Monday, July 28, 2014

My favorite designer writes her tell all

From page HS4 | June 07, 2013 |

If I could download any designer’s brain into mine, I would tap the head of award-winning interior designer Betty Lou Phillips. I would like to mainline her design sense, her eye, her sensibility, her shopping acumen, heck, I’d even like her wardrobe.

But you and I just got the next best thing.

Phillips, also the author of the most sumptuous design books you could ever lust over — just check out “French Impressions, Inspirations from France and Italy, The French Connection” — has put between covers her approach in a how-she-does-it design guide: “Interiors by Design,” $25, just out from Gibbs Smith Publishers.

Her 13th book is the first one in which the Dallas designer takes readers — in this case those of us who deign to tackle home decorating on our own — behind the soie curtains of her gorgeous spaces and translates how she pulls it off.

In the 100-plus-page, binder-style book, Phillips channels hundreds of tips and design principles. She puts her finger on the elusive  je ne sais quoi that great spaces have. Or in English: what is it about this space that’s making magic here.

Tab dividers separate photo-filled sections that focus on design secrets of color, fabric, furniture, lighting, window treatments, rugs, art and more. The three-ring binder feature lets users add pages for their own project plans.

When Phillips sent me her book, she included a note explaining that she wrote it because of the changing industry. One in which, thanks to the Internet, far more “fledgling decorators” are creating “striking settings on their own.”

“Once the thought of doing the decorating oneself was viewed as difficult and daunting,” she wrote in her note. Although some “design aficionados will still leave the task to the professionals, the Web has been a game changer.”

In the guide’s introduction, Phillips writes, “infinite inspiration is available at the click of a mouse” and interior design has become “undeniably egalitarian.”

So she offers some rules of the road, so that we egalitarians have more to go on than unschooled intuition.

After looking over her latest gift, I e-mailed Phillips to see if she could talk a bit about her book. She promptly e-mailed back:  “Dear, dear Marni, I just landed in France to shoot for a new book.  But that said, I’m so glad you like the binder …”

In one short sentence, she confirmed that she not only has the design sensibility I want but she also has the life I’d like, too.

Alas, in place of having Betty Lou’s brain, or her house — and I have been in two of them (!) — or her life, thank goodness I have her book. And for that we can all be grateful.

As I read through each section of “Interiors by Design,” I found good foundational pointers (don’t start unless you have a plan), along with many maxims that were complete news to me and some worthy of repeating. Here’s a small sampling:

New (to me) notions 

  • Patterned sofas distract from the people sitting on them.
  • Don’t push your chairs up to the table. Unless you want a furniture showroom look, pull chairs back about 12 inches. (When I read this, I immediately jumped up and pulled my dining-table chairs out. She was right, of course.)
  • Skip the extra long sofa. Seldom do more than two people sit on a sofa at once, so opt for one that is 84 inches, not 96.
  • Curtains should brush the floor, or “break” with an inch and a half to spare. Puddles are passé. But curtains should never stop short of the floor.

Tips that bear repeating

  • Pick paint last. Because you have boundless paint colors to choose from, focus on the basics first: fabric, furniture, floor colorings. Then pick paint.
  • Fabrics should meld not match. The same shade of blue applied everywhere is going to such extremes that the room will end up looking forced. “And a contrived look is taboo in design circles,” she says.
  • Seek harmony not conformity. “Dismiss any thoughts of buying a bedroom ‘suite’ or a so-called dining room ‘set,’ she says. And rather than matching five-piece place settings, mix compatible patterns.
  • Don’t cheap out on case goods. Buy beds, dressers, sofas, tables and chairs to last. Save up and pay more for well-crafted pieces made of durable kiln-dried, hardwood frames (oak, elm, hickory, ash or maple) and eight-way, hand-tied construction on sofas and chairs. “Nowadays a throwaway mindset is passé,” writes Phillips, “though repurposing existing furniture is not.”
  • Passementerie, French for trim and tassels, rouses interest, and can make a space more approachable by softening sharp edges. “Without looking as if it’s trying, fringe adds a custom flourish to drapery, and mitigates hard edges on throw pillows while camouflaging seams and zippers, which are hardly chic.”
  • Details, details. “For some beauty is rich colors, a savvy mix of fabrics and mellow old woods…. For others, it is the luxury of perceived comfort, interesting collections, and easy elegance. But for those who find these are not quite enough, it is the subtle details….To be sure, attention to minutiae has the potential of making the ordinary extraordinary.” And the same can be said for Phillips.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through





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