The Three Key Questions You Need To Ask Before You Start Decorating

Some of you will have read this before – I first published it in 2018 and it was then expanded to six questions for my second book 101 Interior Design Answers, which came out as the lockdown started in 2020. As we near the anniversary of that date and we appear to have lurched from two years of lockdowns to possible world war, I hope you will forgive me for reposting. Some of you will have ignored it the first time round as it wasn’t relevant. Some of you will be new to these pages. The questions are still relevant, still vital to getting your decor right and inform everything decision I make both in my own house and when advising clients. I have changed the pictures and updated the words so it’s more up to date.

book wallpapered hidden door at shot by mark anthony fox
book wallpapered hidden door at shot by mark anthony fox

WHO is going to use that room?

WHAT are they going to do there?

WHEN are they going to be doing it?

I’ll add the other three at the bottom. shot by mark anthony fox

It’s that simple, but you’d be amazed by how many people either don’t think to ask those questions or think they don’t need to. And missing out on this key step means you run the risk of ending up with a room that doesn’t really work for the people who live there. Which means they won’t use it. Or, because there is no choice, they do use it but it doesn’t really make anyone happy.

Answer these questions first though and the rest of the decoration flows naturally onwards – from lighting and colours to materials and accessories like rugs and even the smaller decorative items. The form will flow naturally from the function but you need to think about the latter if you want the former to work properly. In other words if you want your form to function you must first form the answers to the question of function.

kws hidden office door by mark anthony fox

So let’s start with the WHO? Simple enough but vital if you want the room to work. Let’s take the easy one – the kitchen? By who is going to use it what you mean is – is this a room for a cook? Or an eater? Because that will immediately determine the level of equipment and worktop you need to plan for? A keen cook needs both. A person who regards the oven as extra shoe storage and who heats up food merely to stave off collapse might want more of a bar stool island arrangement with a microwave in the corner.

Or what about the sitting room? Now I know you can swan in there and breezily think: “Right then – sofa, couple of chairs, telly in the corner and slap some paint on the walls, but if you want a space that really works for everyone who lives there you need to be more specific. shot by mark anthony fox shot by mark anthony fox

Who exactly uses it? A couple? A couple of parents? Does it double up as a toddler playroom? A teenage hang-out? Does the whole family actually gather in there or is that an aspiration? If that’s the dream then answering these questions will help you work out how to make those dreams come true. Don’t just assume everyone will want to be in there if there is a small tv in the corner, the sofa isn’t quite big enough and the lighting’s all wrong.

One final example? Let’s go to the bathroom? Is it used by an entire family needing to get in and out in the morning in the shortest most efficient time possible? Or an en suite for adults which can be more relaxing or even dispense with the bath in favour of a large shower? In the early stages it’s all about these questions.

sitting room at image by mark anthony fox
sitting room at image by mark anthony fox

Now moving to the WHAT. We have begun to cover that with the WHO, so you’re getting the picture. The WHAT plays to the lighting and furniture that will go into the room to make sure that the WHO will actually use it. So is it a television room or a drinks and chatting room? Is it a family bathroom or a functional en suite? Does there need to be storage for a whole family of coats and shoes or just one or two? Once you have answered that question you can start to think about what sort of seating you need, or the size of the table. Or how many bar stools versus coat hooks and shoe storage. shot by mark anthony fox

Finally the WHEN. And this leads you into thoughts of colour and daylight versus electric. Will the WHO and the WHAT be mostly in the evening? Or in the natural light of the morning? The most likely scenario is that it needs to straddle both ends of the day but is largely empty in the middle? Will whatever it is be done mostly in electric light or natural? Because you need to check your paint colour works well in both situations if that’s the case, which is why you need a tester pot because no colour is ever seen in isolation and all colours change depending on who they are sitting next to. shot by mark anthony fox shot by mark anthony fox

Answering these questions gives you a road map to decorating the room so that you get the most possible use out of it. Someone said that most of us wear 20 per cent of our clothes 80 per cent of the time. I suspect there’s a similar statistic for rooms in houses. And that’s just a waste. Of course a spare room isn’t needed every day – the clue’s in the name – but is there something else you could do in that room which might take the pressure off the other, more used and crowded rooms? For example – could it double up as a second television room if it had a sofa bed in it? The office? A place where children can practice their musical instruments so you can watch the news in peace in the sitting room or listen to the radio in the kitchen while someone else is doing homework? In the case of the spare room you can start with the WHAT could it be used for and WHO needs it?

Once you have started to think about these questions everything starts to fall into place and you will be able to make plans for using every room in your house properly because every room has a function assigned to it. This is one of the first questions I often ask my clients when I visit: what are you doing in this space? shot by mark anthony fox

From there we might work out that one spot is perfect for morning coffee, another for early evening drinks and another is where the family might gather on a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly every spot has a purpose and you have an idea of what to put there. So a  Saturday morning coffee and papers spot might work with two lively patterned armchairs or something with a more relaxed garden feel – rattan for example – whereas a modular sofa lends itself to a family gathering, as opposed to a more formal sofa in a room that is for drinks and grown ups.

I know some people who spent a huge amount on a kitchen extension which was fitted out with all the latest high tech equipment from a teppanyaki grill to a state of the art range cooker. The reality of it was that neither of them particularly liked to cook and the room never quite acquired that happy state of homeliness that most of us aspire to. Nor did it reflect the people who lived there so that it never quite shed its showroom feel.

Answer the questions own the space. shot by mark anthony fox

And, of course I appreciate that we all have different homes of different sizes and many of us have to have multi-tasking rooms but that makes these questions all the more important. If you know in advance of buying furniture and paint exactly how many jobs that room has to do the more likely you are to get it right.

As for the last three questions they are:

WHERE will you shop?

This is for your budget. You need to work out what the basics – paint, wallpaper, knocking down walls will cost before you can start to think about replacing furniture. And then you need to decide if you want to spent money on a sofa that will last for years or a fabulous rug that will live with you in every house you will ever live in. And once you have made a list of eveything you need, you can move onto everything you want and plan accordingly. shot by mark anthony fox

WHY are you decorating this room?

The obvious answer is that you don’t like it but before you rush out and start buying paint samples, take some time to understand why you don’t like it and what you can do to change it? If it’s too small do you need to extend or can you change the furniture layout? If it’s a kitchen are the appliances in the wrong place. And if it’s the current decor that isn’t, or no longer works for you then you need to think about the last question. shot by mark anthony fox

HOW do you. want to feel in this space?

Because this is the key. We all have instinctive reactions to colour that we can do nothing about. It might stem from a childhood uniform or a classroom. I have mentioned before the reader who can’t stand half-painted walls because they remind her of Russian institutions from her childhood under the Communist regime. Another who dislikes the colour green with an intensity that will never change. So if you are looking at room and feeling that it doesn’t work for you you need to ask yourself firstly why? And then how do you actually want to feel in here? Because if it’s a sitting room that you use mostly in the evening to sit after a busy day then you need to work out which colours make you feel relaxed. As much as you might have set your heart on a busy colourful wallpaper for this room because it goes with the sofa, if it makes you feel energised and alert then this might not be the room to use it in. Would it work in the kitchen? In a piece of fabric as a curtain to hide the appliances? Over a bathroom ceiling? Note I’m not saying in the bedroom as that might be another room where you want calmness. Bedrooms are tricky – some of you will lean towards colours that bounce you out of bed in the morning, others to a soft space where you can start and end the day more slowly. In short, when you have worked out the purpose of the room (the WHAT) you can start to look at which colours match that activity or emotion.

That is how you make interior design work.


Tags : decor tipsDecorating tipsinterior designMad about the house
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. Fantastic advice. Thanks Kate.
    Have you painted/stained all your floorboards? I have original, but not expensive wood, floorboards. Not great looking. Am now tempted to paint rather than try and revive them.

  2. I love this. It reminds me of my early days of studying and working as a journalist. But with a totally different lens & impact.
    Really timeless advice

  3. For some reason your house has never before had the quickened-heartbeat-inducing appeal for me that it does here! It’s gorgeous. A beautiful and insightful post all around. Thanks!

    1. It’s from Alternative Flooring, Dotty from the Quirky B range in Damson. I bought it 10 years ago and it still looks great – despite two teenage boys and a clawing cat!

  4. Kate, I love the rug in your library. Could you please tell me what it is and where you got it? Thanks!

    1. It’s a piece of carpet that was designed for Brintons by Timorous Beasties and we had the edge hemmed to turn it into a rug. It can be a really affordable way of getting a statement rug without the price tag.

  5. Just ordered the book. Please can you tell me where your trompe l’oeil wallpaper at the top of stairs in the hallway photo is from. Am looking for something similar. Thank yiu

  6. Just about to order your book! Will it tell me where you got your lovely sofa from? I’m mad about it! 😉

  7. Kate, please could let me know where your black dining chairs are from? They are gorgeous. (Must have missed a trick as I thought you had white Eames ones for some reason …)

    1. I did but I sold them and these are Muuto Visu chairs in black wood. I got them from Houseology. I loved the Eames but they were too cream for the table and didn’t go. Would have loved them in black….

        1. I really love the fun runner on the stair case. May I ask where I can purchase the Runner? Thank you.

  8. Ordered the book a couple of days ago and can’t wait for it to arrive! Congratulations on publishing!!

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