Donna Garlough on Decorating - Home Front

Donna Garlough
May 17, 2018

Donna Garlough is a longtime magazine editor who has been the Style Director at Joss & Main since 2013. She is the coauthor of The Green Guide. Her latest book is "Your Home Your Style: How to Find Your Look & Create Rooms You Love" published by Rizzoli. She has advice for renters and renovators on how to choose colors and arrange rooms and display old and new together.

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.

Donna Garlough is a longtime magazine editor who has been the Style Director at Joss & Main since 2013. She is the coauthor of The Green Guide. Her latest book is "Your Home Your Style: How to Find Your Look & Create Rooms You Love" published by Rizzoli. She has advice for renters and renovators on how to choose colors and arrange rooms and display old and new together.Let's chat.

Hello, everyone! I’m so excited to be here with Jura Koncius answering your decorating questions today.

I am 65 and live alone. I am planning on new living room furniture, but am struggling. I do not have a family room. So my LR is my TV room, but also my room to entertain guests. Do I make it comfy, den like, for most of the time that I am alone, or more formal, for the few times a year that I entertain? I feel like I am decorating for other people, not myself. I have put off this redecorating for several years, because I just don't know which way to go. A compromise seems like just that - a compromise with no real style.

Follow your gut and design for the space YOU want to live in 360 days a year, not what guests will see the other five. That doesn't mean you have to go sweatpants-casual, though! You can still have a tailored look that is easy and inviting--think an easy linen sofa with a sleek arm shape and lots of cushy pillows, and pretty lamps. When guests come, you can dress up the space by styling your coffee table with flowers and candles. 

I'm a huge fan of sleek, modern design, but lately I've been gravitating towards textures like rattan and velvet. Would you recommend mixing the two styles? If so, how?

I love mixing styles! A home that's squarely in one style can feel sort of contrived, but a personal mix is so much more interesting and inviting. If it's possible, keep the big pieces like your sofa and dining table sleek and modern. Then bring in textures in the smaller pieces. You could do a rattan side chair or end table, or velvet dining chairs or velvet pillows. 

What to do with a formal living room when we are not those kind of people who need a room where we just talk? The room is beautiful but I can't figure out what to do with it. Thanks

How about turning it into a library by lining it with bookshelves and adding a great reading chair? Or a game room... Find a round card table and surround it with upholstered arm chairs.  You can also look to boutique hotels for inspiration... resorts always have great little informal hangout spaces off the lobby where people can go to relax. 


How do I merge my contemporary style with an heirloom 40s hutch? Blah wood on sides, but nice parquetry on doors. Can I paint just part of it? Dark gray or black? How do I update it?

Sure, you could paint just part of it. But if the issue is that it's just plain, see if you can bring some modern character to it by hanging some really clean abstract art above it, and putting a modern lamp on top. Accents can totally change the look and feel of a piece.

I never see wires in any decorating photos. How to hide them?

Oooooh, great question! Whether it's for a photo shoot or just to hide a really ugly cord, I use masking or painter's tape to stick the cord to the back of the table and down the leg toward the floor, which makes it less noticeable. For TV cords, you can have a handyman set the power and cable hookups into the wall, but you can also just bundle the cords with cable ties and tape them to the back of the TV to minimize their appearance. There are also cord covers you can buy at the hardware store; they don't make the cords invisible, but they contain them neatly and can be painted to blend in with your walls and baseboards.

And here's a little secret: A lot of magazines remove visible cords in Photoshop! So don't hold yourself to that standard.

Do you have a rule of thumb for how many drawer pulls you put on a drawer face? that is, if the drawer is 2 feet wide, would you go for one drawer pull or two? Is there a maximum drawer width before you switch to 2 pulls? Assume the pull is about 4". Thanks!

There's probably an official "correct" answer for this, but I'm not a furniture maker so I don't know! But here's what I've done... Use stickers or pieces of tape to mock up where you'd put the pulls and knobs so you can see what it will look like before you buy any pulls or drill any holes. That way you can play around with placement to get the look that you like.

Should my curtains kiss the floor or puddle up a bit? Is it bad if they don't touch the floor?

I like curtains to "kiss" or just graze the floor. A little gap is OK, especially if you have pets and your house is prone to dust bunnies (which can get caught under too-long curtains), but I don't love it when they're several inches from the bottom. It looks like a flood is coming, or like my son when he grows out of his PJ pants. Puddles are OK if you like a really romantic, opulent look, but they can require some arranging to look good all the time. 

When I see something I love, I have to buy it... which my husband hates. Do you recommend taking time to think about how something fits into your overall design, or is it okay to be spontaneous and buy on the spot?

Since you live with someone else who also has to live with your finds... yes, thinking about where you'll put your purchases is wise! One solution I've come up with for this situation, which I find myself in often, is to create a mockup for every room of my house that I can access from my phone. I explain more about this in my book, Your Home, Your Style, but in short it's a collage showing everything you have or are planning to put in the space. When you see something in the store, you can pull out your room mockup and decide whether this new thing is going to play well with what you already have. It's a helpful way of checking your impulses and making sure your purchases will have a place to live.  

I love a gallery wall but I feel like it's getting so overdone - is there a new "gallery wall" in interior design these days? How can I get that same effect of displaying a collection of things but in a fresh new way?

I agree. Gallery walls can be great, but they're everywhere. I have several in my own house, but try to keep the look and feel of each one different. One is very symmetrical, a grid with matching frames and coordinated prints, while another is very mismatched. I can't say the gallery wall has been replaced in popularity yet, but I am seeing more rooms anchored by one oversized piece of wall art, and personal photos going  back into small frames on bookshelves. 

Our city kitchen is TINY and outdated. We'd love to update it, but we rent. How would you recommend giving it a new, refreshed feel, without actually doing a reno?

In no particular order: Change the pendant lighting (if your landlord will let you). Change the paint (same). Change the hardware on your drawers. (Save the originals to put back when you move). Add removable wallpaper. (Test to make sure it won't pull off the paint.) Add a patterned rug or runner. (Indoor/outdoor styles are great for kitchens, as you can hose them off.)  

I was born in the 1950's. When I was growing up in the suburbs, all the homes had a formal living room that nobody ever sat it. And most families didn't even enter the home through their own front door! Now, my living room is where we watch TV. My family room was a playroom with a thickly padded carpet when the kids were little, playing on the floor. Now, it's a computer room with a thin commercial carpet since we have office chairs and desks in there. Use your space!

Yes to all of this! While my mom had a pretty free and loose approach to home decor, we did have the one room full of "precious" things that we'd only use for music lessons. I'd sneak in there and pet her prized raw-silk sofa when nobody was looking! But today I much prefer to see people use every room of their homes. 

I have a dark couch that was given as a gift- Without purchasing a new one, how would you recommend updating my living room to feel more new? What is the easiest way to mix this old couch with some new items to create a refreshed room?

Before I answer that, I have to ask, how much do you like this sofa, and is it the shape or the color that's wrong? Because if you hate it the shape, no amount of accessorizing is going to transform it into the piece you really want. If you just hate the color, you could have it reupholstered in a new fabric for a fresh start.


But assuming you don't totally hate it, there are a few things you can do to freshen up its appearance. #1 is pillows. #2 is throw blankets. (You can even drape the sofa's back and seat in a great throw and put your pillows on top.) #3, distract! A funky coffee table, modern arc lamp, or table lamps in a cool shape or color can really draw the eye away from the sofa itself. So can a great piece of wall art above!  


Can you add some art? In the space between the counter and the cabinets I have WII Brit Government colorful pamphlets on how to cook with your rations. In another kitchen I had beautiful Japanese notecard watercolors of fish etc that I got from a craft fair and cheaply framed. With a bit of thought and some hunting in flea markets / craft fairs you can create a decor all your own quite cheaply.

Yes, yes! That's a good point I forgot. I get inexpensive framed prints and lean them on my open shelves and countertops. They add such life to a kitchen.

I moved into a new townhouse last year but haven't had the money to buy new pieces until now. Right now it is a jumble of mismatched pieces. What are the first steps in pulling everything together into a cohesive room?

A room mockup (see my comment above, under "Spontaneous design") is indispensable in this situation. It helps you decide what to keep and what to lose. Apart from that, I'd start with finding a rug you love! It "touches" everything else in the room and really anchors the space. A rug and one or two key furniture pieces can be the building blocks for everything else.

Well, if you have baseboard radiators you have the curtains end a few inches below the window sill.

True—they can be a fire hazard. In that case I might consider doing pretty Roman shades instead of curtains. Personally, short curtains drive me nuts.

Thanks Donna. Great chat. Next week we have Charlotte Moss talking about decorating and tablesetting and her new book on decorating. Until then...

My parents and a lot of their friends were arty - their living rooms were a reflection of their personality and could be used for an informal cup of tea or Christmas Dinner. They didn't have a formal living room in sense of suburban department store furniture that no-one sat on and that could squash conversation. I think this is why my parents and their friends actually spent time in their living rooms rather than at the kitchen table. You want the place where you spend time to welcoming, not cold.

Agree, agree!

Hi....Do you have any favorite grays for a living and dining area....medium sunny, white crown molding and chair rail....need something that is not gloomy. I am considering Sherwin Williams Repose Gray.

Repose Gray is nice, but I find it can go a little flat. I adore Benjamin Moore's Pale Oak... It transforms from grayish to beige to almost lilac in different lights, and I have it all over my home. It gives just enough contrast to the crown molding. For something deeper, BM's Classic Gray is great, and if you want something more cocooning and deep, Revere Pewter. 

Thanks to everyone for your great questions today! For more fun, real-life decorating talk, please pick up my book Your Home, Your Style and stop by my blog, And don’t forget to follow me @donnagarlough on Instagram!

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 or follow her on Instagram @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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Donna Garlough
Donna Garlough, style expert
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