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Before & After: How to Brighten a Dark Room

By 07/25/2017May 3rd, 202159 Comments

No matter how big or small your budget it, it’s easy to brighten a dark room with few styling magic tricks.

Today I’m sharing another one-day transformation with you. Y’all know how much I love the instant gratification that styling brings to a room!

Laura and Craig on their wedding day

My personal trainer Laura works at Innovative Fitness (owned by my sister Elizabeth and her husband Bill).  Laura’s husband Craig, is currently in California studying to be a Chiropractor. Laura and Craig were married for less than a year before Craig moved there to go to school.

Money is tight, but when her husband completes his education in the Fall, they will live in Laura’s one bedroom suite for a while longer and she wanted it to feel a little more like home.

Since I can create the look of a magazine in just a few short hours, I offered to help.

Laura sent me a few before pictures and Saturday morning we went out to our favourite store. 90 minutes later, we were done and by 1:30 pm we had installed everything, and  I left her house to get my camera .

How to brighten a dark living room BEFORE

How to Brighten a Dark Living Room

This is a small one-bedroom basement suite. Since the kitchen, dining and living area is all in one room, a normal rectangular carpet would not work here because it would define the living area from the dining table in the middle of the room and make it look even smaller.

That is where an unstructured faux hide came to the rescue.

I loved their colourful art (above)! This is an original piece the couple had purchased together. But as you can see it was a little lonely on the wall above the sofa. Also, if you introduce art with this much colour into your decor, it doesn’t truly come to life in a room this neutral.

Also, the biggest decor item missing from this space was table lamps. There were four little 3-spot track lights in the ceiling and the lighting from them was terrible. If you have a dark space, recessed lighting or spotlights in the ceiling is the VERY LAST light you should install.

READ MORE: 5 Reasons Your Paint Colour Looks Wrong (And it’s NOT the Lighting)

So here’s the plan:

How to brighten a dark living room



Hang a grouping rather than just one lonely piece of art.

We found some coordinating pieces of art and also added two more that Laura already owned. It’s amazing how a wall of artwork can brighten up a room, it can even be your kids drawings in inexpensive frames.  A wall without art is a dead and lonely space.

If you have a sofa with a chaise, place the throw at the end of the chaise (above), it makes it look less lumpy and since you’re putting your feet up, it protects it too.

I have an oversize leopard print blanket on mine that is folded in half and then again, so when I sit down at night, I slip my legs into the folded blanket and it’s sooo cozy. And it looks good too, animal prints go with everything.

Install table lamps (not overhead lights) and keep one on at all times.

See the new white lamp in the corner? If you have a dark space like Laura does, keep this light on 24/7. It’s much more inviting to walk into a dark room, even if you are not there when there’s a lamp on in the corner.

We did not add anything new to her bookshelf (above). I just re-arranged her treasured antique books and accessories.

I kept moving around a book called ‘How Soccer changed the World’ as I stood there arranging her shelves, and finally I asked her about it. She said “Well that’s my husbands book”, “Oh right”, I laughed, “I forgot his stuff is here too!”

How did soccer change the world? Inquiring minds need to know, haha.

How to brighten a dark living room

After (Coffee table, West Elm, similar here)

Add a contrasting rug to your hardwood floor.

The faux hide truly makes this space if I do say so myself! And it was only $99. It’s a fake, so make sure you install a rug pad so it doesn’t slide around on your hardwood floors. I wouldn’t use a faux hide anywhere but a small space like this with low traffic. It wouldn’t be great under a dining room table, for example.  Here’s some at Amazon

If you have dark hardwood floors, make sure you choose a lighter area rug.

HOT TIP: A cream rug works even if you’re decorating with white everywhere else.

Her front door is located to the left of the sofa, so now she has a mirror nearby in the new picture wall. And the reclaimed wood frame repeats the wood stain of the coffee table and picks up the browns in Laura’s original art.


Bring your coffee table to life with a new tablescape.

I loved the copper accents we included in this room.

Copper seems to look the best with pink or orange.

Laura was surprised when I whipped out three green balls (above) from a bag that I happened to have floating around in my car. I told her I buy green balls whenever I see them for a good price, they are expensive.

Related post: Tablescapes for Dummies, A Beginners Guide


Laura had already created some great vignettes on her kitchen countertops. She said she rarely used her microwave (above) so I suggested she move it into her large pantry which had an outlet. It was not pretty enough to be the focal point of the kitchen.

We bought a lamp for the corner of the kitchen (below). This creates way better atmosphere and soft lighting than the existing overhead track lights which I told her to never use again unless she lost a contact and needed to look for it, haha.


Laura had originally found this oak kitchen dining set at a garage sale and painted it black (above).

I really like the way wood cutting boards warm up a white kitchen. I also like the hardware in this kitchen and that the knob was used on ALL the cabinets doors and drawers. I usually prefer a combination of knobs and handles but if you have to choose ONLY ONE, and you’re on a budget, knobs look better than standard looking ‘big box store’ generic handles.

Also, notice the placement of the knobs. They are positioned approximately 3/4 or one inch from the ‘rail’ of the door.

Related post: Ask Maria, Will my White Kitchen be Cold?

Laura found the grey canisters to coordinate with the existing backsplash at Target. If you have a backsplash you don’t love, it’s still always better to decorate around it if you can.

I loved her existing wood tray, and when we added the cups and saucers, it turned it into a little coffee station.

Here’s the before picture again:


And the after (photos by Maria Killam)

And here’s another picture of Laura and Craig on their wedding day (below).

Wedding photos by Sharalee Prang

Laura sent me this note yesterday:

Good morning miss Maria ? so I was literally gone from my house yesterday from 6:30am until 10:pm and didn’t even have a chance to sit and really take in everything. 

I’m sitting at my kitchen table and I am just in complete amazement. Everything is so beautiful and I feel so lucky to have had your hands touch my life in such a special way! 

I have been going through some really hard things the last few months and this has brightened my life and lifted me up. Thank you so much for your kindness! I will never forget it! It was so much fun watching you do what you are so amazing at!

Whether you have a small budget or a big budget, beauty can be created anywhere with the magic of styling.

If you would like your living room to fill you with happiness when you walk in the door, you can purchase our ‘Get me Started’ eDesign package here.

If you are local and would like to hire me for the same kind of ‘instant gratification’ kind of day, email us here.

Related posts:

How to Bring a Charcoal Sofa to Life: Before & After

How Styling Saved this Kitchen; Before & After

Style your Home Like the Pros by Using the Triangle Principle

The Barbara Barry Guide to Instagram (Through my Living Room)

How to Brighten a Dark Room with Styling

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  • Christine says:

    Maria, I LOVE this mini-makeover! It is so amazing what you did with some lighting and accessories. GORGEOUS! Please keep doing these posts, they are so helpful to us amateurs.

  • Gilda Stigliano says:

    I have to ask: why didn’t they move the large screen TV , blocking the window? Wondered why it wasn’t addressed…everything looks so lovely and you are right about styling around something you dislike…more posts on that would be great!!!!!!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Haha, great question Gilda! THAT is obviously her husbands TV. This is a tiny space, there’s no other place to put it. The countertops are right beside the TV on the right and the entry/hallway into the room is on the other side. Maria

  • Fran W. says:

    Wow! Another amazing transformation, Maria. Great job! And what a wonderful gift to your friend.

  • Lucy Haines says:

    Maria,. You really turned this small space into a beautiful haven. Love all of the pops of co!or floating around the room. It is so important to take color from a special piece as a starting point. Everything is so bright and cheerful now! You have totally changed her outlook. Good job as usual!

  • Kendal says:

    Holy cow!!! This is wonderful! I’m not surprised (because it’s Maria,) but I am in awe at the transformation! 🙂
    You have created a beautiful nest for this darling couple, and I can’t help but think the TLC will help what has to be a challenging time for them being apart. Brava chica, brava!!

  • Lucy Haines says:

    P.S. I wanted to comment on the wedding picture. The couple are so handsome and the arrangement of the subject is adorable!

  • Laura says:

    You are amazing and what you do is so much more than decorating. Your client has said it all in her comments when she beautifully replied with ‘… brightened my life and lifted me up’.

  • Claudia says:

    Another awesome job, Maria! And I have to admit, the testimonial at the end made me a little weepy in a good way. Too many people think of design as frivolous but your post demonstrates how a beautiful environment can lighten one’s spirit.

  • kimberly says:

    Where did you place the microwave?

    • Maria Killam says:

      In her large, walk in pantry which had an outlet. . . Maria

      • Brenda Pawloski says:

        If the pantry had room for the tv I’d put it on a wheeled dolly and hide it in the day time, roll it out for evening viewing and I love TV more than most.

  • Allyson Paris says:

    Great post, Maria! Always love a good before and after and so full of tips! That copper goes with pink – genius!

  • Sharon says:

    Wow…fresh, yet cozy! This is a lovely update on tight money and time budgets. I, too, have one of those “husband’s TVs,” and even though our living room is actually quite large, our open concept house and the gift of many windows mean we have to partially block a window. Even though it’s one of many in the room, I hate seeing the stupid TV in front of a window. But you know, I didn’t even notice that the TV was partly blocking the window in the After pics of Laura’s place: all I saw was a lovely spot to call home.

  • NO. ONE. DOES. IT. BETTER!!!!!!!!

  • Bethany says:

    So fantastic. I love seeing this- a reminder that it doesn’t have to be a big budget or a major renovation to get something so lovely and put together.

  • Gery says:

    Wow! You don’t even notice how small the room is now. It looks so inviting. I wonder if a small circular rug could also work?

    Love the lamp suggestions. My living room sofa floats because we have no wall for it, and we cannot drill into our slab floor to put floor plugs next to the sofa, so I am planning to put an overhead bowl light, probably alabaster, to avoid floating lamps with trip cords next to the sofa, and instead of harsh recessed lights. I also want to put picture light wall washers. Would love to hear any other solutions to the floating lamp problem. Thank you for a great post Maria.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Get a flat extension cord that you can run underneath the area rug that plugs in somewhere that you’re not tripping over it. Maria

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    This is another example of why style in your home is important. If you don’t have it, you don’t realize what you’re missing out on. The tweeks & changes you performed have had a profound effect on how Laura feels at home. It’s like a magic pill. Great job, Maria!

  • Brenda says:

    Beautiful job Maria !!! don’t suppose you happen to know the gray colour on the walls do you? Many thanks

  • Looks great! I’m sure this did brighten her life and help her through missing her husband–not his TV, lol–while he’s gone.

    Copper also can look great with blue and turquoise colors as well.

    The knobs are in the right place, and that is a pet peeve of mine when they are in the wrong place. We never put knobs or pulls on without the actual knobs or pull, and I see a lot of pictures on pinterest where it’s in the corner like an amateur drilled the holes and ruined every single cabinet door.

  • Kimberli Howard says:

    Seriously, that turned out so cute! It is truly amazing how just a few well placed accessories can make all the difference!

  • Carin Briggs says:

    Lively and. Transformative as always!

  • Linda says:

    Love the before and afters. 🙂 I was wondering why people put TVs in front of large windows – or any windows. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the window and also make the brightness interfere with watching the TV? I suppose if there’s no where else to put the TV, then you would have to put it in front of the window. 🙂

    Thanks for all the tips!

  • Cynthia says:

    How wonderful and uplifting for her! What an amazing new look! You are very talented Maria!!
    So encouraging to see what a little can do rather than a complete walls down, multi-thousands of dollar renovation.
    Thank you for sharing?

  • Stephanie says:

    So fun! It looks great, I’m sure they are thrilled! Although I liked the Our Home and Native Land pillow 😀

  • Nicole says:

    It’s amazing what a huge impact can be made from such quick and simple changes, beautiful! Thank you for sharing yet another helpful post!

  • Tanya says:

    Everything looks much brighter and I especially like the kitchen makeover! When I saw the befores, I tried mentally to test myself on what I would do. My first thought in the living room, especially, was to add light curtains down the sides to give texture and lightness to the room. Or maybe a simple white/off white roman shade in the living room and kitchen. Just curious why you didn’t do anything there. Am I off track?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Tanya, because the budget did not extend to curtains! You’re not off-track, curtains almost always add softness and totally transform the room another level. Thanks for your comment. Maria

  • Tina Meyer says:

    I love to see a before and after transformation. What a good job you did in her space. It must brighten Laura’s lonely days till her husband comes home. Great job!

  • Robin says:

    Hi Maria. I totally enjoyed this post. I never fail to learn something new from you. Such a transformation! Light and bright. Cheerful. Can’t wait to get home from vaca and oust “stuff” from my counters and replace with beautiful, usable “items” lol. Has been on my to do list for awhile. Reading this has rekindled my interest. Thanks.

  • Trudy says:

    That was MAGIC! What a gift you have given us all in sharing the thought process and the photos. A wonderful spot to call home!.

  • Linda says:

    You are a miracle-worker! Love, love, love the makeover and the post itself -all the explanations about how and why you’ve done things and why it works. I truly believe you are a teacher as well as decorator, and am still chuckling that you “happened to have” green balls “floating around your car”.

  • Kristi says:

    Wow! Just WOW! I love what you did here.

  • Ange says:

    Miss Maria, what a great transformation. It is Amazing how simple small changes can give a room new life. Thanks for another great post.

  • mary says:

    Love it Maria! I can’t believe you got everything to match at one store.

  • Cheryl Coston says:

    Without repeating everything, I totally agree with above sentiments; it is an awesome transformation!

    I don’t think I ever heard not to put can lights in a darker room – which I was planning to do, along with other ambient and task lighting. I wanted to make it light enough to use a lighter paint (without it appearing dirty). Now I’m confused!

    There is SO much more light in the after picture – and it doesn’t seem be from just one (or two) lamps. Is the only difference the time of day? I noticed that, as often done, the before seems to be taken when it’s darker outside and the after is during the daytime. Is this the only difference? If not, what did you use to brighten the room please? Or what do you do without can lights? (I leave lights on all day, too).

    • Maria Killam says:

      The ‘after’ pic was taken using aperture exposure which makes a room look brighter and more blown out that it really is. I would not install recessed lighting in a dark room, the more lamps the better. . . there are many designers that NEVER specify canned lights because they believe it’s swiss cheese for the ceilings. Lights from lamps are ALWAYS better. Hope this helps! Maria

  • Tonya says:

    I really like the concept of a lamp in the kitchen. Would you recommend that in a larger kitchen / home as well or just in smaller spaces?

  • Babs Loyd says:

    Your magic touch transforms a space again. Many tips gleaned from this post. Thanks for your generous sharing of your talents.

  • J says:


    Would you comment on the placement of the wall grouping of new art work? I’m curious about the uneven borders and spacing? I tend to think of a wall grouping defining a space- in this case the sitting area. You mention the mirror added to the living area because it’s to the right of the front door…but it doesn’t look like you’d be able to check your lipstick on the way out the door. Does the placement provide a refection of something lovely that we can’t see in the pictures, or is it a feng shui thing?

  • Kate says:

    WOW! I love this transformation – entirely happy and peaceful! Quite shocking really – so much effect with not a lot. Excellent job!

  • Pam says:

    I totally agree about the great ambiance lamps provide. But what if they block the view? My home has a view of a lake from the windows on all three sides of my living area. How do I choose lighting in this situation?

  • Alisha says:

    That was an amazing before and after! I love how it all relates and works so well together.
    “A cream rug works even if you’re decorating with white everywhere else.”
    This works even if you don’t repeat the cream? Why?

  • Kd says:

    These are my absolute favorite posts of yours. Great reminder that little changes can make a big difference. Quick!! More local people hire Maria for “instant gratification” so we can enjoy more like this.

  • Margot says:

    Wow, this gives me hope for my dark living room!! I love before-and-afters; thank you!!

  • sean paulson says:

    hahahah yall are suckers. It helps that she took the first picture at night and the second picture during the day (and and I bet edited the pictures) lmao.


  • Rapt says:

    Love the images.

    Message for all readers. They are lighter afterwards because the first images are taken at night/evening the after photographs are taken during the day. Therefore they will obviously look lighter.


    • Maria Killam says:

      Yes they are lighter during the day however, I’m talking about lamps here. That is the point of this post! Thanks for your comment, Maria

  • Claire says:

    It Would be nice to see the before and after photos taken in the same light. It is hard to see if the improvements in the ‘after’ pictures are made from design changes or just because they were taken in daylight😜

    • Maria Killam says:

      Often before photos are taken in crappy lighting, however an after photo taken in the middle of the night is NEVER going to look right and will get criticized much more heavily than it is right now.

      It’s called LAMPS WITH A SHADE. And everyone needs them. I don’t understand why everyone feels the need to tell me that the ‘before’ photos were taken when it was dark outside.

      I do not make any money giving you this advice.

      It’s a gift.

      You’re welcome.

      Stick a lamp in your kitchen and it will make you SO HAPPY.

      Thanks for your comment,

  • Maria, PREACH! I just added 2 wall sconces with shades because of your advice, and it’s made a world of difference. That one change made the room look and feel so much better. Thank you!

  • Karen Fuller says:

    I just love your decorating and you have such a sweet spirit, I wish I lived closer and could Have ☕️ with you and pick your brain!!
    My husband has a new job And we recently bought a house on Lake Erie and are planning to move ASAP , as soon as our house sells:-( My husband has been living there since January. We will be doing a whole house renovation( Lord willing) and I am seriously considering your e-design. We have only a few things at the lake house but LAMPS are being delivered weekly! My husband thinks I’ve gone crazy! Loving buying lamps on sale and seriously buying what you tell me to in your posts! One big question….. since I am renovating should I or should I NOT put in recessed lighting???

  • Carmela says:

    She may be suspicious and probably does not realize what is involved in re-designing a room. Lighting is critical and needed in every space, not only making a space look brighter, but it creates an expansive feel and look. Not to mention how stylish lighting makes a statement and is the jewellery of a space.

  • Jen says:

    No magic here. Just before photos taken in low outside light and after photos taken with full daylight streaming in the windows.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Oh you caught me! I’m totally guilty of trying to trick the reader of this post into buying more lamps so their house can feel totally magical at night. Lamp swindler, guilty as charged. I know it seems too easy but it costs nothing to try it. You can always return them if you don’t believe me 🙂 Maria


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