Evolution of an interior

by Mary Jo Bowling


Enhancing a room in easy, price-conscious stages

For most homeowners, interior decoration evolves as time and budget allow. But while the results may be beautiful, the process can be a little haphazard. We asked San Francisco interior designer Randall Koll to show us a systematic approach: He created a scenario for decorating a living room in three orderly stages that build upon each other, with a budget of no more than $1,000 per stage. He also shared tips for getting started, saving money, and spending it wisely.

Koll says, "Good rooms, like good relationships, develop over time. Taking time lets you really get to know the space and what you need. That way, when you do buy a chair for the room, you know it's the right one."

Assembling an interior in stages is also a thrifty approach. It allows you time to do research, comparisonshop, and take advantage of seasonal sales, ensuring the best prices for furniture and accessories.

To show how it's done, we borrowed the living room of a couple who bought their house about a year ago and had some good basics, including a sofa and a coffee table. Working within the budget, Koll added carefully chosen elements to evolve the room.

Stage one

Koll painted the room pale green and replaced long gathered curtains with tailored grass blinds, the big splurge in this stage. "Painting gives instant satisfaction. The color makes a big impact and sets the tone for what's to come," Koll says. "The curtains dragged the room down. The new blinds add texture and infuse the room with freshness and sophistication. They also allow us to see the great moldings."

Next he created a seating area around the fireplace, starting with the couple's sofa and coffee table. Before, furniture sat at opposite ends of the room with a large space in between. "It's a common mistake to fill the four corners of a room with furniture. If you only have a few pieces of furniture, they will make the greatest impact if you group them together in one main seating and conversation area," Koll says. "Later, as you acquire more pieces, you can create secondary seating areas in other parts of the room."

To complete the conversational grouping, he brought a compact armchair from another room to take the place of one that was too large for the space. A colorful wicker chair, picked up for a song at a showroom sample sale, added more seating. Terra-cotta and green pillows on the sofa and chairs complemented the new green paint on the walls.

A few inexpensive accessories replaced several small objects on the mantel. "The items on the mantel were too small. They didn't fit the scale of the room, so we put them in a smaller area," says Koll. The mantel was further enhanced by mica lamp shades on the existing sconces. They replaced glass globes that were too formal for the room's new look.

Stage two

The big-ticket item in this stage was the rug. At $899, it took up most of the allotted money, but a glance at the photos shows what a difference it made. It enlivened the space, anchored the furniture, and tied the color palette together like a bow on a present.

"You have to leave yourself some money to spend on accessories so the room won't be stark and empty," says Koll. In this stage, the remaining money was spent on floor pillows, which added warmth as well as extra seating for casual gatherings. New glass shades updated the ceiling light fixture.

Stage three

With the bones of the room in place, accessories were then added to flesh it out. The most expensive new piece was a painting placed on the mantel. A small but good piece of art, it cost $260. To save money, it was displayed on a small easel instead of in a frame. The painting lent an air of quality to the other items on the mantel, all inexpensive purchases. "Placing a piece of substance next to less expensive items makes them look like more than they are," says Koll. A pair of large candlesticks finished the decoration.

A set of nesting tables provides a lot of surface space for the money. Here, two tables were placed by the sofa, providing space for a table lamp and a place to rest a book or drink. The third was situated under a window; decorative at this stage, eventually it will serve as the nucleus for a secondary seating area.

A chair found at an antiques shop added more seating space and a dash of fun. "This one-of-a-kind chair is a little quirky. It gives the room an artistic splash," says Koll. "By taking time to shop antiques and thrift stores, or even garage sales, you will avoid that 'instantly decorated' look that comes from buying furniture all in one place."

The result is a room the designer calls "friendly, casual, and elegant." However, a good interior is never done. "The room fits the lifestyle of the couple now, but in the future they could add a desk, more chairs, or a game table," says Koll. "A room should keep evolving, changing as life changes."

DESIGN: Randall Koll, Randall Koll Design, San Francisco (415/675-9933).


Each stage is an improvement. By stage three, the made-over room (shown at left) is well pulled together, lively, and fresh.


A. Paint (2 gallons), $32

B. Blinds (2), $594

C. Throw, $79

D. Patterned pillows (3), $43

E. Solid-color pillows (3), $30

F. Sconce shades (2), $53

G. Blue wicker chair, $95

H. Basket, $6

I. Vases (2) $32

J. Bamboo candle holders (3), $35

Total: $999


K. Oriental rug, $899

L. Floor pillows (2), $56

M. Glass chandelier shades, $20

Total: $975


N. Small painting, $260

O. Miniature easel, $8

P. Chair, $165

Q. Nesting tables, $248

R. Lamp, $89

S. Candlesticks (2), $26

Total: $796

Grand total: $2,770

Koll's smart shopping ideas 1. Be systematic and organized. Start by arranging the furniture you have. Evaluate it to see where the holes are, then make a shopping list and prioritize it. When shopping, always carry a list of measurements (doorways, windows, etc.), samples of fabric or carpet, and paint or wood chips. 2. Give furniture a test drive. Take furniture out on approval when possible. The best way to see if it really fits in a room is to try it there. 3. Watch for bargains. Showroom sample sales are great places to pick up designer furniture at good prices. To find out when these sales happen, call your local design center or check the website of a showroom you like. Add your name to the mailing lists of favorite retail stores to be notified of big sales. 4. Don't settle. It's tempting to buy furniture as a quick fix to fill a room, but such purchases often are unsuccessful long-term solutions. Only buy furniture you really love. 5. Consider using a designer. Interior designer fees vary, but you can usually count on their time costing 10 to 15 percent of your budget. Although that means around $300 of a $3,000 budget, a designer's recommendations could help you make sound choices that save money in the long run. In addition, some stores have in-house interior designers who advise customers for a relatively low cost, which is often refunded upon a purchase.