Home Front: Anti-luxury designer Debbie Wiener on affordable decorating

Jul 12, 2012

DC interior designer Debbie Wiener is known for her no-nonsense approach to design. Her book, Slob Proof, offers decorating tips with comfort, convenience and value in mind instead of high end indulgence.

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. 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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Hi everyone. Today we have Deborah Wiener of Designing Solutions in Silver Spring, Md with us. She is an expert in design with a difference - rooms that work for real life - with lots of children and dogs and activity. She has written a book called Slob Proof - Real-Life Design Solutions. So ask her your tough questions. Let's get going.

What is the magic trick to get my vinyl table cloth to stay put?? I have a plant in the center and the cloth still move around. We tried the table without the cloth but the table just looks better with a cover, a cotton cover isnt ideal...any suggestion?

Would a rubber mat underneath keep it in place?  Try using the same pad that goes under small area rugs.

Good morning! Jura, I really enjoyed today's article, "Living in the Past?" It brings to mind a most hated feature of our house: bifold closet doors. Ugh, is the nicest way to describe them. There MUST be another, more up-to-date and, even attractive, solution! (Our house leans toward contemporary design.) Please h-e-l-p!!

Sliding doors or even pocket doors if you can install them would be a great alternative.

Hi, I see that y'all are now saying granite is outdated, which is fine with me as I never particularly liked it. What would be a better choice? I'm replacing my cracked laminate counters this summer, with an eye towards selling the house next spring, so I'm looking for something appealing, neutral and moderately priced. The cabinets are a simple, modern light maple. Thanks!

Have you considered new engineered stone tops such as Ceasarstone (my personal favorite) or resin tops with recycled glass.  They come in gorgeous saturated colors.

The Maytag repairman (of commercial machines in my former NYC building) made a strong suggestion re towels. One should always use less detergent than directed when washing them. They will last longer and be much softer. He also recommended occasionally rinsing them a second time.

I always rinse towels a second time.  Also, use half as much fabric softener to make them more absorbent.

Can you recommend a white/off white color to paint the trim in a room painted BM's Hancock Green? Thanks!

I LOVE Navajo White.

My living room is painted a neutral greige color, couch is a camel tone, cream-colored side chairs, and one great eggplant mohair armchair. Silk curtains, solid, no pattern, have a little lavender or-- dare I say it after today's article -- mauve sheen to them. I feel like a need a third color for pillows, but not sure what will pull the tans and aubergine together. Any ideas?

Burnt pumpkin- will give a little pop and work with all the colors in your room.

Really? Granite is dated? If that's the opinion, then why does everyone still want them? And it's not like we're limited to Uba Tuba, Luna Pearl and Santa Cecelia any more. If you think your granite's dated then you need to look at the REST of the kitchen to see why it looks that way. There are so many patterns and colors of granite & marble that there's no reason to think you can't find something absolutely smashing for a new or remodeled kitchen (or just new countertops). Given that all of the "new" countertop materials basically try to mimic the best qualities of granite, it behooves the remodeler or new home purchaser to do a little shopping around before taking your word for something like that. Most people who buy Silestone, Caesarstone, etc. do so because some designer says it's the latest thing, not because it's necessarily better or better-looking than natural stone.

She asked.  I answered!

I am interested in Ms. Wiener's book and don't use Kindle/Nook. However, I can't find the book listed at the usual resources -- Barnes & Nobles or Amazon except for third party sellers (i.e. used ). I avoid these like the plague as I have been very disappointed with them in the past, so are there any other resources where a paperback copy can be obtained ? Our local library is very limited these days in terms of actual books and I'd like a copy of my own. Is the book out of print? Thanks!

Sure- www.slobproof.com and on our design website- www.mydesigningsolutions.com.  Click the shopping page and there you are.  I'll even autograph it for you!

I purchased a large area rug online for the living room. It looks exactly like it did online (blue with dark tan pattern), but now that it's in the space, I don't love it. It would be too much of a pain and expense to send it back. There's nowhere else in the house I can use it. I have a green accent wall that I've been meaning to paint over, so I'm going to try that this weekend and see if it helps once the walls are all neutral colors. Is it worth it to live with a mistake and just try to get used to it, or do I try to sell it knowing I won't get back what I paid for it? :(

Maybe when you paint that green accent wall over, it will make the rug look better?  Try that first as it's the easiest and cheapest way to try and live with the rug.  Maybe brown???

I have a 100 year old house with original windows in various states or disrepair and rot. I have purchased custom made storm windows (as required by the historic commission) but the paint on the windows need to be cleaned up and repairs done before the windows can be installed. Can you recommend a company that knows how to restore old windows and do responsible lead paint removal at a reasonable cost? Help!

That's a tougn one as painters who do lead removal must take a course and be certified.  Have you checked an historical organizations?

I have a 8x10 area rug that should be cleaned. It's not a persian or anything, just needs a little sprucing up. Any ideas about where to take it to be cleaned? I don't have a car, so a pick up service would be handy. Thank you!

Bergmans will pick up and so will Christophers.

We lost power in the June 30th storms. In desperation (heading out for vacation), we took our two hampers of dirty clothes to the laundromat (whose power had been restored) and sprung for the wash-and-fold service. The clothes came back the next day stinking of some fake-flowery scent that gives me a headache and causes anxiety. Tried 3/4 c baking soda prewash. Nothing. Then 1 c vinegar wash (in wash AND rinse cycles). Nada. Used this product and and still no luck. Unless you can help, I'm destined for a shopping spree that I can ill afford.

I would have throught the vinegar would help- try another wash or two before you give up.

I will be working from home for my new job and need to set up a practical and efficient work area. Any ideas for a great affordable desk with drawers/ good storage space? What else do I need? Thanks.

I love sawhorse tables and staking crates and baskets as a versatile desk top with storage.  What else?  Wall shelves, memo boards and most importantly- good lighting and a comfy chair.

My 25 year old outdoor Amish picnic table needs to be replaced. I never did anything to this one, and it is finally splintering and rotting. But when I get a new one, should I finish it in any way?

If you want to keep the original wood finish, have it power washed each season and then re-apply a finishng oil.

Hi, Jura and Debbie! In the spirit of value over luxury, I am thinking of repurposing a dresser and nightstand for use in a nursery. I'm going to try my hand at painting the furniture, and I'd love some recommendations for gender-neutral paint colors that would go with the walls, which are BM Hancock Green. The carpet is light tan. (I know I could just paint the furniture white, but I'm leaning toward a slightly more funky look.) Thanks for your suggestions!

Have you ever thought of using the Annie Sloan chalk paint products? They have a great range of neutral colors that bring a lot of life to old furniture - I would use a greige color. Here is a story I did recently on Christen Bensten, a design blogger in Arlington, and how she used the paints to rejuvenate old wood pieces. http://wapo.st/yg8vLC

What are your thoughts on cabinets from Ikea, for those of us on a tight budget? Do they hold up well over time? Are there people who specialize in designing them?

I have seen a few great kitchen using Ikea cabinetry.  Thekey is really good installation.  Ikea provides onsite kitchen deisgn services and they may even be able to recommend a great installer for you.

I love Home Front and have gotten so much valuable info from you. My latest problem is I need a home office setup for a compact space - it has to go in a corner and I have more vertical space than horizontal space. I want plenty of workspace and storage for supplies and files and shelves for the printer and various computer components. I've been looking at web sites and it's possible to spend a lot of money or next to nothing (for compressed wood chips and particle board). I don't want to pay an arm and a leg but I don't something cheap and flimsy. Suggestions?

I believe Crate and Barrel has leaning vertical shelving- which we've all seen- but with desk tops.  You could put two of them side by side to maximize the desk surface.  When you don't have a lot of floor space, go up, young woman, go up!

In the interest of affordable decorating, I have a dark wood sleigh bed from Pottery Barn and I want to paint it a creamy white. The bedroom walls are Benjamin Moore HC Woodlawn Blue and the trim is Sherwin Williams Alabaster. Should I go a shade or two deeper than the trim? Any specific paint color you would recommend? Thanks!

I don't know the Sherwin Williams color, but defintely go darker.

I have tan walls in my living room (leaning towards greige) with neutral furniture (cream, beige) except for one eggplant mohair velvet armchair. I need an accent color for pillows, etc. I'm thinking red . . . is that crazy? Thanks!

How about a copper color- much preferred with the eggplant over red.

My fiancee and I are moving from an all-hardwood-floor apartment to a wall-to-wall carpeted townhouse in a month. We have a lot of area rugs that we love and bring some needed color to rooms. Is it a faux pas to put an area rug over a carpet? It seems a little strange, but I hate the look of boring neutral carpet that is in so many rentals.

This question is frequently debated in design blogs. If you have some really nice old rugs that would dress up a room with a boring, neutral wall-to-wall carpet in it, by all means use them to define different areas in the rooms. You could put one in a seating area, one under a desk and one beside a bed. Your own rugs will add a lot of personal style to a room. Is it ideal? No. But you have to work with what you have.

Looking at replacing sheet vinyl flooring in my kitchen. What is the best option? Engineered hardwood? Regular hardwood? Laminate? The floor will extend into the entry of the house and a powder room and laundry room. Adjoining rooms have wall-to-wall carpet. Looking for what will last the longest and be kid- and cat-friendly.

I do use the expedit bookcases from Ikea all the time- all the time!  So try it.

Jura, I had a good time laughing at all the comments to your "Seven deadly sins of dated decorating" article. I guess they have never read decorating articles and they must still be happy with their 1950's decor.

The response to that article was amazing! I also received a lot of personal emails, some aghast and some begging for more help. Clearly, people have an opinion! So that is good!

I have two questions about installing a tile backsplash in my kitchen. We've selected one inch glass square tiles in 3 shades for a mosaic look. Regarding the side walls: Should the backsplash stay only on the back walls or come around the corners where the lip of our countertop goes?  I'm worried it might look incomplete to do only the back walls. We also have a hood over our cooktop and are considering having the tile go above it, up to the ceiling (even though the cabinets on either side of the hood don't go up to the ceiling). Will this look weird? Or should we stop where the cabinets stop?  Thanks!

I think your kitchen would look fabulous with the glass tile going al the way up to the ciling behind your hood.  There is no rule on the sides whatsoever- you'll see kitchens that just do the back wall and some that do all side walls too.

Are there guidelines on the right size chandelier to pick? My dining room table is 43 inches wide. I'm considering two designs: one is 31 inches high, 27 inches diameter; the other design comes in two sizes - 35 inches high, 29 inches diameter;and 23 1/2 inches high, 23 inches diameter. I don't want the chandelier to look too large or too dinky. Any advice?

Can you tell me how long the table is?  It is wide- so I tend to go with something that is 2/3 the width of the table- 28-30 inches.

Your book addresses concerns about pet mess. What would you say are the top three things a person can do to keep their cat-friendly house from looking messy?

Like the book says- no hanging fabric draperies, slobproof material on your upholstery, no neutral carpeting.

The cabinets hold up really well, and they have some great, practical features. I love the pull out drawers so much better than standard shelf/door base cabinets. Things don't get buried in the back! They also now offer installation if you don't feel comfortable doing it or have someone you want to work with.

Thanks. This is all very helpful. I get asked a lot about Ikea kitchen components. So if anyone else out there has any thoughts, please post!

I've got an older cat who frequently has hair balls or gets sick when he eats too fast. Any advice on where to find waterproof, yet attractive, coverings for beds so we aren't surprised with a last-minute need to change the sheets at night? How about something to cover the couches that is comfortable but can easily be wiped clean?

We have slobproof "throvers"- large fabric covers that you can place over your beds and upholstery.  they will help.

Good morning. My husband and I are having a debate. I have sixty boxes of books in our basement and no bookcases (we moved and sold ours to the guy who bought our house because they were built for that space). I would like my husband to build a wall of built-in bookcases in our living room but he's reluctant to do this because he thinks that furniture placement and future house resale will be an issue. My husband is a carpenter/contractor so he can totally do this, and in fact, has done this for many customers. Except me, apparently. I find his attitude inexplicable because if I were looking for a house and found one with built-in bookcases, I'd be all over it. It would free up a lot of basement space if I could get all those boxes unpacked. Any thoughts on the gentle art of husband persuasion? And how do chatters feel about houses with built-in bookcases? Thanks muchly.

Built-in bookcases usually add value to a room. However, you don't want too many of them as they will overwhelm a space. My advice would be to make a pact to reduce the number of books that you have. Maybe you could cut the boxes down to 30, donating some books to friends, relatives, libraries etc. or selling some of them on amazon.com or half.com.  Do you have other rooms that would benefit from some bookcases? Bedrooms or a family room? You could distribute them around the house. Keeping books in a basement is really not a great idea anyway due to the change of mold and dampness. Deal with the issue of cutting back on the numbers of the books first, then decide how many you can display. Good luck!  Maybe the servies of a professional organizer for a couple of hours might help you convince your husband.

Good morning! Thanks Jura and Debbie for doing the chat! My husband and I recently bought a new construction townhouse that will be ready in January. But we sit down next week to start picking out options. Probably a silly question but... We know we want hard wood floors, but from there we are at a loss. How do you recommend people pick flooring/hardwoods? Pick a piece of furniture you love and go from there? For instance, I love our dining room set - it's a warm, medium-honey color. Or does any of that matter? Any direction will be MUCH appreciated. Thanks!

Many homewoners are opting for darker, richer stained finishes- this would provide some contrast with your furniture and give a really elegant look to the wood floors.  Try to chose wider planks- they make the floor look bigger!

Love built ins if they look good and have molding and are place in a good spot in the room. But I've seen plenty that look cheap because they are not deep enough and have no trim. Maybe you could compromise and have your husband make something that fits the space exactly, but isn't actually built in.

I agree that they should be done right. Flimsy shelving and not great quality materials diminish the look of a room.

They are available at Walmart to use as drawer liners to stop utensil holders from slipping and sliding around. A table length strip would probably hold the vinyl tablecloth in place!


No! Because then you'll be building the room around that mistake. Paint the wall if you want to try that out, but honestly, I've chosen to live with too many mistakes thinking if I just get the right accessories I'll finally like it. And I never do. A rug makes too large of an impact on a room to just live with it.

Good thoughts. You'll always walk by and think "mistake."

The inside of my front door is the same white as my trim, and I think that painting it would help cheer up the space. The walls are beige, the floors are off-white ceramic tile (that eventually will be replaced with hwf). From that hallway you can see the kitchen (light blue) and the living room (beige with red/gray/black/navy blue kilim pillows). What color do you suggest I paint the door? Or should I just leave it white?

I love to see a painted door that complements the interrio color scheme.  Red is always a great choice- why not try Benjamin Moore 1300 Tucson red or 1307 Geranium?  keep it in a "satin", not semi-gloss finish.

I have a cat and I like furniture that has a little space above the floor. So, no skirts on couches or sofas, and wood furniture on legs. Otherwise, the cat hair piles up around the bottom of the furniture and it's hard to clean up quickly. When you've got a little space all you have to do is vacuum underneath the furniture, or swiffer if you have hard wood floors.

I always advise seating on legs- stays cleaner with kids too!

What types of paint will be most durable to cover over really ratty-looking wood furniture? I'd like something that can stand up to the spills and other general abuse that two preschoolers will send it's way.

It's not so much the paint, it's the prep, that matters here.  You will need to really sand these pieces down so that the paint adheres.  If you can't sand it, prime it with something like "Kilz", then paint with acrylic paint.

I have a heavy plate that until recently was displayed on an easel - it's about 15 inches in diameter and weights about 7 lbs. It's not currently configured to be used as wall art, but that's what I'd like to do because I love it and feel silly buying something else when hopefully there's a simple solution. I hate the look of those plate holders - is there anything else I can use reliably, though? Brackets and gorilla glue, perhaps?

Your best bet is to use a ledge- something small and preferable with a plate groove in it.  Pottery Barn has great wall ledges

Try Ikea, we have the Galant desk in the wenge finish and Effektiv furniture for storage. It is very sturdy and we get compliments from everyone who sees it -- and surprised looks when we tell them it is Ikea. Galant also has corner unit options for desks.

I'm gonna check those out myself- haven't used them but with your recommendation Jura, I will try them.

Why is this so frowned upon? Until I no longer have little ones and big dogs running around my house, we're sticking with carpet (then hope to replace some areas with hardwood) - but we have rugs in all of our main living spaces (over the carpet). I think it grounds the room and defines a space - no matter what it's sitting on top of. What's so wrong with that?

There is nothing wrong with it. The traditional answer to that is that that wood floors best set off nice area rugs. But if you have wall-to-wall and want to put rugs on top of it, do it.

Has anyone found a good place for inexpensive good looking rugs?

We have a large collection of hard-to-find rugs at shop.mydesigningsolutions.com.  I also like Home Decorators Collection- although you often see those rugs EVERYWHERE!

What fabrics should you avoid if you have pets?

There are three tests:


1.  Will it pull from dog/cat nails?

2.  Is it clenable if there's an accident?

3.  Will shedding hair stick to it?


Take a look at the fabrics at www.slobproof.com

I remember being stopped dead in my tracks when we refinished the floors in our first house. The flooring guy recommended going a bit darker (on red oak) than the dining room chairs and did a custom mix which we also used on the staircase bannisters. Perfect! Working off a visual reference that we owned was a good method for us.

That is good advice. Thanks and I'm so glad it worked for you.

Hadeed picks up and delivers, too!


We're renovating the kitchen and installing white cabinets with a farmhouse look (vertical grooves reminiscent of simplified bead board) black handles on the cabinets and farmhouse style sink. Appliances will be stainless. I'm having trouble deciding on a counter and back splash color and material. Cost is a factor, since we have a huge island in addition to two other runs of counter, and not much money. I really would like to keep a rustic feel to the space, especially since we have a screened porch with cedar plank siding off one entryway, and a brick fireplace in the family room side of the room. Of course, with 2 small kids and 3 cats, it needs to be really easy to maintain. What do you suggest?

Have you thought of soapstone for the countertops?  I have a rustic, vintage-looking kitchen too and the matte finish of the soapstone gives the perfect look to my kitchen.  For tile, take a look at Pratt and Larson Tile- OMG you will love the vintage farm looks they have and to keep the budget down to earth, you can choose just a few of their decorative tiles and mix them in randomly with less expensive filed tile.  Have fun!

My house is 44 years old and I have parquet floor tiles glued to the concrete subfloor (the house is on a concrete slab). There is a lot of mastic/tile glue stuck to the concrete and the concrete is crumbly in many spots. Can you recommend a company to remove/sand the concrete floor so it is clean and level? I intend to install the underlayment and click & lock engineered hardwood myself. I can't find anyone who does this work except in You Tube videos! My fall back is renting a sander and doing it myself, but I would rather leave it to the experts.

Hmmm. This is a hard one. I would call a company such as Universal Floors 202 537-8900 and ask them for advice. Does anyone out there have experience with this?

The issue with Ikea kitchens is that it all depends on the contractor you're assigned. One of my sisters had a fabulous experience with Ikea in Baltimore, and the other sister, hearing of that experience, went to the College Park Ikea for her kitchen. It's been six months of PURE HELL! Ikea assigned a contractor whom my sister was not comfortable with, and who had gotten bad marks on Angie's List. The renovation took more than six months and Ikea was completely and totally unresponsive to my sister's complaints. The contractor delivered damaged appliances, and when my sister refused to take them, he left them on her front lawn. This whole process beat her down. To add insult to injury, they finally finished the kitchen in early June, only to have a branch come through the ceiling in the DC Derecho! (and a tree hit her car!) So if you want an Ikea kitchen, do your homework, find out who the contractor will be and check references. Pigtown Design

Yikes! How great that one sister had a fabulous experience with the Baltimore Ikea. But the other sister's experience is disturbing. Thanks for sharing it. Keep 'em coming.


The problem here was not the Ikea cabinets, but the contractor.  There's no substitute for due diligence before hiring an installer.

Hi Debbie, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea of Slob Proof? And why? It's an interesting concept, but I'd like to more background info if you don't mind!

It was a choice between "serenity now!", divorce or serious drug use.  I chose the serenity.  You see, while I was out building a career based on beautiful rooms without a concern for how they would hold up at home, my self-professed slob of a husband and two boys were home destroying the seating, the carpet, the draperies, the table lamps...just about everything.  To stay sane, I had to change my whole design philosophy.  Now I always ask myself...What's the worst that could happen to this piece of furniture or this fabric or this rug.  Know the answer before you buy it!  Since becoming a slob-proofing expert, I'm much happier at home too!

By the way, beyond the book, I also have incredible seating line- totally slobproof- and a touch-up tool- the Slobproof! Paint Pen- for quick and easy paint touch-ups.  You can learn about slobproofing your own home at www.slobproof.com

Bought a house last year with cheap built ins. Old 1x 8 or some terribly shallow shelving. No trim, no doors and open to wall behind it with cracks... Am currently trying to figure out a not-crazy-expensive way to replace this eyesore... Paint cant fix this one... It is really the shallow depth, cheap wood and lack of trim that kills it for me.

Sounds like there is no alternative - but total replacement.

My husband used self-leveling compound to get our floors even before he installed click-n-lock laminate flooring in our house, which is on a concrete slab foundation.

Good advice. Thanks.

My laundry room's only light fixture died so needs to be replaced. It's a fairy small space with the washer and dryer side-by-side at one end, furnace unit in the opposite corner and a storage unit for misc. items. Should I just put task lighting over the w/d and leave the rest of the room alone? Or several can lights to light the entire area? It doesn't really lend itself to decorative lighting - more industrial/functional is probably appropriate. Any suggestions for task lighting?

Laundry rooms are the perfect place for fluorescent strip lighting- not the kind with the exposed tube bulb but with a clear plastic diffuser.  Why?  They do give off good light, they almost never need replacing and they give off no heat.  Much less expensive than adding recessed lighting.   Try bellacor.com for great pricing.

Do you know of good places to find interesting tiles in our area that aren't too expensive?

Architectural Ceramics in Rockville on E. Gude- not the Bethesda location and Renaissance Tile in Alexandria VA.

I had the same problem after using hotel laundry service on a long trip. Try 1) soaking the smelly clothes in the washer with vinegar and baking soda overnight before washings, and 2) hand drying the clothes to air out the smell. The smell in my clothing went away after a month or so, and a lot of airing out. Next time you drop off laundry, bring your own detergent.

Wow. How annoying! Thanks for your sage advice.

Thank you for this chat. I am trying to find someone to help me incorporate much of what we have throughout our house. We are in a small rambler in Great Falls, and I have collected many pieces of Japanese and Chinese artwork and furniture. I think we are a little crowded, yet I don't really want to get rid of the Asian pieces. Any idea who might be able to help me with that? Thank you so much in advance

Me!  Check out our design services at www.mydesigningsolutions.com

Thanks so much Debbie for being on the chat. Some great ideas here for lots of different parts of the house. And lots of pet-proofing tips. I learned something too - don't let anyone else do your laundry!

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
Debbie Wiener
Debbie Wiener describes herself as the "anti-luxury interior designer" who prioritizes comfort and value over high end indulgence. She is also a mother, wife, author and creator of SlobProof Seating and Paint Pens. She lives in Silver Spring and dreams of raising chickens at her home in Chestertown, MD. Check out her Web site at www.slobproof.com.
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