The Washington Post

Deborah Needleman on interior decorating and home improvement | Home Front

Nov 17, 2011

Deborah Needleman, the founding editor of Domino magazine and author of a new book on interior design, joined Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza on the weekly Home Front chat. Together, they gave advice on interior decorating and home improvement.

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

Hi everyone. We are happy to have Deborah Needleman with us today. This woman has a LOT to talk about so let's get those questions coming. Her new book The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate & Live Well is filled with ideas for creating a relaxed, comfortable and stylish home. Deborah is editor in chief of WSJ Magazine and was founding editor of the late, great DOMINO magazine.  And she used to work at the Washington Post. Ask her about that!!! Meanwhile, I saw her last week at a book signing at ROOM & BOARD here in DC. Great to catch up again. She's got lots of opinions and ideas so let's get going.  

Good morning. We have family coming for the holidays, and we don't have a dining table large enough for everyone to be seated. We need a table for eight and we are considering a rental, but I can't seem to find one that doesn't look like a giant card table. Any suggestions? Thanks.

8 is the perfect number for a round table, and a round table is so nice and convivial for the holidays. You could even buy a cheap one at home depot and just cover it with a cloth. I love a floor length plain round cover (which can be bought or whipped up by your dry cleaner with fabric you give them) and then topped off with a square cloth you probably already have.

In times of need, I turn to you, the paint gurus. I'm looking for a somewhat muted Tiffany blue paint for my bedroom. I have close to chocolate brown roman shades, white trim (which I'll be keeping), floor is a neutral carpet. Currently have pine furniture but will be changing that out for something more modern and less country. I've fallen in love with Farrow and Ball's Powder Blue (discontinued), but that brand isn't sold within 100 miles of my house and I'd like to start painting tomorrow. Something with a touch of grey to it would be lovely. Thanks!

Do you have a swatch of F & B's Powder Blue? You can take it to your paint store and have them match it for you in Benjamin Moore or another brand.

Deborah, I miss Domino!! I feel sure the magazine would have an answer to my question .  I love the Saarinen tulip side chairs, but the matching table won't work in my dining room (and I could never afford it anyway!). I need something that expands to seat 10 (but don't want to leave it that size on a regular basis.) Can you recommend an affordable style of table that would work with those curvy, white organic chairs? Should I stick with something oval or would a rectangular table work? Thanks!

I have the same situation at home! I have the Saarinen tulip chairs around a round wood pedestal table that has leaves. We painted it white, so it feels modern and feels connected to the chairs. I do think those curvy chairs want to be mated up with a round or oval table to mimic their shape, rather than a rectangular or square table.

Greetings ladies. My daughter and I are hosting a Thanksgiving buffet this year. Our home is small and the dining table will be set up with food. My question is: Since guests won't be eating at the dining table, do you have a remedy for folks holding onto their plates instead of in their laps (I have a few trays but they are old and not very attractive)? Thanks.

What's wrong with plates on laps?! It's very casual and nice. You just want big cloth napkins to cover laps from spills and crumbs!

We've got four kids (oldest 14) and a very active household. The kids have a separate play room off the side of the first floor (which has been used by previous owners as an office and bedroom). The kids also have a smaller play area in the basement and they also hang out with us in a family room off the kitchen. The dining room ends up functioning more as a homework area. One room that rarely is used is a formal living room which is actually one of the nicer rooms in the house (dental molding, fireplace, built-in bookshelves). We've been trying to sell our house and hear that people aren't interested in formal living rooms anymore. One idea is to turn the upstairs kids playroom back into a bedroom and move the kids play area to either the family room (a little weird as that is a room people see when they walk into house) or the living room (pretty formal/nice for a kids room). Any thoughts?

I think much better to have a nice living room than a playroom on the main floor. Easier for a prospective buyer to imagine putting a playroom where a living room is than the other way around! But I'm no stager!

At 6 years old, our towels have acquired a musty odor and need to be replaced. My question is: Does color-safe bleach work? Are there colored towels that can be bleached? Our towels are in great shape other than the smell, so I'd like to keep new towels fresh for as long as possible. Thanks for the help!

I'm going to cite one of my favorite household experts, Heloise, on this question. Musty towels can be caused by overloading the washing machine. Wash fewer towels at a time and try using a second rinse. For the sour smell, use hot water and laundry detergent as well as a 1/2 cup of baking soda . Then dry in the dryer asap - don't let them sit around. If this doesn't totally do the trick, repeat.  If you used your towels for six years, I think you got your money's worth out of them. One trick is do not use a dryer sheet when you dry your towels.

Hi, ladies. I'm about to start working on my son's 'big boy' room (he'll be two in May, so still pretty little). I want to do the top half in Antique White and the bottom half in a yet-to-be-decided shade of navy blue (thanks for the inspirational article!). I was going to put chair rail between the two colors, but is that weird in a bedroom, especially for such a young child? If it's okay to do, at what height should it be? Thanks for your always sound advice!!

I don't love chair rail in a bedroom, but think it's a good idea if you plan to paint the walls with different colors, like you mention. You can install it any any height, really, but a good rule of thumb would be about three-feet from the floor.

What are your favorite flowers for winter?

Oh, i love this question! I love amaryllis (those big South African lily-like blooms) and you can find them potted or as cut flowers. Even though they have a really long stem, I love how just one stem looks cut short with just the flower sticking out of a small vase. Roses are available in winter and always lovely in whites and pale blush colors or in rich, warm tones for winter. Any time you see potted bulbs for sale, you should buy them and just pop them into a nicer container. They need to be near a cold window though, not near the heater. 

My grandmother had an address book (about 6 x 8 inches) in which the cover has a needlepoint or cross-stitch design on it -- white/cream colored background with the letter K stitched into it. (K was her first initial and mine, which is how I got to inherit it.) I'd love to display it in my home, but first I think I need to clean it. She was a big letter-writer, so the address book is quite well traveled. It's a little discolored and slightly worn. Do you or any chatters have any suggestions for how to gently clean the fabric/design? I'm a total craft novice and am not even sure what material it is. I guess it's yarn of some sort. Thanks!

No, but I think your idea of framing it and displaying it is BRILLIANT.

Love the Saturday WSJ. Love the new book. Miss Domino.

Love you! Thank you.

My living room is looking a little dated. What are some things I can do -- colors, textures, fabrics -- that can make it look modern and on trend?

Quickest and easiest is coat of paint to brighten it up. Next idea would be to update the accessories like all the pillows and throws on sofas and chairs. You can introduce new colors, textures and pattern that way. A sneaky trick when adding a new color into a room with pillows is to follow the rule of three: make sure that new color is repeated at least two other places in the room, like in a vase, the rug, curtains, lamp shade, etc.

Two weeks ago I cooked shark and the smell still lingers. I've tried odor killing candles and febreeze and opening windows but it just won't go away. Any ideas?

Shark? Where did you catch it? I would say bake some chocolate chip cookies.

What are your thoughts on installing a different color carpet in the master bedroom and entry way stairs than what is in other rooms (guest rooms, etc.)? Currently all of the carpet in the house is a cream color, and we have hardwoods in the upstairs hallway and on the main floor of the house. Since my husband doesn't like to remove his shoes in the house, the master bedroom carpeting and the stairs are beginning to show some soil and I can't keep up with the cleaning. We have discussed hardwoods, but that is out of the question; we would just cover the wood with area rugs. Thinking of something with an interesting design on the stairway and a darker carpet in the master. Thanks!

I think it's just fine to have different carpet on the stairs and in your bedrooms, just try and make sure they relate in some way so they look good up against each other. (The entry and stairs is a great place to do something fun and graphic with your rug.)

Love the chats! I'm buying a new house, and two of the rooms that need fresh paint are in the basement (no natural light). One is a very small bathroom that has a white vanity with a beigey top and sand colored tile. The other is the laundry room. I'd like to do a yellow in the laundry room to freshen it up, but am stumped about the bathroom. Any guidelines/suggestions?

What about wallpaper in the tiny bathroom? You'd need a pattern that had either that white or beige in it to connect. Or, what about a fun stripe done with paint?

I have fallen in love with an antique dining room set located in New Mexico (I'm on the east coast). I'm in mourning a little because I can't really see anyway to actually see the set or to get it here. And it's too expensive for me anyway. (And then there's convincing my husband I should have it!) I just thought I'd share. Thanks for the chats.

Thanks for sharing. Hate it when that happens. Sooooo sorry for your loss.

I painted an entry hall and one wall in the living room Blue Sage (Restoration Hardware). I would normally paint the trim white but the living room is eggshell. What is a good trim color? (BM preferred.) Thanks.

When you say the living room is "eggshell" are you referring to the color of the paint or the finish of the paint? Either way, I think I would still go with white for the trim. Try BM's White Dove.

Hi, I hate to submit such a mundane question when you have Deborah Needleman on! I loved Domino and still miss it. But . . . I am painting my home for the holidays, specifically my living room, which is one and a half stories high, very wide and has two sets of French doors so good light. Reddish orientals on dark hardwood floors. Does Deborah, or you all, have a go-to neutral taupe to recommend? I like saturated, not pale/light colors. Thanks!

Not mundane at all! Paint color is key! I wish I had a color deck with me! I would start with an edited deck like Farrow & Ball or David Oliver Paint Library and see what they have. And try a few on walls. The way colors go on and respond to the light in a room is mysterious. I have fallen madly in love with colors that for some reason look awful on the wall. Most great wall colors are the result of a couple of tries!

We never eat at the table anymore. We just have too many people and the dining table is small. We bought a bunch of bamboo trays at Pier One and use those to eat in the living room. The kids eat in the rec room. We put the silverware, cloth napkins and plates on the trays ahead of time, stack them on the dining table. Also on the dining table, a tiered tray of various cookies and dessert treats, with a stack of dessert plates ready to go.

Sounds like a good plan.

The paint gurus! What an apt moniker. Please help: I need to paint a tiny, rectangular, dark bedroom in our tiny, dark house in Takoma Park. The hallways are gold. The master bedroom is (mistakenly) teal. I was thinking navy -- to embrace the darkness -- with white trim and ceiling. But would that still be too dark? I had also thought about sage, but I'm not much for greens. The funiture in the room is cherry wood. Your guidance would be so appreciated.

Rather than embrace the dark, I would do the opposite in the small space: go light and/or bright, especially for a bedroom. Are there any lighter colors you are fond of?

I dunno. We bought a house that had one color carpet on the stairs and second floor hall with different colors in each bedroom. Our realtor described it as "1980s Scranton."

Very Office.

I've seen kids' rooms with "chair rails" made from vinyl wall stickers or creative painting/stenciling, such as a row of polka dots, a swath of stripes or a highway with cars. That might make the "chair rail" more approriate for a bedroom, especially if all you're looking for is mostly just a way to divide the colors.

Good idea. thanks!

You could also bake bread. Or something in a crock pot/slow cooker that will put a scent into the air for a long time.

Some chili in a crock pot might do it...

I caught it at the D.C. SW fishmarket. I've baked nice smelling things (e.g. bacon) in hopes it would go away. It didn't. It's even in some clothes and drapes.

Do you have a fireplace? A nice log fire would help. Maybe a Christmas tree? I can't imagine living with a shark smell for too long!

Simmer some vinegar on the stove...that should absorb any odors. A good thing to do WHILE cooking fish, to prevent them in the first place.

Love that idea.

Did you thoroughly clean every surface the fish may have spattered while cooking? Oven, cabinets, floor, walls, counters, trash can, etc. Everything you mentioned had to do with covering up, not cleaning and removing the smell... If there are lots of fabrics in the house (like curtains), those might need to be laundered.

More great tips. Shark-Be-Gone.

My husband and I were making up the guest room the other day and have concluded that we need to replace most of our sheets and buy some new blankets. What should I look for in terms of thread count and such? A friend recommended Lands End. Any other recommendations? Online is okay. (Better, in fact, because I don't live in an area with lots of shopping.) Thanks much!

I would look for Egyptian cotton, finished in Italy before fretting about thread count. Online sources are great: Restoration Hardware has great Belgian linens ($), and Schweitzer Linens is a great source for reasonably priced sheets that look and feel alot like the very fancy ones. (This is a secret source of decorators.)

You should take it to a needlework shop like Needlewoman East in Falls Church or In Stitches down by Woodlawn and ask them.

Good idea. The pros know best.

Thank you for your help. I have a red cotton woven rug in my entryway, bright and durable. Except that I washed it this week and it now has a hole in it. Can't complain because it's over 25 years old (bought at Conran's in Georgetown.) Problem is, I have guests coming for Thanksgiving and would like to replace it before then and suddenly can't find a red 4' X 6' rug, preferably cotton or other easy care material. Help. Please advise on where to look, preferably someplace online that can ship. (I'm in Boston.) Thank you!

Try Dash & Albert. Lots of durable, affordable styles with fast shipping, too.  Garnet Hill and Shades of Light have a lot of options, too.

Do whatever you want with the space when you're not trying to sell. But when you are selling, you've got to make the prospects see the rooms for what they are. If I walked in and immediately saw toys all over what is supposed to be the formal living room, my first thought would be "this house must not have enough space for a play area."

Great tip. And I agree. Thanks!

Hi, Deborah. We recently bought a great house on Cape Cod and are painting the whole thing. I was going for light, airy, and capey colord. Everything is coming together well after we managed to paint over all the mauve,which was everywhere. I have one room though that I think I blew it on paint selections. It is a guest room, and we painted a nice light blue. In an effort to do something a little different, I painted one accent wall in yellow. Now it looks like a baby's room. I hate to repaint a perfectly good wall, but I will if I have to. At the moment, the room is totally empty as we are waiting to put in new hardwood. Any ideas to save this? Thank you.

I'm going to go out on a bossy boots limb here, but I'm not a big fan of the accent wall. Why should one wall be called out for special attention? I think a room should feel more cohesive. So, I would suggest finding your leftover blue paint, and sticking to it! But that is just one girl's opinion!

One trick I've read about is to whip up some lather with dish detergent and just use the bubbly part to clean something delicate (or even your carpet). The bubbles are "drier" so won't saturate the item with liquid.

I have never heard of the bubble method.

Crock pot-- fill with water and apple peels/cores/cinnamon sticks/cloves. Maybe lemon or orange peels, too. Leave the lid off. Turn it on for a long time!

This sounds very effective!

My home is a 35-year-old classic two-story colonial. On the right side of the foyer when you enter the house is a never-used living room, behind which is the dining room. I would love to reinvent the living room into a room that is actually used. I have a family room with television on the other side of the foyer, and with the living room connecting to the dining room I can't figure out what type of room would not look awkward. Any thoughts would be appreciated. The room is long and fairly narrow, with two windows in the front, and no fireplace and the doorway into the dining room is an open wide, doorway.

How about turning it into a den? You could add mutiple bookshelves and a couple comfy chairs, tables and lamps.

Open a can of coffee and leave it out for a few days.

We have enough solutions here for a book: How to Remove Shark Smells From Your Home: 100 Easy Ways

I like the idea of a stencil. You could make it a combo of alphabet/numbers or do lines from nursery rhymes, other poems or a favorite book.


I'd like to put two sofas (tuxedo style) facing each other in my living living room. I've got a rectangular coffee table in the middle, but I"m having trouble figuring out what to do with side tables. There's not a ton of space, but there's enough. I can't figure out if I need two sets of matching tables, and whether those should be mirror images of each other, or the same table should be directly across from each other (so a different on the right and the left, not precisely mirrored), or whether I should have a set of matching tables, and a set of matching floor lamps. Can you tell me when there is too much symmetry? What are the usual decorator conventions on the side tables in this sort of configuration? Thanks!

Symmetry is great and calming, but you dont want too much of it, or calming turns to static and boring! If your sofas are identical, I would suggest tables and lamps that dont match. Keep their heights similar so that things feel cohesive, but lively!

You could actually get it here, though. Fed Ex has a ground service that handles stuff like this.

Perhaps they are better off not knowing this...

Lighter colors for our dark bedroom? Well, that was the problem with the master bedroom: We tried to do a lighter greeny-blue, and it looks teal on the walls. It's bright, but not what we wanted. Currently, the bedroom has a silvery green on the walls, but this looks dim and depressing. Part of the problem is that there is no overhead light and none can be installed. Help again, please?

How about a warm cream color on the walls to brighten the room and bringing in your favorite colors with accessories, such as the bedding and throw pillows?  The color you want to add to a room doesn't have to be on the walls.

Thanks for your help with the tulip chair/table question. Do you remember which shade of white and which brand of paint you chose for your table?

It was a fairly bright white, not an eggshelly white, and with a high gloss lacquer finish.

We're trying to come up with ideas for enclosing an existing wooden screen porch attached to the house and just off the kitchen without breaking the bank and allowing maximum natural light exposure. I'm very concerned about the "exterior look and feel" of the structure. My husband leans toward using the same siding as the house with the addition of windows. This does not appeal to me at all. Brick would be beautiful but we have no brick materials on the house now, and I'm concerned it may appear disjointed. Any suggestions you can offer?

I like your husband's idea! It will connect the porch to the house.

We have the same problem with our towels and I started adding some Borax to the loads and washing on the "Hot" cycle. Musty/mildew odor is gone and 5+ year old towels are still in use!

I'm not sure if anyone has mentioned this yet, but putting towels through one cycle with some white vinegar could also do the trick.

If you want percale -- and it's hard to find these days -- thread count doesn't much matter. Martha Stewart has gorgeous percale, reasonably priced when on sale, at Macy's online. Also LL Bean's percale sheets are terrific.

Thanks for those tips. And speaking of Martha, I'm going to the lecture she's giving tonight for the Smithsonian that is being held at DAR Constitution Hall. I will be live tweeting. So follow me @jurakoncius - hash tag #marthadc.

Rent the giant card table. Really. Once you cover it with a table cloth (which you also can rent) no one will know. I've done this for 10 years now. That table looks as lovely as my heirloom cherry table once everything is arranged.

There are many secrets under the tablecloths of the holidays.

Thewoman with the address book cover might want to try to soak it in lukewarm water with Orvus, maybe sold under the title of FabriCare for needlework. After soaking it, rinse it until the water is clear. If the colors run, continue rinsing until the water is clear. Don't wring the work, but put it into a white towel and roll it up to take out the moisture, and then let it dry. To iron, use an ironing cloth. I am assuming the cloth is linen and the threads are cotton.

Orvus? Gosh I would have thought it was a cousin of Orvis. Meanwhile, just Googled it and found out it is a gentle quilter's soap. Great idea! Thanks for enlightening us!

I love the WSJ's magazine; I also think the entire Life and Culture section is amazing. So I am a little reluctant to ask such a mundane question, but what type of pendant lighting does Ms. Needleman like for a two-story foyer in a transitional style house? Thanks!

The larger the better! You've got a big space. I think those pendants that are based on traditional glass lanterns are great in entry halls. You know the ones I mean?

I took a quick look at both. Beautiful products, but waayyy beyond my price range. ($300 for a cotton blanket?) Thanks for the suggestion, though.

Martha Stewart has a very nice line of bedding at Macy's that's worth checking out. 

The towel that is currently in rotation is a lovely dark green Ralph Lauren bath sheet that I bought in...wait for it...1991. I moved into an apartment with a really cool vintage tile floor in the bathroom and promptly bought new green towels to go with it. Aside from leaving fuzz on my body for the first 10 years of use, the towels have been great.

Wow. that is amazing. What is your rotation cycle like? Once every 12 weeks? Having a dark color is good don't you think? White towels last the least time.

I have a light seafoam green velvet sofa, and two newly reupholstered chairs in a neutral, metallic linen. I'm in the processs of having drapes custom made using a textile that is a seafoam green ikat print over a linen background. I have a skirted table in the corner that is currently a plain neutral-coloured linen. I feel like I have enough seafoam and linen in the room and I need help choosing a new color for my skirted table. I was thinking a small scale yellow or mustard print. Is silk too fussy for a skirted table? Any color or textile suggestions for the skirted table?

You have a lot of shiny (velvet, metallic) so I would stay away from silk, and go with a cotton or linen. I think your idea about adding a print or a floral is a good one.

Due to a nervous senior dog, I'm stuck with rugs that can easily be cleaned. Dash and Albert rugs are in several of my rooms. Any other suggestions? Any suggestions for calming down a house full of eclectic? My living room has too much wood. Too many legs of furniture. I need the wood pieces for storage and they are family pieces, but I feel like the living room is a sea of brown wood chests. Should I paint one to add color? What can soften the room? Thanks.

How about swaping some of the living room furniture for furniture in other rooms  in your house? Do you have any painted pieces you could move into the LR? As I mentioned earlier, Garnet Hill and Shades of Light have nice rug options, so does West Elm. Ikea has a few good ones, too. Do you have curtains on your windows? They really help to soften a room. What color are the walls now?

RE: traditional glass lantern -- could you give me an example?

Look at the Barcelona Iron Pendant from Resto Hardware, not for exact one, but for the kind of thing i mean.

I have 33 picture frames on my walls. Every time the cleaning ladies come, I have to restraighten them. Is there any magic solution you or the chatters can suggest to keep picture frames straight and level?

Hang each picture on TWO hooks, on at each side, instead of one. It keeps them still.

One more question: My coffee table is in the "gold" family -- a muted gold. Should the end tables all stay in the gold/brash family of colors and materials? Definite scale and height should be similar, but what about material?

I think it is really nice to have a mix of materials in a room. One side table could be wood and another a skirted table in a fabric. I also think a mix of woods is nice.

Comment, not a question. Terri, what a lovely photo!. Kudos to you and your photographer!

What a nice comment! Thank you : )

I agree! Beautiful picture.

My mother taught me this one: When you have a lot of gross build up on your towels wash them in hot water with a couple of cups of white vinegar. And rinse an extra cycle. Oddly enough, they can be loaded with soap and detergent build up. NEVER use fabric softener with towels. Hate to sound like Heloise Jr., but I also use diluted vinegar to wipe down stainless steel appliances. Works like a charm.

Another vote for white vinegar. Thanks!

THANKS for the great ideas! We're doing a transportation theme (through accessories), so I could definitely incorporate that into 'dividing' the colors. Thanks everyone!!!

Glad we could help. Good luck with the room!

We keep an IKEA folding rectangular table (seats six, solid wood) in the basement for the holidays. It is as sturdy as it is ugly. But who cares with a gorgeous cloth and a few tealights?

YES! A beautifully draped table can be the ugliest cheapest table in the world and look completely wonderful---and fancy

I have an open floor plan. You can see many rooms from different viewpoints on two different levels. I'm planning on using one color to unite all the rooms. To keep it bright and airy, I plan on using an off white color with bright white on the crown mouldings and trim. However, in the cathederal ceiling family room (where there is no crown moulding) is it acceptable to keep the ceiling color the same as the surrounding walls?

Acceptable , and a good idea.

Also check the clearance section online at The Company Store and overstocks at

Yep. Both good suggestions. Thanks.

I hope I can get this one in before the end of the chat! I am shopping for a new sofa for our 1925 home with a large living room. My husband has declared that all the ones at Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, etc. are "boring." Any ideas? We are in San Francisco.

First of all, how exciting do you want your sofa to be?? Excitement can come from what you put on it. But I hear him! Try Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams (who were guests on show last week). They have a great range of sofas with more interesting silouettes, curved backs , etc.

Jura and Terri,

Thanks so much for having me on your show. Loved seeing you and all the design savvy DC'ers last week. This was great fun!

We're out of time, folks. Thanks for joining us today, and a special thanks to Deborah for all of her great advice.

Have a nice weekend and a great holiday. We'll chat with you again in two weeks.

In This Chat
Deborah Needleman
Deborah Needleman is the editor of the Wall Street Journal's coveted weekend section and magazine and the author of a new book, The Imperfectly Imperfect Home. In 2005, she launched the much adored Domino magazine (which has since folded) and prior to that, she worked right here at The Washington Post.
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Local Living section.
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
Delece Smith-Barrow
Recent Chats
  • Next: