Five Ways to Make Good Interior Design Decisions

Firstly thank you all so much for your lovely comments about the finished house. As I said, I will be going through every detail for you in the coming weeks but it seems only fair to let Red Magazine have its moment before I do that. In addition, I saw a feature at the weekend which I thought would make a really good starting point for anyone who is mired in renovations/design dilemmas and interior indecision. So let’s take it back to the beginning.

One of the things that people have said to me most often is how did we pull all this together in under a year. In fact we moved in at the end of September 2022, started work in the November, broke for Christmas, started again in January and finished by the end of April. I’ve been sitting on the Red magazine feature since then!

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
Abriel recycled polyester rug from la redoute kichen by diy alcove cabinets in the home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan

So yes we did it very fast. And that was partly due to one enormous piece of luck which was finding a good builder with availability on our timetable. Let’s not underestimate the importance of that. The other thing was planning – the sale took six months and during that time I pored over floor plans and paint charts and graph paper and even during the times when I doubted the sale would ever happen I knew I was fully prepared to get stuck in as soon as it did.

It’s also worth mentioning that if we hadn’t needed to replace the floors, heating, boiler and windows before we could even build a wardrobe we might not have done it as fast. When you move into a space that’s liveable it’s easy to put up with it for longer than you actually want because the more you unpack the harder it becomes to deal with the idea of packing it up and disrupting the way you have learnt to live in a space.

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
striped sofa covered in Wave by Schumacher and upholstered by Vintique Upholstery at the home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan

In many ways we didn’t have a choice on that front as we were living out of boxes and not just in the bedrooms. There wasn’t enough storage in the kitchen to unpack while the upstairs power shower didn’t work and the downstairs shower room was full of mould. The former dining room was home to 63 boxes of books and they all needed to be moved around so the floor could be replaced.

So let’s just say I was motivated to make a lot of decisions in record quick time. But then I read an interview with a Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer, who has been teaching a decision making course for 40 years.

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
Sarkozi wallpaper by MindTheGap, ceiling painted in Leather by Paint & Paper Library, woodwork in Temple at the home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan

She says, not rocket science this bit, that making decisions is highly stressful and adds that stress is at the root of much illness so it pays to learn to do it better. And that is the premise of her book. Now she applies her process to helping you in life but I saw the headline – FIVE FAILSAFE RULES TO MAKING GOOD DECISIONS – and realised that these decisions can be perfectly applied to interior design. So here they are (feel free to use them in life as well!).

1 Gathering too much information can result in Analysis Paralysis

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
pottery porcelain tiles by ca pietra in khaki smoke and natural cotton, basin by burlington in the home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan

This resonated with me so much. I talk to people every day who are deep into washing machine performance reports, gazing at 27 different shades of white, agonising over which handle would be best on the loo door. As a result they have so much detailed information they are simply unable to make a choice as they have got lost. One of my very first clients told me she had 3000 pins on her kitchen board and all she knew was that she hated blue. In fact she loved navy blue but she had lost sight of that thread as she had so many pictures to analyse.

Try giving yourself an instant shortlist of three (appliances) five (chairs) or 10 (paint shades to choose from). Resist the urge to dive in deeper. It won’t help. Make the choice and move on because

2 Listing Pros and Cons is pointless

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
vita sustainable sofa by KW-S and Love Your Home shot by Simon Bevan

When you have to much information and are confused you start making lists of pros and cons. But when the cons outweigh the pros you often don’t like that result so you resolve to ask “just one more person” because what your gut knows (but you aren’t hearing) is that you do actually know what you want but for some reason you feel you can’t justify that decision so you look for a reason not to. But that doesn’t make you happy so you keep digging and you know what? Five years go by and you’ve still got the same horrid unworkable bathroom you had when you moved in. And to be clear I’m not talking about budgets here. For the purposes of this feature let’s assume budget is a given. This is the next stage – choosing the stuff and planning the room.

Instead listen to your gut – the reason you keep asking for more opinions is because either you don’t trust yourself to get it right or you know what you want and you want to keep asking until you hear what you want from someone else. The demon of external validation. We have lost the art of listening to our instinct and are instead distracted by the 21st century equivalent of keeping up with that neighbour Mrs Jones – aka Instagram –  and all that we see there. And that’s wrong because you need to…..

3 Free Yourself to make the Wrong Choice

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
copper worktop by halman thompson, avebury tiles by ca pietra and elm cup handles by corston

When you are tackling a big renovation there are dozens of decisions to be made every day. This somehow makes it easier as the theory is you have the space to get some of them wrong. As Professor Langer says if there are only 10 questions you’re under more pressure to get them right than if there are 100.

So if you’re doing one room each decision becomes bigger. Allow yourself to get some things wrong. You can always repaint, swap the hinges on the door, buy a new table and sell the old one. Focus on the big decisions and, to paraphrase, the smaller ones will sort themselves out. Basically you need to…

4 Forget making the “right” decision – just make a choice and make it work

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
the cupboards that don’t run in a seamless line between kitchen and pantry shot by Simon Bevan

This is key. When you’re in deep it can take two hours to decide the height of the shower or where exactly the valves will go. And you won’t always get it right. But it won’t be the end of the world. My kitchen cupboards were supposed to line up with the pantry so the view through the internal window would be seamless. Turns out the previous owner hadn’t wanted to get a party wall agreement when she built that extension so she simply built in front of it. We didn’t know this until the cupboards were ordered and the plumbing work began. Instead they sit slightly forward. I am the only person that notices this (and I have road-tested this extensively). Not only does no-one else notice but when it’s pointed out most people think it was deliberate to show off between the two rooms. And, bonus, the worktop in the kitchen is slightly deeper than the standard 60cm so there’s more space. We could have held up the work, reconfigured the whole thing, spent time and money or we made a decision to carry on and we made it work. And that’s freedom because

5 Regrets are pointless: an alternative decision could have been worse.

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
marlborough terracotta tiles by ca pietra, rug see above kichen by diy alcove cabinets  with elm cup handles by corston shot by Simon Bevan

Like I say we could have stopped the work, knocked down the extension, sought more permission, re-ordered the kitchen. The builders might have needed to go to another job. We might still be living in a building site. And we would have spent twice as much money. So an alternative would definitely have been financially worse. This is also known, says Professor Langer, as falling up: “If you and I go out for lunch and it’s wonderful we have a great time. If the food is terrible I won’t eat as much and that’s good for my waistline so yay. My whole life is yay.”

home of madaboutthehouse shot by Simon Bevan
fine velvet ivory curtains from blinds2go with poles from jim lawrence

So my kitchen doesn’t run in a flat line from one room to the next but it didn’t cost me any more money, it still looks great, I’m not (quite) broke and the work is finished and in a magazine. So that’s falling up right there.

If you want to read her book and apply to life rather than just decorating it’s called The Mindful Body by Ellen Langer.




Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Brilliant post Kate. I read the key points out to my husband as we debated (yet again) ‘shall we stay and renovate or look elsewhere?’- a house decision that has been going on for far too long! Decide and move forward I say – and you applying each point to the relevant decision in your home was so helpful. I missed congratulating you on your initial ‘reveal’ post, so here to also say your home looks sensational – cosy, lived in and like a place to enjoy life! How lovely to now be able to enjoy it, warm, dust and builder free, for the winter. Great result!

  2. This is just the post I needed to read, as I flail around in 1001 decisions for my new kitchen and hall. But today, I took a break and went to the beach (too hot to do much else) and as I sat surrounded by pebbles and shells, I ignored the 4 different shades of white I’m trying on my walls currently and decided a new one called Chalk should be perfect, given I live in the South Downs. Decision made, beach enjoyed, and the rooms will remind me of summer and my beautiful surroundings. Can’t wait to see your home in Red, and thanks again for this brilliant post.

  3. Love this! I have to sit with an idea for a while otherwise I get caught up in bright shiny thing syndrome and try to do too many different ideas at once – a bit of a recipe for unfinished projects!

  4. PS: the way your kitchen bases step back from the line of the set in the pantry is much nicer to my eye than if they had marched along in the same plane. I also like how the set back there allows so breathing room at the door. Love that little window.

  5. Just finishing the hall bath in this older row home, which is just after finishing the gut out and redo of the kitchen. Reno is an adventure and you never know what’s you’ll find until it starts. Of course when it’s just us doing the work we can stop for the day and sleep on the question before resolving the work around. Those 5 points are spot on, the 5 th is my nemesis. I do not use Instagram, design blogs like this one are far more interesting. Looking forward to seeing you home in more detail in the future.

  6. Absolutely loved this post, such great advice. Having just finished a full kitchen renovation I know exactly how easy it is to get bogged down with endless deliberation. I think the point about listening to your gut instinct is spot on. Easy to get swept up looking at random stranger’s houses on Instagram but remember that you’re designing the space for you and your lifestyle.

  7. Its so great to read this post as I am in the process of furnishing and decorating our newly built house, so we are starting from scratch! I’ve spent hours looking at my laptop screen trying to choose a rug for the lounge, so I can choose colour schemes and soft furnishings and have totally bamboozled myself by perhaps looking at too many!
    Every choice I make I then doubt myself and have finally selected a Persian rug off Marketplace which I’m off to get on Thursday. But like you say Kate, if its not the right choice, then it will be back on Marketplace – but hopefully not!

  8. Loving these updates and posts, thank you. Am just about to paint and push the button on a new kitchen and wanted to ask what colour the cabinets and wall are? We’re having cabinets in haecker cashmere but the colours for yours are closer to what I am after.

  9. Very wise and reassuring post. Thank you! I have bought Red magazine as I wanted to have a full spread of the photos of your house rather than looking at them on a tiny screen. It looks gorgeous. Also had agenda to leave the kitchen photos out for my husband to see! Which he has, and admired them. Thanks Kate. The continuing ploy of saying ‘the Mad About the Lady’ did this, which instantly gives me more clout in discussions about interior design choices!
    I would never have noticed the units not being in an exact line without you pointing it out – which neatly makes your point. Bravo!

  10. Great advice from Prof Langer! I particularly like the concept of Falling Up. My view (developed in all of the last five minutes) is that the best eclectic, mis-matched style derives from embracing the quirks of our homes and embellishing them with a bit of our own Falling Up. Admittedly easier when there’s not huge sums of money and differing points of view to contend with……a twenty year old decision to relocate the kitchen to the lower ground floor, and not open up the dividing wall to the dining room, not a source of lasting regret, but still contemplating the pros and cons at least weekly! On the other hand, a recent over-researched, agonising purchase of table lamps was an instant source of regret, but led to a tearful reshuffle and re-matching of old and new bases and shades and ultimately the deep joy of things looking like they were always meant to be there, even though the “there” hadn’t even been part of the original thought process.

    Have a lovely day everyone, x.

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