Setting the Stage for Interior Design

A Conversation with Paloma Contreras

Read What Paloma Contreras Has to Say:

Interior designer Paloma Contreras shares her approach to setting the stage for her interiors from her design studio in Houston, Texas.

“As an interior designer, when we begin the design process, the first step is all about setting the stage. What exactly does that mean? It's thinking about and listening to the home's architecture, what does that envelope need and dictate? I always say that the architecture will tell you what the home ultimately needs. So that's a true jumping off point for us. From there, we think about not only the flow, but the function of spaces. How does the client essentially want to use the different spaces in the home? What mood should it evoke? And what is the intersection between form and function?

“Oftentimes on our larger scale projects, where we're doing an extensive renovation or building a house that's brand new from the ground up, we work with an architect. And working with an architect in tandem is really beneficial to the project in the sense that we're thinking about every last element of the home and ensuring that there is a seamless sense of cohesion between all of those elements back down to the structure of the home, to the most seemingly minor detail within the interiors. All of it comes together beautifully when you have a really great team involved.

“If you're not working with an architect and you are working with an existing home that you've purchased perhaps, or you've been in your home for a long time, and aren't necessarily looking to do a major overhaul, you can still honor the architecture of the home by analyzing what that architecture is exactly. If you live in a home that is Georgian in style then you may not want to add things that feel a little farmhouse, or if you have a really sleek contemporary house, you may think twice about adding more classic elements, but there's a way to do this and to do it seamlessly.”

As you're focusing on the interiors, you'll want to keep in mind the interior architectural details, the mood that they create, the region, and the style that they might dictate. For example, a house in Taos, New Mexico, will feel completely different than a house in Palm Beach, Florida, or an apartment in downtown Manhattan. Be mindful of what that envelope is and then build your interiors from that point to create a sense of cohesiveness.

“We begin every project primarily by creating a floor plan or a furniture plan, this allows us to ensure that every selection made from that point forward will actually work. It will flow beautifully. It will fit perfectly and will avoid any costly mistakes for our clients. You can do this by taking matters into your own hands as well. There are some great programs out there that are consumer-friendly that you can use to plot out your particular furniture plan or floor plan by putting in your dimensions for each space. You can also do it the old school way and use some graph paper or grid paper and a pencil, measure everything out and use a scale to make sure that it all fits.”

Creating a Furniture Plan and Interior Color Palette

Paloma Contreras Interior Design uses a program called AutoCAD, and every last room that they design gets a furniture plan in AutoCAD. “This makes clients feel confident and trust that we are picking all of the right things for their room that are going to make sense for the manner in which the furniture flows, that people are able to move comfortably within the space, and that all of the furniture relates to one another in terms of scale.”

Scale and proportion are two of the most important elements of design as things need to feel appropriate for the space. Oftentimes with a smaller room, people think that you need small scale furniture. “The truth couldn't be further from that. You would need things that can stand up to the space and really make it feel cozy and well thought out, essentially. We have a home with very tall ceilings, a huge cavernous space, and the end goal is always to create interiors that feel inviting, whether that means cozy and casual or more tailored and elegant, it all depends upon the client. But at the end of the day, you want the rooms to beckon you to spend time in them.

“In order to do that, you need to ensure that you have the right scale of furniture, art, architectural details that make the room feel less imposing and less cavernous. You could have the grandest room with the tallest ceilings, but if you use the appropriate scale you will create a more inviting space as everything relates to one another in a way that is the most appropriate.

“I talk about setting the stage in great detail in my book, Dream Design Live. And this is an important step to take before you get too far into the design process because it's going to ensure that you avoid costly mistakes. At the end of the day, you could have the prettiest room in the world, but if there isn't enough egress for people to be able to walk comfortably between pieces of furniture, or if you've blocked a major thoroughfare such as a bank of French doors with a huge sofa, you're not going to have a successful interior because it's not going to function in the way that it needs to. It's imperative that you begin by really being mindful of where everything is going to go and how it's going to flow.”

Once a furniture plan is determined, and everything is assigned its perfect spot, the next stage of Contreras’ process is creating the color palette and building the mood of the room. This is informed by the client's lifestyle, by their particular needs, wants, and desires, and by her creative vision for the space. Her typical jumping off point? “More often than not I'll find my hero fabric or anchor fabric and create the rest of the scheme around that. And that includes a lot of the major elements in the room, not only the fabrics, but also things like rugs, wall treatments, paint colors, accent colors, and every last piece of furniture and every last accessory and piece of art.

“One of my favorite and most important elements of design in a home is the lighting and that can run the gamut from architectural lighting in terms of recess lighting, natural lighting, architectural lighting, as well as decorative lighting as I feel lighting is the jewelry of the home. It brings the spaces to life and allows them to feel more complete. It is these elements which cement the mood that you've been working on for the space.

“So you may have a super elegant living room that feels a little bit more formal, perhaps it's a little bit more feminine, but if you bring in a really cool modern piece of lighting, a really cool sort of striking chandelier that gives it a little bit of that tension, that gravitas that we've talked about that makes you sort of look again and reconsider the room and how it's all comes together. Because we're aiming to create rooms that feel layered and personal, beautiful as if they've been collected over time, even if they haven't been rather than creating spaces that feel just decorated where everything is too perfect and too similar.”

Contreras continues to share the elements she and her team address when building her design vision and setting the stage. “We'll bring in some of the other more substantial pieces that are important to a room. Certain things like rugs and window treatments serve to anchor a space and can also temper the other elements that are going on that are happening in the space. For instance, any time that I design a room that has a real sense of glamor and a lot of color, I might bring in something like a natural fiber rug for better balance and bring it all down to earth just a bit so that we don't go over the top. With draperies and window treatments, you always want to have a professional measure and then measure again and ensure that you're really getting the most for your investment, because that is one of the areas in which buying the best that you can really makes a difference. There's really no second best to custom window treatments because they truly make a room feel well put together and well thought out.

“Rugs are a super important element of a room in the sense that they can tie all of the other elements together,” explained Contreras. “Oftentimes, if you use a beautiful antique Aubusson, an elegant wool rug, a cut geometric rug, that element becomes the common thread that brings the rest of your textile palette or textile scheme together, and really gives it life. In other cases, it may be what tempers the room and gives it a sense of visual weight, texture and warmth. But one important thing to remember when selecting a rug is that you want to avoid what I call the postage stamp look, there's nothing worse than a teeny tiny rug in the middle of the room with no furniture on it. So purchase the best that you can afford and ensure that all of the legs of the furniture fit comfortably on top of your rug. And if that's not possible, then maybe look at some alternatives that are more affordable like sea grass or sisal.

“As you set the stage for your home and you work on the design, you'll want to make sure that you are taking great care to ensure that everything will work in each and every space. As designers, we know that you have to measure, and measure, and then measure a third time to make sure that things will work. And that is why we put everything in AutoCAD and create scaled furniture plans to avoid any confusion or possible mistakes where something might not fit. For homeowners, you can always do the same thing by ensuring that you triple check your measurements and double-check that everything is going to fit and work together as intended.

“It's easy to get carried away and get excited about some design ‘finds’ and the desire to impulse buy because we love it so much. But at the end of the day, if you're creating a space, form has to meet function. You can have the most beautiful, spectacular pieces in the world, but if they don't fit where you need them to, if the scale is off and it's either too small for a room or it feels like it's been jammed in, forced in, you're going to have a really expensive mistake on your hands. So, I always urge everyone to slow down and measure, measure again, plot it out if you can. And in the event that you can work with a designer, it will make a very positive impact because we've been through this time and time again and we know exactly the way that things should relate to one another in terms of scale, how far apart furniture needs to be in order to deliver the best and most comfortable results.

“If something's a mistake and it doesn't work the way that you intended, as an interior designer, unfortunately that means that somebody didn't take the right measurement or didn't plan appropriately and then we have to make it right for the client. But if you're not working with a designer, you may have a situation on your hands where hopefully you can get creative and put it in a different room or a location not originally intended. Worst-case scenario, you may have to look for another buyer to take your treasure because it just doesn't work, and that's ultimately why it's so important to measure.

To Contreras, there are two instances where it’s appropriate to purchase something on site. First, coming across that special piece while you’re traveling–the piece that you would think about on the return flight, wishing it was coming home with you, something you can’t go back for. Second, when a piece of art speaks to you, evokes a visceral reaction from you, you will find a way to incorporate that into your designs. But, Contreras notes, it never hurts to check measurements a couple of times to avoid costly mistakes.

“I will say I'm very lucky, and part of the reason that I opened my store, Paloma & Co, was because I had storage units full of things that I found on my travels that I just fell in love with. And rather than waiting for the right client and having all of this money tied up in inventory that I didn't know when or if it would sell, so it made sense in a retail environment to be able to buy the things that I genuinely love with no intended client or project at the end of that and be able to offer them in a retail environment where other people can come in and fall in love with them and put them in their homes.”

One of the benefits of hiring an interior designer? Designers have a limitless number of resources, from furniture makers based in the U.S. to local artisans that create really amazing bench-made pieces of furniture. Interior designers work with people and companies that can execute any custom creative detail for that special one of a kind looks.

“I tell clients that we're not just shopping local shops or buying from the same resources for every project. It's important to me that my work doesn't feel formulaic and that we aren't repeating a look in a different color palette from one client to the next. Ultimately the reason that clients come to you is that they want something special, they want something that feels completely unique to them. And in order to do that, you have to be creative with the resources that you use and ensure that you're creating things that are special and different from one client to the next. A really great way to do that is by incorporating vintage and antique pieces, allowing them to provide a sense of personality and history to a home.

“When selecting furniture, more often than not, one of the main focal points is going to be the upholstery, because furniture pieces are usually large scale anchor items within a space that we anticipate the clients to have for many, many years. Things that we want to really invest a larger part of the budget because in order to get longevity out of those pieces, we need to be able to buy the best quality that we can. More often than not, those pieces are either going to be custom-made and designed by us and by our furniture makers or local furniture makers. Or we'll partner with some well-known industry brands who make really, really great custom-furniture or upholstery.

“When it comes to vintage and antique pieces, I tend to look for case goods over upholstery. And this is for one of two reasons, upholstery gets worn down over the years, it doesn't always hold up well, and then you have to invest a lot of money in order to get it back up to speed when you're re-upholstering and replacing the inner workings of a piece. Our clients generally want upholstery that's new to them, but nobody scoffs at a beautiful French commode from the 18th century or a fabulous vintage credenza or a little side table. So those are fun ways of incorporating pieces that have a little bit more of a history and a bit of patina,” Contreras shares.

Contreras further notes that in tandem with creating the fabric scheme or coming up with that overall mood, she’s always thinking about the color palette. “This is one of the earlier parts of the process in the sense that it is going to help me to communicate the mood that my client wants in the spaces we are creating for them. So if we want a space that's really moody and has sort of a more formal vibe or something that feels a little bit more cozy, we might go for darker colors like a chocolate or a beautiful saturated blue. If the client is hoping for something that feels a little bit more calming and peaceful, we might turn to pastels or different hues of blues and greens, and of course, bring in some beautiful neutral colors as well.

“When it comes to color, there's no right or wrong choice,” notes Contreras. “It really goes back to your personal taste and your personal preferences. If there's a color palette that you particularly love, it shouldn't matter whether it's a color of the year or if it's popular in the mainstream, because ultimately, you're the one living in your home. For me, personally, I love being surrounded by what I think is a more calming palette. So you'll see from my studio as well as in my store, even to my home, I have white walls. I love living in a space with white walls because it clears visual clutter for me, and it also really allows my furnishings and my art to stand out and be the star of the show.

“Having white or neutral walls also allows those more special, well thought out moments in your home with specialty wall finishes, whether it's wallpaper, a lacquer, a Venetian plaster, any kind of architectural detail to really stand out. When you have a more neutral foundation, those special elements really tend to pop a little bit more. So it's nice to have something that's cohesive from room to room, and again, shares that common thread throughout the home and allows those more intentional moments to stand out a little bit more.

“Every last space, whether it's a highly trafficked space in the home such as a living room, family room or kitchen down to a guest bedroom or a back hallway, we put each and all into CAD, we can then weigh, measure, and plot everything out. That’s important because we want to make sure that the flow really works from room to room, throughout the entirety of the home.

“All of these are among the most important parts of setting the stage and creating the foundation for your home. The things that are going to ensure that is not only does your home look beautiful, but that it functions beautifully and is really comfortable for you and your family and loved ones to enjoy. I delve into this topic more deeply in chapter three of my book, Dream Design Live. Chapter three is all about setting the stage, so you can read up on all of my tips and tricks for ensuring that form meets function perfectly in your home.”

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