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Room of the Month - The Old Painted Cottage

By Sarah Van Arsdale on October 14, 2009

At NYIAD we teach our students a simple Three-Step Method for designing every room they create:

  1. A successful room is functional.
  2. A successful room expresses a mood.
  3. A successful room exhibits a sense of harmony.

This simple Three-Step Method is the secret of every interior ever designed. We teach our interior design students to consider these three steps every time they look at a room. You'll find the great home decorating ideas in our Room of the Month series as well as in the design tips on this site helpful in creating outstanding room designs.

When our students mail in their interior design project for analysis by their instructor, the instructor starts by commenting on these three Guidelines. Of course, the instructor analyzes other elements of the project too – decor, layout, furniture, style etc. But the key to good decor – and the essential element of every great interior design – is adherence to these three NYIAD Guidelines.

How do they work? How can you apply them? It's beyond the scope of this Web site to teach you every nuance, but you will get an inkling from the Room of the Month Analysis that follows.

Thinking about contemporary design for this issue of Designer Monthly got us questioning exactly what “contemporary” means. All too often, it’s confused with “modern,” a confusion which fortunately one of the crack interior designers at the NYIAD School, Janet Ramin, clears up in this article.

In our hunt for a great contemporary room, we had a lot of latitude in terms of style, but we settled on this this one because the look is so fresh, and the story of the makeover is truly remarkable. It’s the home of Jennifer Grey, an antiques dealer and designer with a flair for the contemporary cottage look, as you can see from her photos.


She and her husband purchased this foreclosed home one year ago. It was in pretty rough condition when they bought it, and even smelled so bad, Jennifer said, that they had to stand outside to conduct their business. The floors were covered with industrial carpeting, and the walls had been subjected to a bad “sponge” paint job. In short, the place needed a complete makeover.

Jennifer and her husband have done most of the work on it themselves. “We are completely self-taught with very little home renovation experience. We had an extremely limited budget, and we still have more we want to do on the house,” she said.

Looking at these photos, we find it hard to imagine what else she could possibly have in mind — the house looks completely pulled together to us.

Using the NYIAD Guidelines to Interior Design to analyze this room, let’s look first at mood, since we’re here to talk about contemporary style this month. This room is pretty, feminine, old-fashioned but thoroughly contemporary.

The “shabby chic” look came into style in the late 1990s, as a way to soften clean, hard lines and bring a little romance back into the home. It remains popular because it’s easy to use with recyled materials and furnishings and because it encourages you to use your creativity in unexpected ways.

This cottage mood is enhanced here with the soft, pale colors, the feminine lines and the old-fashioned furnishings. And yet, because it’s contemporary, the room doesn’t feel stuffy or overdone. There is plenty of white and off-white to offset the elaborate details, which avoids a cloying feeling and leaves the room feeling fresh.

Cottage entryway

Taking a look at the function here, we see this room serves several purposes at once. Because the front door opens directly into the room, without separate foyer, a distinct entryway has been created with the chest under the large clockface, providing both a place to drop mail and keys when entering the home and a place to store things in those drawers.

Looking at the living room proper, it offers an easy sitting area for guests. The three sofas form a “U” shape, so that guests can easily sit and talk, placing drinks or trays on the low table. The room is small, but this arrangement provides plenty of seating.

On chilly nights the fireplace can be lit, enhancing the mood of the room; when you have a fireplace, you want to make sure there is enough seating out of the direct line of the heat, so that guests don’t get too warm, and here, there are two sofas that are the optimal distance.

A couple of Jennifer's cameras

Finally, there is terrific harmony here. Everything seems made for this room, even though the owner’s interests are eclectic. Grey is currently on a camera-collecting kick, and these old beauties really add interest to the room while still speaking to the cottage style.

But note how the cameras are displayed, in a thoroughly contemporary way, in caged bell jars. That is the kind of creative move one can make with this kind of style: little bits of art can spring up in unexpected places.

We particularly like the giant mirror placed behind one of the sofas; this is the kind of bold move that really pulls a room together. And it isn’t in an expensive wood frame — the frame is plastic, was originally white, and Jennifer used a walnut stain to make it look like wood.

Large, walnut-stained mirror

One reason this room harmonizes so well is that the colors used work together perfectly. It’s a pale palette, light rose, off-white, white, eggshell, with just a few accents of dark wood. The pale colors and white work in concert with the feminine details, such as the curved lines of the sofas, the delicate chandelier and the long, elegant curtains.

This description of the living room is just the beginning, but it illustrates how you can take a wreck of a house and make it something truly fresh, beautiful, and contemporary, without sacrificing the romance of another era.