How to create stylish vignettes with designer Erica Burns | Home Front

Erica Burns
Sep 28, 2017

Erica Burns is a Bethesda designer who can guide clients through the world of plumbing fixtures as well as beautiful fabrics and furniture, plus arranging accessories. Her company Erica Burns Interiors is one of 23 design firms participating in the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac that is open September 30 to October 29. Burns designed the Upstairs Family room where she styled a beautiful built-in bookcase and other vignettes.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Erica Burns is a Bethesda designer and is one of 23 design firms participating in the 2017 DC Design House that opens this Saturday in Potomac, Md. Read my article about Erica's bookshelf vignette at the showhouse here; she gives you tips for styling shelves. Erica specializes in guiding clients through the world of plumbing fixtures as well as beautiful fabrics, furniture, lighting and accessories. Burns designed the Upstairs Family Room where she styled a built-in bookcase and other vignettes. See photos of all 23 showhouse spaces here. You can ask Erica about her space or about anything else design related that's on your mind. Let's chat.

Hi Everyone! I'm so excited for you to join us in this design discussion. Also, as Jura mentioned above, please come out to support the DC Design House this month! The designers have created some truly amazing spaces, and there is something there for everyone. Also benefitting a great cause, The Children's Medical Center.

Now it's time to get to your questions...


What color front door would go well with a red brick home (no shutters)? Note: the home has a large gray shed adjacent to it. I am thinking something with pep like fushia or lime green.

I love a bright colored door! Fuchsia could be tricky against he brick, so I would say a green or even a deep teal could be great. Check out "Galapagos Turquoise" by Ben Moore or "Bosporus" by Sherwin Williams. 

Any recommendations for good quality sleeper sofas? I'm looking for a small sofa to fit the space. Also wondering about color suggestions for the upholstery? Carpet is light beige with warm off-white walls and pink, green, blue, beige flowered rug. I have a pinkish tan chair which needs to be re-upholstered thanks to the pooch.

The most comfortable sleeper sofa I have tested out is by American Leather. It does not have springs and is easy to use. They have a lot of upholstery options too - don't let the name fool you! I would go neutral so that it can last a while as you change out pillows and rugs. Something like a darker beige or a navy.

Hi! My brick Cape Cod has white trim, a bright royal blue front door, and a concrete porch supported by a brick foundation and brick pillars. I've always wanted a Southern blue porch ceiling, and my question is what would then be a good color for the concrete porch floor and steps? I have thought of leaving the concrete bare, or picking a color that matches the mortar in the brickwork, or using the same color as the ceiling. What would you recommend? And do you have a favorite ceiling color? Thanks!

I'm originally from Atlanta, so I love a good porch ceiling as well! Try "Open Air" by Sherwin Williams. For the porch floor, I would keep it neutral by painting it a soft off-white. Matching the mortar color is a smart idea, or a shade darker. Something like "Revere Pewter" by Benjamin Moore could be nice. 


Hi Erica! How are you? I love your design ideas. I want to update the plumbing in my master bathroom and want some bold, aggressive ideas to make it the room of my dreams! What metals are trendy right now? Or should I go with a classic stainless look? My design currently is a mix of modern and classic so I think any kind of fixtures will work. My boyfriend Jack's off on a business trip and I can't wait to surprise him when he comes home! Thanks!

Thank you! Antiqued brass is very popular at the moment in bathrooms. It leans more classic but paired with some more modern tile, it would have that mix you are going for. And if brass is not your cup of tea, I always say polished nickel works with all design styles and is a classic that never goes out of style!

Hi I have a front entranceway with an open staircase to the right and hall to the left. I haven't added any artwork on the wall up the stairway or in the top floor wall which is exposed to the first floor. our house is mainly traditional, would I add shelves and plants as well as artwork so it doesn't look so formal?

I think there are forms of artwork that are less formal you could consider. A gallery wall of photography always looks great going up a stairwell, or groupings of smaller art paired with large pieces. The key is to mix up the types, sizes, and frames so it doesn't feel like a museum. And I like your idea of plants, they are always a great way to warm up a space. Adding a fiddle leaf fig could be a great way to fill a corner and give some height to the room.

I see you have some gorgeous botanicals pressed and framed in your room. Where did you find those? Have you ever tried to dry your own botanicals and frame them?

Aren't they so great! They are actually by "SweetGrass Botanicals" based in NC. Sara, the owner, actually grew the tropical leaves we used in her Charleston garden.

I have not tried to do on my own...some things I just leave to the experts! :)

I see you did a little bit of sorting of books by color in your DC Design House family room bookcase. Do you think a whole bookcase arranged by color is a good idea? Or do you prefer it in small doses?

It really depends on the space. On one project, we did an entire bookcase with books arranged by color in every shade. It was a really dramatic statement that served as a focal point in the room. 

At the Design House, I was not going for a statement as it is a more understated design. I opted for layers that complimented the other items in the room. A few places I liked how the greens and yellows complimented each other though so I grouped them together.

I like the idea of concentrating on creating interesting, well-designed vignettes in a room, versus trying to tackle the entire room at once and becoming overwhelmed. But, how to you ensure those smaller vignettes coordinate well on the whole?

I think you really have to just start one at a time, and pick up things you love as you go along. Tackle one vignette first, and if you start another months later, you might end up changing the first one a little because one piece might fit better elsewhere and that's part of the fun of it. I change up my bookshelves and coffee tables often as I find a fun book or piece at a flea market. The key is to doing it slowly and adding things you truly love, versus buying a lot of "stuff" just to fill the space. 

I'm looking for a piece art to go over a desk that I inherited. I have a general sense of what I'm looking for and have been looking online (Etsy, prints, etc.) and in thrift shops but it occurred to me that what I would really like to do is support a working artist, which means I'm willing to spend some money. However, I can't pay thousands. Is this reasonable--looking for an original piece of art within a smallish budget? Where would I go in D.C. to find emerging artists whose works might be in my price range? I have never really shopped for art this way, so I don't want to go in with expectations that can't be met or insult an artist unwittingly. (Already familiar with the Torpedo Factory.)

I think that is great you are looking for a local artist. I find a lot of my sources locally via Instagram and also you could try the Capital Artist Collective. It supports local artists in all price points:

Do you like the idea of painting a different color inside bookshelves?

Yes! I do it all the time.  Also, wallpaper can be fun to add pattern or texture. 

What if you have so many books you have to fill all your shelves with them... Should they be arranged by size? By subject? Some standing up and some not?

If you use them often and want to reference them, I would arrange by subject. But if you are mainly concerned with aesthetics, then I would mix them up in size and make each bookshelf different. Do a lot of them with them standing upright, but at some of the ends, turn them on their sides. Repeat this and flip which side you turn the books, etc. Add in a couple of objects/frames on top of the side stack just to break it up and add in some interest.

We are trying to take back our guest room and make it more of a craft room. As such we are looking at murphy beds which free up floor space and can customize with some storage that matches for the craft storage. My wife noticed that many are now using foam-type mattresses and worries they won't be comfortable for guests as we have always had a traditional bed. Should we be concerned or just go for it?

Murphy beds are great ways to save space!

I have had some clients purchase the mattresses online that come rolled up in a box and have been surprised by their comfort. I also think if this is just a guest room that will not be slept in for an extended period of time, it will hold up better than putting in a main bedroom. 

Is everything in the DC Design House for sale as well?

Yes, almost everything is for sale. And, 20% of the purchase price supports the charity, The Children's National Health System, so you can get some great stuff while also supporting a wonderful cause!

We had a cornice installed that is the same color as our sofa. However, once it was up it looks much darker. Should I leave it, or replace it with a lighter fabric? Also, I have a staircase up to the loft with a solid half wall. The overlook from the loft is also a half solid wall. Looking from the family room up to the loft the half wall looks high. Can I put pickets in place of the loft knee wall and not the staircase?

It's hard to say without seeing, but maybe you could add trim on the edges or bottom of the cornice incorporating the lighter and darker colors to tie it together. 

And if you added pickets to the loft kneewall, I think it should be done on the stairs as well. What if you do something fun with the wall instead like add a series of artwork, or paint another color?

Hi there, Forgive the early posting, I have a meeting during the chat today. Some years ago, a previous owner modified our master bathroom to make it handicap accessible. This modification required bumping out the outside wall of the house to add about 18 inches in width. Because of the shallow slope of the roof, and we believe a load-bearing header, there is a significant box out making the ceiling very low for those 18 inches, for the entire length of the bump out. Our shower runs perpendicular to the bump out, with a wall to make the enclosure that has a shower window so it gets some light, and a shower curtain at the entrance (which is on the end with the low ceiling). The combination of verticals and horizontals looks very jumbled. We are getting ready to do a bathroom remodel ourselves (we've done the kitchen ourselves already). Any thoughts on how to make it better?

This is a little tough for me to visualize without seeing in person. It might be worth investigating how to change the wallspace - sometimes the headers can be changed even if they are load-bearing. Or could you turn the bump-out area into a bench, so that it doesn't feel like a space you would stand? 

Given the challenges, this is probably a place to consider reaching out to a design/build professional - they may come up with some options you have not considered!

If budget is an issue, where can I find great bookshelves that can hold a lot of books? I don't think built-ins are the way to go for me.

CB2 and West Elm have great options right now. And I use IKEA a lot- sometimes a little DIY like a coat of paint or putting some paper in the backs can really make them unique!

What is the best white to use for trim? What sheen?

I use Benjamin Moore's "White Dove" on a lot of my projects. It has a softness to it that works with most color palates. However in places that we really want it to pop, I like Ben Moore's "Chantilly Lace."

Where are good places to hunt for interesting accessories in the Washington area?

Some good spots...Oliver Dunn in Georgetown, Random Harvest (various locations), Kellogg Collection, Urban Country, Hollis & Knight (antiques, Kensington) and places like CB2 and Pottery Barn have been rotating in some good things as well lately.

And I also find great things at the flea markets!

I'm looking for a "hygge" look in my bedroom -- lots of coziness, warmth, mostly white furniture. I like my white canopy bed and white shag rug but am not sure what to do for a dresser. Right now I have an old white Ikea (Malm) dresser that I don't love, but I don't know if another white piece of furniture is too much white. Our bedding is navy, and eventually I want to do white sheer curtains with natural woven shades.

For that look, I think white would work but instead of the Malm (which has a contemporary look), maybe try something that has a more vintage feel? You could try getting a vintage piece and painting is an off-white to give some warmth/depth while also working with the look you like. I also think a light wood would work nicely with the woven shades as well. 

Do you have a favorite Ikea bookshelf series?

The Billy is really versatile and you can add glass doors which is fun, and the Hemnes is nice in more traditional spaces. 

Do you have any ideas for how to declutter books? I can't bring myself to get rid of any.

That is tough! I'd say bring in a friend for moral support! Or put them in a box and if you don't miss them after a year then you know you can part with them. :)

I found a great old china hutch on Craigslist. It's mostly white, with a stained wood surface. The back of it has been painted a bright aqua color that clashes with my dining room walls, which are Sherwin-Williams Sea Salt. I want to repaint the back of the hutch a different color. I could just make it white to match the rest of of the hutch, but thought a color could be fun. Any suggestions for something that will go well with our walls?

I would do a darker shade that works with the Sea Salt. I love Sherwin William's "Unusual Gray" with it - they both have some green in it. If you put in white china, it will really pop against the darker backdrop.

What's a good white for an enclosed staircase with a window that gets good light at the top?

Without knowing what other colors you have in there...Ben Moore's "Simply White" pretty much goes with anything and is very crisp without going blue or yellow!

Do you like to put live plants on your bookshelves?

Yes if someone will water them! Succulents are great because they are small and don't require a lot of maintenance. :)

I have a large brick fireplace that has a simple rustic wood beam mantle. The fireplace doors are very dated - shiny brass from the 70s that are really showing their age. I do like having the doors for functionality - what are my options to replace or refurbish these functional but not beautiful doors? The rest of the room is mission-style dark wood and leather.

Paint them black! Ask your paint store the best paint to go on metal and how to best prime. 

Or there are places that will make custom doors for you and you could do a more frame-less option to make them disappear. This would be a pricier option than painting however. 


Pretend you're moving long-distance and therefore you have to pay by weight! Which ones aren't worth it?

Paperbacks first...then pick out the ones that have the most interesting spines in terms of color!

Thanks a lot for being on the chat today, Erica. Check out her room at the DC Design House, which will open Saturday for a month long run. Next week: New York designer Justin DiPiero will be talking about using different apps to buy and sell furnishings for your home.

Thanks everyone for your questions! I hope I helped solve some of your design dilemmas.

Please come out and support the DC Design House this month!

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.

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Erica Burns
Erica Burns, Bethesda designer
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