in just about any color you like. They certainly do not have to match, in fact, they will be much more interesting if they don't. If you go to a place like Calico Corners, they often have collections that are designed for exactly this purpose where they sell coordinating fabrics that will always look great together. 

I need some suggestions to update my old bathroom. We bought an older house and the bathroom has that classic pink tile. I know some people like this retro look but I'm not one of them. It's going to be a while before we can renovate the bathroom. I'd like suggestions on way to update the look until then. I've considered painting the walls navy or sage green, adding a gold framed mirror, but nothing seems quite right. Ideas?

There are lots of houses, especially in the DC area, that have bathrooms with challenging color tiles. I love the idea of navy and pink - and it would be cool to get stacks of both navy and pink towels and bath rugs and mats and mix and match them. Replacing the mirror with something more contemporary, rococo or boho would also create a fresh look.

I really enjoyed the McGrath's book! It has great advice if for someone just starting out on how to buy furniture that will be flexible as you move to new places. In their book, they referred to buying used furniture at antiques fairs, flea markets, etc. I worry about picking up bedbugs by doing that. Have they ever found bedbugs in any of the pieces they've seen or bought? How do they avoid them?

Most of the pieces we buy at flea markets and antique fairs are not upholstered, or if they are, it's just the seat of a chair. This is the best way to avoid the bed bug issue. We've never purchased a sofa that was used, but we do buy upholstered pieces from antique stores that are left over inventory from custom upholstery work rooms. 

Do you guys have good luck at places like Goodwill?

Yes! We just picked up a great rattan coffee table at The Salvation Army for $14.99. 

About cranberry, if you love the color, why not do the chair in cranberry and do the sofa in something more neutral like camel. You can put pillows with cranberry accents on the sofa and pillows with camel accents on the chair to tie the two together. Also, no matter what you do, it is sure to look nicer than your current situation, so be fearless! :-)

Good point!

I love the idea of narrowing it down to seven key pieces for your home. Which of these seven pieces have you found is the most difficult to get right (or the one that people most often get wrong)?

Hands down, the side table! Getting the side table right is all about scale. For example, next to your living room sofa, you want to use side tables that are about the same height as the arm of your sofa (not much lower or taller). And you want to avoid side tables that look too nighttable-y. Anything with a back and a drawer will look like it's meant to go next to your bed. We find the most versatile side tables to ones that have at least one shelf and are square or rectangular. 

Do you have a good time blogging... or does it get to be a chore?!

We love to blog together! It's become a great way for us to chronicle design projects and resources, as well as have a daily conversation with other design enthusiasts. 

We're looking to redo a few rooms in our home this summer. What are your favorite go-to white paint colors?

This is a question we get all the time and we love answering it because getting white right is tricky but can totally make a room. Our two favorite wall colors are Benjamin Moore glacier white and acadia white. Trim color to go with these is ivory white. 

I just moved into a new place and the kitchen cabinets are gross. I'm going to paint them but in the meantime, nothing I've tried seems to have gotten rid of the greasy stickiness and I know I can't paint them until they're clean. Any suggestions you can please give would be appreciated!

Cleaning the greasy residue from kitchen cabinets, ceilings and fans is something we should all do more often. You don't mention whether the cabinets are laminate or wood. Dilute a dish washing or laundry detergent in a pail of water and start scrubbing. Use a sponge or a washcloth or microfiber cloth. If you want to use a household cleaner, check first to see if it's appropriate for the surface of your cabinets. You could also test it on a small area before you try it on an entire cabinet. Don't use any kind of sponge or steel wool that would scratch your cabinets. Some people like to use a vinegar solution to cut grease. Other tips: wear rubber  gloves and remove the hardware from the doors so you can really scrub every inch of them.

I'm in the same boat as the first apartment-dweller question, but my dilemma is about art. I fully recognize that art is a get-what-you-pay-for kind of thing, but I just don't have the money to splurge on art right now. I've gotten my apartment fairly furnished, but the walls are white. I'm trying to keep myself from being too snobby about art and stay open-minded, but the pieces I'm drawn to are way out of my price range. Where would you recommend looking for some inexpensive art? Any only retailers you use?

There are some great art sources out there that won't break the bank and we use them all the time for clients on a budget. Our favorites are Zatista, Lumas, and 20 x 200. Also, check out your local second hand book store for art and photography books. We often rip out pages from some of our favorite art books and frame them. 

I've written in from time to time lamenting about my Duncan Phyfe reproduction dining room furniture that is falling apart. Just wanted to let you know I found a marvelous Mission sideboard on Craigslist for $300 (sometimes living in rural Pennsylvania has its advantages) so I took the plunge and bought it. I'm one step closer to creating my Arts and Crafts dining room...

Love this. Thanks for sharing your big score. Keep looking and who knows what treasure awaits.

To prep for sale of our house, we had all the tile reglazed white. We actually had the black/white tile, but many of them were cracked and there was no way to match 60-year-old tile--so they replaced those with a close match, then glazed the whole thing white. I know that neighbors with the yellow/black tile did the same, and it turned out great. It wasn't outrageously expensive either--not nearly as much as removing the tile and fullly redoing the bathroom. So that could be a temporary solution if you just can't stand the pink and black.

Good to know. I'm glad to hear you were happy with the results. I have the same 1930s black and white tile in one of my bathrooms - and I must say it still looks classic to me and I can use any color towels with it.

My roommate and I have a GIANT great room for our apartment. We have what seems like a ton of furniture (two sofas, two other chairs, coffee table, end tables, desk in the corner, a six seat dining table, and a hutch and it still feels empty. We aren't willing to paint the rental walls but is there anything you can suggest that is an economical way to make it feel more homey? We installed shelves in one corner and some large hanging art...but it just still feels empty.

Lucky you to have so much room. You didn't mention rugs, but you could buy a few inexpensive area rugs to define the different parts of the room. Rugs also add coziness. Buy some $12.99 orchid plants from Trader Joes or Whole Foods and put them in nice pots you can pick up at a yard sale or thrift shop. Plants and flowers do a lot to make a place look personal. Set out a bowl of apples or lemons. Seek out some inexpensive pillows and maybe a cotton throw to toss over a sofa or chair. Make sure the books on your shelves are nicely lined up and you could put some accessories or photos on one or two of the shelves.

Looking for inexpensive outdoor curtains in a fun stripe or similarly colorful style--making a reading fort for our young child, so we want something that can hold up to wear and tear and weather if possible. Any thoughts on where to find these?

I would check out Ikea.

This might be a little off-topic from home improvement.... but what's it like to work as a mother-daughter team?! You both seem to have interesting backgrounds in styling and design, but I'm curious about how the decision to quit your jobs and open up a business together came out -- and how you're liking it so far :)

Like all things in life, our business partnership just sort of happened. It started with our writing the blog together while we were both working full time which morphed into a book. Some days we love collaborating on interior design projects and that is when we are at our best together.  

I've recently started using Society Six, an online site which has some different, and cheap pieces of art from new artists.

Cool. Check it out Society6.

I love the idea of a sideboard, but they can be difficult to fit in small spaces, such as small, older houses or apartments. I was browsing through the Houzz website this week and saw a picture of one of those vintage Singer sewing machines being used as a sideboard in an Arts and Crafts dining room. I think this is a wonderful idea and really wish I'd thought of it myself. Another option would be to use a console table (those ones that go across the back of a sofa). Just a couple of thoughts...

My grandmother had one of thoseold Singer  machines. It still might be in the shed in our beach house! Great idea.

I'm obsessed with design blogs, ESPECIALLY GBGP, and all of them seem to have a huge emphasis on white walls and decor these days. Many of the homes and offices that you picture feature white decor, with a few colorful accessories and it always looks chic yet strong. So... why do I have such a hard time pulling off this look?? The thought of having white walls in my home makes me cringe and my furniture all seems so clunky and brown. What am I missing?

What makes spaces with white walls work is the furniture pieces in them are often very unique and interesting architecturally. When the walls are white, you need to add color with upholstery, acccessories and art. That being said, if you're working with furniture pieces that are not inherently interesting, the easiest way to breath life into a room is by painting the walls a color. 

Love your Teen Vogue bedroom makeover! Where did you find the clear bedside table? Thank you

It's vintage. Found at Brimfield! 

I missed last week's chat and read the transcript, only to find the news of Terri's departure. I'm sorry I didn't get to say goodbye in person; please wish her well for me--really appreciated all her work for the Post. In other news, I have decided that all my unhung pictures really need to get hung up. Have hung three; only a billion (approximately) to go. I hung a wonderful Japanese painting of a waterfall, temple, lake, and bridge above my home office desk. Makes such a difference from the cluttered bulletin board I was using. It's very calming and Zen.

We hope Terri is reading our chat and will see your message!  I think lots of people are going for that gallery look in their homes these days. Why not just devote a room or a wall for hanging up everything that you have framed and that you love. Good for you for giving your home office some inspiration on the walls.

Arm & Hammer makes a powder cleanser, usually sold near the oxi-clean in my grocery store laundry aisle. it's less than $2.50 a box and works GREAT for degreasing pretty much anything. Forget the exact name but it's in a box that is similar to A&H baking soda (yellow w/ the same type of logo, etc). Must wear rubber gloves when using.

Fantastic. Great to know. Thanks.

So often, I find that I'm drawn to pieces that are more stylish than comfortable. Once in a rare while, I find pieces that have both. But to achieve the home of my dreams -- much like the homes I see in blogs and magazines, that always look stylish but not necessarily curl-up-and-relax comfortable -- I usually go for style. Which brings me to my question: One of your design essentials is a loveseat which is one of the few pieces that I'd insist be as comfortable as it is stylish. Do you have any recommendations of loveseats or retailers to look for them? Any tips or tricks to finding the right one?

It's true, love seats are rarely as comfortable as your standard sofa. However, they are much more versatile! From your first apartment to the foot of your bed in your master bedroom, the love seat is extremely flexible. Some of our favorite love seats come from Jayson Home & Garden, Mitchell + Gold, Crate & Barrel. Look for love seats with a tight back and add decorative pillows for comfort and interest. Loose back love seats tend to look messy and overwhelm the small proportions of the piece. 

The previous owners of our house installed Pergo Original flooring in two rooms of the first floor. It has been discontinued (of course!) and we are stumped as to how to find more of it or find a close match so we can continue it in another room adjacent to the ones already done. The Pergo people say they can't help. Flooring stores, ditto. Any ideas from your group of creative minds? And in that vein, do any of you know how if Craigslist has a way to search nationally? Thank you for your help!

Wow. I have never had a question like this. So I'm sending this out to all of you to see what you might advise. You certainly could put out a plea on craiglist or Facebook! Someone might have some stashed somewhere!

Based on your chat we went to Spring Valley Patio over Memorial Day. Wonderful staff and store. Our Kingsley-Bates picnic table and chairs should be in soon. Thanks for the info!


We had this same problem in our previous house! I don't think some parts of the cabinets had been cleaned for decades. Dawn dishwashing detergent seems to work wonders, since it's designed to cut grease (also works on grease spots on clothes, I recently learned).

Dawn is amazing. I think I will buy some this weekend.

Try student art sales. I got some great stuff at last year's Corcoran student art sale.

Let's hope the Corcoran continues this tradition in the midst of their turmoil. It is indeed a great place to get original works.

I recently inherited some Chinese Chippendale-style chairs and loveseat. They were made by my grandmother's great, great uncle, probably in the early 1800's. On their own, they are absolutely beautiful. The artistry carvings of the lion's ball and feet to the dragon's (maybe a lion?) head at the top of the chairs are superb. My problem is that my home is more contemporary in that most furniture has clean lines. Is there a trick I can use to help blend the chairs and loveseat in with rest of furniture? Also, the sofa is upholstered in a burnt orange color. It is my understanding that it's never been reupholstered. Would it lose its integrity of being an antique, if I reupholstered? My grandmother reupolstered the chairs in the 1950's so I'm not worried about those. Thank you. I love reading your weekly chats. They are always informative.

The best way to update and modernize antique pieces is to reupholster them. Your sofa would loose some value if you reupholstered it, but for practical purposes it would be worth doing because then you could enjoy it. No one wants to live in a museum. With pieces of this pedigree, we recommend upholstering them in a velvet, in a rich, contemporary color like violet or colbalt blue or emerald green. 

To save money in my first apartment I bought posters of art that was slightly more obscure and then got frames on sale from Michaels. People complimented my selections and it wasn't too expensive for my budget. Just make sure you order something that comes in a standard sized frame! It's a good temporary solution.

Yes. Standard sized frames are the way to go. Or get a mat cut for your piece so then it fits into a standard frame.

Have you guys heard of Sous Style? It was started by a woman from Elle and the tag line is that it's for "young Martha Stewarts." I hadn't heard of GBGP until I saw the posting for this chat a few days ago, but now that I have begun reading your blog, you guys should collab! http://sousstyle.com/

We love Sous Style! 

How can I "update" my family room that is currently done in the traditional yellow, red, blue, Tuscan/Provencial style? I want to keep that style, but make it "fresh".

That Italian/French rustic look is always in style, it's a classic, but I must admit that an entire room of it can need updating after awhile. I think what I would do is pick two colors to keep in the color scheme, such as blue and white, or blue and yellow, or whatever two colors you are most fond of. Eliminate some of the other colors to help make the room not look so busy. Get a fresh rug maybe in a sisal to lay a neutral ground for the furniture. Tone down prints, and add some solids in pillows, upholstery and window treatments.

What did you learn from working at Martha Stewart Living?

I learned how important it is to collaborate with other people to achieve the best results. 

I just moved into an adorable old apartment with hardwood floors, dark wood moldings, and a cute little yard. I'm trying to decorate and fill in some gaps, like curtains, additional storage, area rugs, bookshelves, etc. But I'm on a VERY tight budget (aka I only have enough money to buy one or two things a month). I want to know what you think are the most important things to buy first, and then things that can stand to wait a little bit. I'm thinking curtains first, since right now I'm using sheets to cover up my windows. Do you have suggestions for places to buy these things? I'm already scouring Craigslist and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Thanks!

Check out West Elm and Ikea for curtain panels. We used curtains from Ikea in Lauren's first apartment and they were suprisingly good quality and very chic. Area rugs-- check out Urban Outfitters! 

It was great having Suzanne and Lauren on the show. Great advice and great shopping tips for us all. I'm planning to spend some time with their book at the pool this weekend! Thanks to them and thanks to all of you... until next week.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Suzanne and Lauren McGrath
Suzanne and Lauren McGrath are a mother-daughter interior design team who operate the blog Good Bones, Great Pieces, also the title of their first book that was published last month. In it, they outline seven key pieces that can go in any room and stand the test of time.
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