Five Design Elements I Love

Like most designers, there are certain elements that I always like to include in any room I design. We’re similar to chefs in that we sort of use a template when we work with a space; it helps us frame our design process, and to make sure that the final product feels layered, complete, and pulled together.

While this isn’t a recipe per se, it is a list of a few elements that very frequently find their way into my designs (obviously depending on certain client tastes), because… well… because I love them!

So without much further ado… here are 5 design and decor elements that I absolutely adore…

#1: Warm Leather

Leather *dramatic sigh*… I love leather. But let’s be clear here — there are different types of leather, and I have to distinguish between them… because there’s a type of leather that I very much do NOT like. You know how every bachelor pad (sorry dudes) has that very typical, very worn out black leather sofa? Yeah, I can’t stand that. I run screaming for the hills when I see those sofas.

The leather that I love is a caramel, cognac, bourbon leather. Soft and worn, telling a story of it’s previous lives, and tempting you to touch it. The kind of leather that warms to the touch and begs you to run your hands across it. This leather can be on a sofa, on a deep lounge chair, on a vintage ottoman, inset into a side table, or wrapped around cabinet pulls. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, but I love a touch of rich whiskey-colored leather in my spaces.

I have bits of cognac leather everywhere around my house.

I have bits of cognac leather everywhere around my house.

#2: Unlacquered Brass

This is one that depends greatly on my clients’ preferences in metal finishes. However, that being said, I’ve managed to sway a lot of clients, with just a little bit of education, from a stance of “nothing gold” to “oh my god, I love this brass [insert piece here] so much, I can’t believe I almost said no!”

Major clarification: brass is not gold. Sure, it has gold tones in it, but a good, unlacquered brass has something else: character. The amazing thing about an unfinished, unlacquered brass is that it is what’s called a “living finish” meaning that, like copper, it will change and patina over time. As you use it and live with it in your space (whether it’s a faucet, a light fixture, a table, etc), it’ll draw in everything from air molecules to the oils on your hand and it’s finish will change. Parts might darken, some areas might brighten up, some areas might get a slight tarnish. That’s the beauty of unlacquered brass — it’s never perfect (nothing in your life or space will ever be perfect, and the faster you can embrace that, the better), and it’ll tell a story.

Starting to see a theme? Basically I love a material that tells a story…

A vintage brass bar cart that I purchased ages ago. It has the perfect amount of wear and patina.

A vintage brass bar cart that I purchased ages ago. It has the perfect amount of wear and patina.

#3: Layers of Texture

I field the same query a lot from friends, family, and clients alike: “I feel like there’s something about my space that’s missing, but can’t put my finger on it — what IS it??” The answer is almost always the same: texture!

9 times out of 10, the major missing element in any space is a layering of texture. It’s so easy to achieve, and once you figure it out, you’ll be wondering what took you so long. Texture can be found in many ways: a chunky knit blanket draped over a chair, a pair of Moroccan wedding blanket-style pillows, a thick sisal rug layered under a flatwoven rug, natural fiber roman shades on your windows, or even just a lush plant in a corner.

That last one is my favorite — plant life (either real or high quality faux for those who have a black thumb) brings a few things to a room: texture, dimension, nature, and color. One piece, multiple purposes — the epitome of functional design! Plus, plants (real) have the added benefit of improving air quality. I love placing a small tree in a gorgeous stone pot or woven basket. It’s instantaneous dimension. If you live in a climate where you can readily find olive trees, they’re one of my favorites, but I also love fiddle leaf figs, dragon trees, and rubber trees. Go to a local nursery to speak with an expert, and be honest about your plant-care skills and the light in your space.

And if you’re not interested in a plant, but still seeking texture in your space, go out and find some unique, chunky knit pillows, or a lush sheepskin. (Hint: neutral colors work especially well with texture, as you can use them in any space or color palette.) Adding in just a few new textural elements will transform your space and really polish it off.

My office plant, Dumbo, who keeps me company during the day.

My office plant, Dumbo, who keeps me company during the day.

#4: A Welcoming Scent

In this world of Pinterest boards and Instagram #designinspo, we often focus entirely on the visual elements. But a well designed space should include so much more than things that are only pretty to the eye. When you walk into a space, you want to feel a certain way, and all of the senses play into that feeling.

I’ve always been a very olfactory person. I have a keen sense of smell and even the smallest scent can send me into ecstasy or rushing for the bathroom (my boyfriend is now entirely responsible for taking out the trash in our house). I’ve always been this way — specific scents will call up memories in such a visceral way that I can recall every little detail as though it’s happening in the moment.

When I’m finishing off a space — in that final day of accessorizing and styling — I put thought into how I want the space to smell for my clients. This, again, will often depend on the client (I make sure to check in about any allergies or scent-aversions), but it’s rarely an issue. I love picking out candles that I know will not only appeal to my clients, but will also heighten the feeling that we’ve spent so much hard work and time trying to create.

It won’t show up in those pretty Instagram pictures, but a home infused with a welcoming, beautiful scent will imbue anyone who enters with a sense of belonging… and maybe stir up a few good memories.

My current scent-obsession — Cedar by Jenni Kayne.

My current scent-obsession — Cedar by Jenni Kayne.

#5: Old, Unexpected Details

With the exception of new construction, most of the houses that I work in have some sort of history. Especially in New York, where I used to live, and in Seattle, you often come across old spaces that are being transformed. Since I do quite a few remodels and renovations, I always like to find one really cool element that’s original to the space that can be kept, reused, or recreated.

Perhaps it’s a beautiful run of crown molding that’s specific to the era in which the house was built, perhaps it’s a beautiful wood beam running across the ceiling, perhaps it’s a strange old panel door that you discover on your staircase with an old tile company name on it (true story in my rental house) — whatever it may be, it’s part of the space, part of the history of the home, and provides often unexpected character.

Even if you’re not in an older home, you probably carry an unexpected old detail with you. It could be anything from a beloved vintage silk handkerchief that can be reproduced into custom wallpaper, or a beat-up old sideboard inherited from a grandparent that just needs a little bit of love and attention to bring back to life. Maybe it’s a set of beautiful antique china that’s been gathering dust in a box, but can finally be displayed on newly installed floating shelves. These elements can be used in unexpected ways to breathe some personality and life into even the newest, most cookie cutter apartment or house. These elements will make it yours — make it home.

The charming old doorknobs in our 1940s era rental house.

The charming old doorknobs in our 1940s era rental house.