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23 Decorating Secrets (only an interior designer will tell you)

By 01/08/2015June 25th, 202028 Comments

Have you ever wondered what advantage interior designers have that you don’t? I’ve asked my top True Colour Experts for their best decorating secrets. Here are 23 things only an interior designer will tell you.

You’re not going to want to miss this!

white decorating advice

Click here for my decorating advice about choosing a white paint colour.

This post is really fun because I asked all my True Colour Experts™ to give me their best advice.

23 Decorating Secrets (only an interior designer will tell you)

The first tip that arrived in my inbox might just be the best one!

1. Measure your furniture BEFORE you go out to shop for coffee and end tables!

 — Interior Designer doing measures for Lazboy, Carol Ann Makely 

“Okay, so you’re headed out the door to buy new end tables and a coffee table, STOP RIGHT THERE. Get out a notebook and a measuring tape. Measure the height of the sofa arm or chair arm you want to place a table beside. You will need this measurement to find the right height of your end table or tables.

Measure the width of the seat cushions of your sofa (between the arms) and measure the height from the floor to the top of the seat cushion. You will need these measurements to purchase the right width of coffee table and height.

Follow these guidelines when shopping for end tables or coffee tables:

  • End tables should be 1 to 2 inches lower than sofa or chair arm.
  • Width of coffee table should be no more than 3/5 of the measurement between the arms of sofa.
  • Height of coffee table not be more than 3 inches lower than the height of the seat cushion. If it’s more than this, the ergonomics of the seating and coffee table will be “off” and feel and look wrong.

Most clients come into our store with no idea of what they need and so often they buy a coffee table or end tables that is not the right size for their other living room furniture. Unfortunately, most then just choose to live for years with their mistake. The truth is that no salesperson will tell you to go home and measure, and then come back so they can help you find the right piece. They aren’t confident you’ll actually come back!

So, you’ll probably just buy something that day, and while you might feel like something’s not quite right with your furniture, you might never know exactly what!”

In the photo below the end tables are too high and the coffee table seems a little too small for the sofa. But don’t the windows and that view more than make up for it?

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


Bonus Decorating Tip:

“If you find that you do have end tables that are too high, move them at least 5 inches away from the sofa.”

This is a lovely living room space shown below. The coffee table is slightly too low but the flowers help distract you from that fact.

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


And the living room below? Just right.

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


2. Create inexpensive art from vintage magazines or old books.

“Vintage magazines and old books often have neat drawings that, when framed in a grouping, provide instant character and originality. . . and it won’t break the bank!”

3. Paint your low ceiling black.

— Kathy Zaeske, Your Favourite Room

“Painting your low, exposed basement ceiling black helps it to recede — think of the night sky. This “black hole” background will provide emphasis on all other light-coloured elements in the space. You want people to notice your furnishings, art, statement light fixtures — NOT your ceiling height (or lack thereof).”

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


4. Always look at the big picture.

— Carol Standil, Carol Standil Colour & Design

“You don’t have to love every element in your room on its own. The wall colour might look drab on the chip; the area rug may not seem interesting enough; the pattern for the accent chair might feel too bold. Remember that none of these items has to carry the space on their own.

It’s important to pull back and look at the big picture and really see how they will work together to make your room look fantastic.”

5. Create a design plan and follow it.

— Jodi Pear, Jodi Pear Designs

“The number one secret I tell my clients is to have a design plan and don’t deviate from it. Whether they want to renovate a room or simply spruce up a space, I suggest they go to Houzz or Pinterest and find an inspiration room.

Refer to this image as each decision is made – whether your are choosing a hard finish or purchasing a lamp. If it doesn’t provide the same look and feel as the inspiration room, then make a choice that does.” 

6. Carefully consider light switch and thermostat locations.

— Eugi Triandos, Triandos Creations

“Think about where to put your light switches and thermostats BEFORE completing electrical work and renovations. Switches and thermostats should be 36″ off the floor instead of at eye level and NEVER in the centre of a wall. They too often get in the way of hanging art.”

Brass Nest ThermostatBrass Thermostat

7. Best tip for coffee table styling.

—  Allyson Paris, Allyson Paris Design

“Here’s my secret for styling a coffee table. Just divide it into equally-sized sections first. A rectangular table is divided into three sections, a round or square table is divided into four.

“Now, what to fill the divided coffee table sections with? Here are some ideas.

  • a stack of books
  • a plant or a vase of flowers
  • a piece of sculpture or a unique basket
  • a tray with a collection of related items
  • a pretty bowl with or without fruit
  • a stylish box (that can work double duty to hold your TV remotes)

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam

Coffee table styling is also a great place to inject colour into your room.

An oversize square table can often be divided into a fifth section in the center. Put the tallest item there. Top your stack of books with a pretty decorative object and you’re done!”

8. Best tip for hanging small artwork.

—  Livia Drennan, Your Story by Design

  1. Off-centre a small piece of art on a wall and connect it (group it) with a small piece of furniture such as a reading chair or a console (instead of plunking it in the middle of the wall)
  2. Off-centre a small piece of art in relationship to a sofa. Balance is then created by carefully placing decorating elements such as pillows and throws on the sofa, together with the empty space on the wall on the other side of the art. The empty space then becomes part of the entire grouping (sofa + art + empty space + decorative items on the sofa)
  3. Group small pieces of art together on one wall instead of spreading them around the room. In this way, they become one bigger piece, creating a more impressive design impact. The empty walls now become a place to rest the eyes, which is important to have in a balanced design.

>> Find even more wall art ideas on my Pinterest board.

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


9. Use hooks instead of towel bars in your bathroom.

—  Gwen DeBruyn, Bayberry Cottage

“Instead of a towel bar, mount 3 to 5 nice hooks around 68” high for your bathroom towels.

Decorating Secret Bathroom Hooks

Lark & Linen

10. Remember, you are the boss of your paint job.

—  Diane C. Golin, Color Harmony Consulting

“I’m always amazed that clients feel that their color decisions need to be made on a painter’s timeline. I advise clients that if they are not sure about the color or have not taken the time to test their paint colours, do NOT feel rushed to make a choice because your painter pressuring you! Nicely, ask the painter to push your job back a bit. He may not be happy but not as unhappy as you will be when the wrong color goes up on your walls.”

Read more: 3 tips for adjusting to your new paint colour

Testing Paint Colour
Click here for an easier way to choose wall colour – see my large painted colour boards in action.

11. Size really does matter.

Ensure your new furniture will fit through the doors, or the elevator, BEFORE you purchase. Remember the decorating secret #1? 

How to measure a sofa and sectional

Click here for more info on how to measure properly

12. Keep the plumbing in the same place.

— Jil Sonia McDonald, Jil Sonia Interiors

“If at all possible when renovating, keep your plumbing in the same place. It’s very expensive to move and you would need to move vent stacks (hidden in the wall) as well.”

Decorating with Colour | Master Ensuite Bathroom | Bathroom Design | Bathroom Artwork | Styling Ideas | Classic White Bathroom | Blue and Yellow Bathroom | Gold Bathroom Mirror | Botanicals

See my master ensuite makeover here

13. The World is NOT Your Oyster When Decorating.

— Lara Maira, Fresh Impressions Home Staging & ReDesign

“Every decorating decision you make impacts every subsequent decision and shuts the door on some options.”

NOTE: If you’re planning a new build, there’s a lot of decisions to be made and you may be wondering what you need to choose first. Here are 10 steps (and more importantly, the order of decisions) for planning your new build. 

14. Don’t skimp on pillow forms.

“You can find great fabric at budget prices, but don’t skimp on pillow forms. A down/feather mix or synthetic version of down will elevate any pillow (plus you’ll be able to do the karate chop if you so desire!)

Here are some affordable pillow form options from Amazon.

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam


15. Do NOT rely on recessed lighting as the only source of light in your room.

— Joanne Dimeff, Joanne Dimeff Interiors

“Please do not rely on recessed “can” lights to light up your room! They cast unflattering shadows on people’s faces and are even rumored to accentuate the look of cellulite! A mix of sconces and lamps is best. But at the very least, invest in a pair of large scale lamps (around 30″ high or more).”

Read More: One more reason to skip recessed lighting altogether.

Favorite Gourd Lamps

16. Make your television look like wall art.

— Adrienne Gerein, Interior Designs by Adrienne

“A clever way to make your over the fireplace TV work with your design… Use it as an art statement! You can upload your favourite  photos (or buy professional ones off the internet)  to your Smart TV. When the TV isn’t being used for its intended purpose,  you can just switch over to your photo selection. Voila! No more black hole.”

TV over fireplace

17. Look in your closet for design inspiration.

— Melissa Clark, In Chic Order

“Are you lacking design inspiration for your space? Or, simply feeling as though you don’t have any design direction?  Start  in your closet… yes I said your CLOSET. After some analysis of the things you wear you will gain some insight into your design aesthetic. For instance, is your closet full of color or neutrals,  prints or solids, modern or classic, tailored or laid back?

Analyzing your closet will bring you clarity on where to begin in designing your space. The things you choose to wear are a good indication of what surroundings will feel the most comfortable, that is unless you are a nudist (jk).”

Interior Design Inspiration from Your ClosetVia Atlantic // Pacific

18. Create a conversation area in your home.

— Cathy Gibson, Cathy Gibson Home Staging

“When staging a home, one of the things that always makes a quick, huge impact is to move the living room furniture away from the walls to create a conversation area.  Move 2 chairs opposite a sofa, for instance, with about 8′ between them. Put the coffee table in the center. I like to center this grouping in front of a focal point like a fireplace, or windows with a view. Create instant coziness for the room, whether you are selling or staying!”

Create a Conversation Area

19. Use Mirrors to extend and expand the view.

— Leslie Ann Huntley, Roost Interior Design

“Mirrors are a great way to bring light in and make a room seem larger, but don’t forget to take into account “the view” that’s reflected in it. I think they are a missed opportunity if you hang the mirror in front of a blah tableau (blank wall, boring door, etc.) Think of the mirror as an opportunity to multiply light, color and interest in a room!”

Designer Secret Mirror to Lighten Room

20. Edit, edit, edit!

— Susan Hargraves, Rooms that Work

“When a room isn’t working, many people make the mistake of bringing in something new, when really they should be doing the very opposite. Take things away. Edit! Edit! Edit! It’s best to start by stripping the room completely, then add back one piece back at a time (starting with the largest pieces) to get the room in balance and working with the architecture.”

Designer Secret Edit Your Design

Interior design by Susan Hargraves

21. The secret to keeping a design project on time and on budget.

— Lynne Russell, Lynne Russell Interiors

“Here’s what I have noticed when a client wants to have some design work done. It often begins with a fear of it costing too much and taking longer to complete than expected. 

I always tell clients when I begin a project that I have a “trades day”. This means I have one day when I schedule every trade working on the project to come to the site in 30-minute intervals and I go through the project with each of them. They are engaged right from the beginning, they can see the big picture and I can establish a timeline for the project. This is my secret for being on time and on budget!”

22. Measure colour with paint samples.

— Beth Batke, Final Touches Redesign

“I personal shop for clients frequently and one thing I have found  to be very helpful is to “measure” color with paint samples.  This works in a few ways.  If I am consulting at the home of a new client and know that I will need the exact color of their sofa but they have no swatch to give me, I open up my box of paint samples and find the closest possible match to “measure” it.  I immediately make a note of it and put the actual sample directly in to the file.  Although I do also take a photo of it, I prefer not to rely on the photo for actual color representation.

Similarly, if I have purchased an area rug for a client but my shopping is not yet complete, I will use paint samples to “measure” all the various colors of the rug , clip them together, label them, and put them in the file to continue my shopping.  This way I can make sure I have a perfect representation of the rug right in the file while I am shopping for pillows, accents, etc.   This is so much more convenient than trying to haul around large bulky items while you shop!”

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam

(via pinterest)

23. Maximize your exterior curb appeal.

— Catherine Kennedy, Trio Colour | Landscape | Staging

“Once a home’s exterior painting is complete, maximize the curb appeal by adding BARK MULCH to top dress garden beds (on the West Coast, I recommend 2” of composted BLACK conditioning mulch) to create a neat tidy appearance. The added benefit: you won’t have to weed or water as much in the summer. This is a super tip to make your landscape beds look high end.”

23 Things ONLY a Designer will Tell You | Maria Killam

As I told you last week, I’m nominated for an education award along with some other amazing women. I really love the Withit community and can’t wait to see them all again next weekend!

If you’d like to transform the way you see colour become a True Colour Expert.

Here’s what Carol Ann Makely said about my course:

“Maria Killam’s class on colour changed how I design… how I see colour, pull fabrics together and pick paint… I see colour differently everywhere I look after being in her class, bad combinations I might not have noticed before stand out now!  I feel like a better interior designer, somehow I know I am doing a much better job for my clients since taking her classes. Her colour boards have been amazing to use…her books have been so so helpful.

PS. I took the class twice, just wanted to be with her again, she is very inspiring to be around and listen to… her way of seeing colour changes how you feel about your job, taking Maria Killam’s class is worth it every penny… including my flight from Calgary to Vancouver, hotels & taxi’s twice!”

Carol Anne Makely, interior designer Calgary AB

And, here’s what Kathy Bestwick said about my course:

“I took Maria’s TCE training after following her blog for a couple of years and hiring her for a personal consult.

I am NOT a decorator consultant.  I am the owner of a couple of homes that I want to feel good in – I want the furnishings and finishing to not be fighting with each other or screaming for attention.   Being up with the latest trend and constantly on the lookout for something I should buy, covet or change is FAR from my strength or area of interest.  And what I love about Maria’s advice and training is that it worked for me as well as the professional decorator.

Firstly, it is practical and honest.  Maria’s training shows you how to break the decision making into manageable components- differentiating between fixed and trendy elements, identifying priorities, and understanding what will boss you around no matter what other great decorating decisions you might make.  This has really helped me handle being overwhelmed or intimidated in the decision making process.  Maria is not a decorating snob – she gives straight shooting advice, has a sense of humour, and can acknowledge where she has made mistakes.”

Kathy Bestwick, West Vancouver, BC

Which Decorating Tip is your favourite? What would you add? I’d love to know.

Related posts:

What it Looks Like to be in a Private Forum

Is This the Year You’ll Transform Your Dirty Little Secret?

How I Became a True Colour Expert


15462 pins


  • Mary Wallace Poole says:

    Congratulations on your upcoming award, Maria!

  • Lucy HAINES says:

    Maria, You are one in a million! You are bound to win the award. We will all be praying for you.

    I have read so many tips on paint colors and designer tips on their favorite whites or colors. If they had your course they then would be able to explain why the colors worked for them (or in a lot of cases – did not work for them!). They act like there are tried and true colors that work for every project. Oh how your theory is needed by every designer.

    Best of luck winning the award.

    P.S. What dates will you be in LA? Would love to meet you.

  • Maggie S says:

    Great post!
    I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you will the award!

  • Cherie says:

    Great summary of useful designer tips! I use almost every one – except the black ceiling. I’ve done black walls, but have never tried it on the ceiling. I have seen it on a high ceiling in an eclectic space, and it was a gorgeous accent.

    Congratulations on the award nomination!

  • Kay says:

    Great tips, Maria.

    Could you explain the use of the term “width” in decorating? I’m often confused because my understanding has always been that width refers to the shorter of two dimensions and length to the longer. When you say that a coffee table should be no wider than 3/5 of the distance between the arms of a sofa, I believe you’re referring to what I would call length–but maybe not! And do you mean the distance between the inside of the arms (the seat length) or the outside?

    I’m rooting for you! No one else has helped me understand so much about color and decorating in general.

    • carol anne says:

      yes the width between the 2 arms is the distance between the inside of the arms… I use this … measurement of anything (between the arms) divided by 5 = ___ that number x 3 = _____ (the right amount in inches.
      width is 84″ divided by 5 = 16.8… 16.8 x 3 = 50.4… the coffee table should be about 50″ or so inches wide x 30″? …
      I use this for anything I want to know what measurement I need. Art over fireplace, art over a sofa, mirror over a console… and the measurement can be around that … in other words 48″ to 52″, gives me a guide for the scale of a piece to another piece… hope that helps Carol Ann x

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Better make room on your mantel for the award you’ll be coming home with.
    All the tips you were provided with are great. But placing light switches 36″ from the floor seems low to me.

  • sandyc says:

    All my fingers and toes are crossed along with my eyes that the WOW education award for 2015 will sit on your mantel sometime Monday, January 19. I SEE IT THERE!

    Great tips and thank you and your True Colour Experts for sharing with us. I love Jodi Pear’s advice about choosing an inspiration pic from Houzz or Pinterest, etc. AND her suggestion for using the pic – look for items that give you the LOOK and FEEL (rather than getting hung up on finding exact items). A lot more fun and often much easier. Also, love the use of hooks instead of towel bars. My toilet/shower “room” is tiny and, other than the one on the shower door, there’s no place to put a towel bar except behind the door to the area which is awkward. I’ve had a 2-hook oil-rubbed bronze adjustable coat rack from Pier 1 for several years and it works perfectly in that small space (matches the small dark-framed window above the shower as well. Lots of other good tips here too.

  • beckyqtoo says:

    very timely….as we are in process of buying new furniture and the info on measuring has assured us that we can get it through the door.

    Also wondering if the advice on end tables goes for night stands too?

    • carol anne says:

      yes pretty much, I think night stands can be an inch or two higher than the mattress … always at least the height of the mattress Happy shopping x

  • JaneBIVL says:

    Now I know why my side tables around the living room sofa look so odd. I bought a coffee table from Pier One for my office that could NEVER work with any sofa, at it’s height. I get it now. So I’ll be on the look out for replacements. Brilliant post!

  • Congrats on your nomination, bet you’ll win! And, thanks for all the great tips. I really like the ones about measuring, which is so important. I think most people just choose furniture they like without thinking about space and proportion.

  • traci zeller says:

    Those are fantastic tips, Maria! I’m so excited about your nomination; it is incredibly well-deserved. I just wish I could be there! I will add to the measuring tip. For some reason, round tables work fine if they are higher than the sofa arm. But square or rectangular ones never do!

  • JoanneGizele says:

    Lots of great tips! I’m so much happier with hooks than towel bars. A haphazardly hung towel looks much nicer on a hook than a bar.

    Best of luck with the award!

  • Carol-Anne says:

    Lots of great info here.

    (My only negative comment is that there are a few typos in this post….and that’s really unusual for you!)

  • Congratulations on your nomination! Well deserved! Great tips but one caveat to the “on time and on budget” tip: recognize that even a small design change can lengthen the time.

  • megeranski says:

    Toes are wiggling, so excited about your nomination! I know I speak for all when I say, albeit corny, you have already won that award and others, in our HEARTS. And ALL of us have already voted you THE BEST! Holding breath, in hopes others see your talent as clearly as we do!

  • Beth says:

    Congrats on your nomination – I know you’ll have a fabulous time in Vegas.

    I love Beth Batke’s tips of taking color swatches with you to the store – so much easier than carrying a big pillow around!

  • Claire says:

    Loved hearing all these fabulous tips, I always learn something new in this fascinating world of design! Best of luck for the awad, you are already a winner in my book!

  • tara dillard says:

    Went to new client meeting yesterday with contractor. It was his new client.

    They wanted sod, and privacy hedging.

    She knew what she wanted.

    Their home is older, with someone in the past having done a great job of stone walls, edging.

    She knew what she wanted.

    I chatted with her about a few ideas, choices, all easily done and inexpensive. They have 2 young sons.

    She knew what she wanted.

    The husband was chatty chuck, and helpful. With her back turned he whispered the beautiful planted pots were all she would truly do.

    My contractor, unaware of my conversations with her, suggested a few ideas to her.

    She knew what she wanted.

    I kept it light, kept smiling, and felt so sorry for her. She had 60 years, combined, of award winning talent/experience, honesty, teamwork, at her fingertips with a free consultation. It was my choice to tag along, free, with contractor, we were headed somewhere else afterward together.

    She knew what she wanted.

    She will get it.

    It will cost her more money than any of the ideas we tossed.

    She will no more use her space than she does now.

    She knows what she wants.

    Bless her heart.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • megeranski says:

    There are some TRULY AMAZING products out there, in the plumbing aisle. Moving MOST plumbing is not expensive anymore. (And moving a stack depends on the age of the plumbing. It CAN be more than a Big Mac meal, but if it is needed for the right solution, best to bite the bullet and do it. In my house, moving a stack is easy and cheap.)

    Moving all other plumbing is blissfully cheap and a do-it-yourself job these days (if you are willing). It is super easy, super cheap, and moving regular everyday stuff is something your mom can do.

    It is a myth, to say, in a blanket statement, that moving plumbing is costly. If you want to move non-stack stuff, and it is costly, find a plumber who is not gouging you. Or do some research and be delighted that you can do it, if you so prefer.

    The rest of the tips are keepers, am marking this post as a favorite!!

  • Noemi Ramos says:

    Great post! This is really good published article. Such a great yet interesting post. Thank you very much for sharing this nice articles and your tips. Congratulations to you, God Bless!!!

  • Kate says:

    Great tips (but don’t think I would want light switches 36″ from the floor).

  • Anna says:

    Some great tips, but the tip about using your TV as artwork is problematic: the individual pixels on any screen (TV or computer) will be damaged if they’re used constantly. That’s the reason there are ‘screen savers’ which CHANGE the image frequently.

    If something similar can be setup for your TV which will alternate a couple of images, all is well, but if it’s just one image be forewarned!

  • Cory Neufeld says:

    I have a question about “scale” …after buying 2 lounge chairs for our home lounge, we realized the height scale is all wrong. The chairs literally disappear! Is there a general rule for measurements of chair backs in relation to ceiling heights/ table heights or counters?
    The width of the chairs is perfect. We love the style too, but not the height.

  • These are great tips! One of, if not the best post I’ve seen on “Rules of Decorating”!!! Invaluable tips, so thanks for posting!

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