To reach the finish line, you first have to know where you’re going.
Don’t Start in the Furniture Store
Many have heard the advice to avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry, because it leads to poor choices. The same holds true for furniture stores – don’t go shopping in a panic, just because you have an empty home. Yes, you need a sofa. But if you pick the pink-striped sectional just because you like it in the store, without taking measurements or thinking about the rest of the room, you’re stuck with it. The rest of the room will have to be built around that sofa, and if it’s too large for the space it will look forever awkward.
Start in the room you’re looking to furnish, armed with a measuring tape and a notepad.
Know Your Measurements
Matching the scale of furniture to the scale of a room is critical. A deep sectional sofa can easily overpower a small room and svelte chairs can get lost in a wide-open loft. Before you start designing, measure the length and width of each room you intend to decorate, along with the ceiling height and elements that could get in the way – stairs, columns, radiators and other obstructions. It’s also a good idea to measure window openings, along with the wall space below, above and to the sides of each one, to get ready for window coverings.
“The first mistake most people make is that they buy things that are the wrong size – sofas that don’t fit in the room, sofas that don’t fit through doorways, tables that are too small, desks that are too big, nightstands that hang into the doorway,” said David Kleinberg, founder of the New York interior design firm David Kleinberg Design Associates. Carefully measuring your space can help avoid such problems.
Create a Floorplan
Once you have the measurements of your room, it’s time to put them to use with a floor plan that gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire home. “Every job should start with a floor plan,” said Alexa Hampton, the president of Mark Hampton, the New York interior design firm founded by her father. “You need to know the space.”
One option is to draw a floor plan the old-fashioned way, with paper, a pencil and a ruler. However, most professional designers use drafting software like AutoCAD. In between those two extremes are apps that aim to make it easy for homeowners to create simple floor plans (some even automate measurements with your smartphone’s camera, but double-check those numbers), including Magicplan, Floor Plan Creator and RoomScan Pro.
Once you have the outline of the space, start experimenting with the placement of furniture, making sure that the footprint of each piece is scaled to match the size of the drawing.
Decide How You Want to Live
This is the tricky part, and there are no right or wrong answers. Rooms can be traditional or modern, formal or relaxed, and visually warm or cool. “To the best of your ability, you have to try to discern how you would like to live in a given space,” said Ms. Hampton. “What will you be doing? How many people live there? Are there children? What are your ambitions for how you would like to live?”
The decoration of a home for someone who regularly hosts large dinner parties, for instance, should be different from a home for someone who eats out at restaurants every night. The person who plans to host lavish fundraisers should have a different living room than the person who dreams only of crashing in front of the TV.
Copy the Pros
Look in design books and magazines, as well as at online resources like Houzz, Pinterest and Instagram to sharpen your personal style. “Figure out the style that you respond to most,” said Brad Ford, an interior designer in New York City, and develop a dossier of favorite images.
Once you have images you like, study the details, advised Mr. Kleinberg. “See where pattern is used versus where solids are used, and where color can be used successfully or not,” he said. It will also help inform everything from the type of furniture you might like to a potential strategy for window coverings.
Tape It Out
To take ideas on a floor plan one step farther, use painter’s tape in the real space to outline where furniture will be placed on floors and against walls.
“We use blue tape on the floor to box out different elements,” said Anne Maxwell Foster, an owner of the New York interior design firm Tilton Fenwick. “Where will the rug be? Does it need to be cut? How far is the coffee table coming out? Even though we have everything down to a sixteenth of an inch on a furniture plan, there’s something helpful about visualizing it in the space, and being able to walk around.”
Develop a Budget
There’s no getting around the math: If you splurge on an unexpectedly expensive chair, you’ll have less money available for the rest of the home. “You want to make sure you’re being strategic about how you spend your money,” said Mr. Ford. “A budget gives you a roadmap for how to divide the costs of things between rooms.” You can still make an exception if you find a one-of-a-kind dining table, he noted, but in order to pay for it you have be thoughtful about where else you can cut back.
Plan the Phases
Finishing drywall, refinishing hardwood floors and painting ceilings is all messy work. If at all possible, it’s better to have this type of work completed before moving any furniture or accessories into the space.
If it can’t be avoided, seal large furniture under plastic drop cloths and accessories in boxes with tape to protect them.