Mad About . . .

The Three Key Questions You Need To Ask Before Decorating A Room (Part I)

7th August 2018
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WHO is going to use that room?

WHAT are they going to do there?

WHEN are they going to be doing it?

bisque radiator in hall via

hall via

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.

I thought I would start a small series going round my house to show you have we have done this but today I wanted to start with explaining why these three questions are so important.

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.

ask yourself who uses this room, what are they doing there and when are they doing it?

ask yourself who uses this room, what are they doing there and when are they doing it?

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.

KW-S kitchen

KW-S kitchen

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.

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.

the library at

the library at

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.

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?

the sitting room at

the sitting room at

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?

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.

KW-S bathroom image by MJ Chapman

KW-S bathroom image by MJ Chapman

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.

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.

We will unpack this room by room over the coming weeks. But for now, start with those three questions and take it from there.

And may I just add a massive thank you to everyone who has bought the book. I have tried to respond to everyone who has left me a message on instagram but it’s not always possible. It has been comfortably in the Amazon top 100 since it was back in stock which I think means that more of you have bought it than messaged me so to you all – thank you. And thank you to those who have left reviews – and do feel free to add one if you have liked it. I don’t want to get all Gwyneth and Oscar speech here but you know, sniff, it does mean an awful lot and I’m thrilled and proud to have written something which so many of you find useful. 

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  • Sheila 7th August 2018 at 4:13 pm

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

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 28th August 2018 at 10:23 am

      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.

  • Debbie 11th April 2018 at 9:27 pm

    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

  • Hilary 5th April 2018 at 4:57 pm

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

  • Philippa 5th April 2018 at 11:05 am

    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 …)

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 5th April 2018 at 2:53 pm

      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….

      • Philippa 9th April 2018 at 11:35 am

        They are lovely – thank you!

  • Philippa 5th April 2018 at 9:16 am

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

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 5th April 2018 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you so much. I hope you like it and that it comes soon!

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