"I need some serious advice," my new friend Sheila wrote in an e-mail. "I have all this furniture from my old house, plus a mishmash of art and stuff, and minimal space. I don't know what to do with it all."
As a decorating addict, I was already itching to help, but here's what sealed it: "I would like to get some sense of being settled here because it would help me not feel so lost," her e-mail said. "If my little space here felt together, then I think I could handle the rest of my disconnected life."
Cue the violins. This was my song, too! Like me, Sheila recently moved to Florida from another state for a great job opportunity, and is temporarily living apart from her family, in her case her husband and daughter. Moving away from your family - even temporarily, no matter how much sense it makes in the logic calculator - feels like an amputation.
"I'll be right there," I said.
On Mother's Day (pause for full irony) I was at her door with my pink and purple tool kit. The two-bedroom condo was as she described. She had the right stuff in the wrong place, and too much of it.
She also had the right attitude. "I don't know where to begin. I don't want to make holes in the walls to hang stuff, then realize I didn't put things together right." Life is too short to help people who need help but don't think they do.
"You're going to have to trust me."
"I'm in," she said.
Together, we heaved, shoved, rearranged, ate strawberries, stood back and held our chins, hammered, perspired, talked about how to find a hair dresser, and pushed furniture around some more.
Soon the living room snapped into a space where she could entertain and enjoy her killer, seventh-floor views. Her master bedroom went from hard-lined to romantic when we angled the bed and laid out a fur rug she had tucked in a bag.
We moved furniture that wasn't functioning to places where it would. The four vinyl-strapped barstools were too short for her kitchen counter. We moved them onto her balcony where, once she adds a high-top bistro table, she'll have a chic outdoor dining space.
I vowed to come back another day to tackle the second bedroom and entry. "Until then," I said, "thanks for giving me my decorating fix."
"I hope it wasn't too much trouble."
"You had everything you needed. Just in the wrong place."
We didn't say, but we both thought, just like our families.
If you're trying to put old furnishings in a new place, or want to fix up an uninspired room using the furniture you have, try these steps:
Size up the room. What does it have going for it? A nice view, a fireplace, interesting architecture? Decorating a room is like dealing with figure flaws: Make the most of what you've got going for you and downplay the rest. At Sheila's we capitalized on the soaring view of trees and city.
Clear everything out but the big stuff. Remove anything smaller than a hog. Park the miscellany - wall art, lamps, throw pillows, small tables, books, photos - by the front door, where it will be easier to move out permanently.
Arrange with purpose. Sheila had her sofa and only chair pressed against one long wall perpendicular to the window. The arrangement missed the room's focal point and killed conversation. We angled the sofa so it captured the view but didn't block access to the room. We moved the chair so it faced the sofa, and set the coffee table in between. I pulled in two red stools from the bedroom to round out the conversation area.
Accessorize with care. Once you've anchored your big pieces, slowly add back art and accessories. You need a critical eye. The accessories and art need to be the right size and relate to the space somehow - either in style or color. Some of Sheila's art, though nice, was small. So we grouped like pieces (those that had the same feel or same frame) so they read as one large piece. Same with her potted plants, which we pulled together.
Fine-tune. Play and experiment until accessories click. They should add pizzazz, not fizzle. Look for color triangles. A yellow ceramic bowl, some yellow in framed art across the room, and yellow flowers on an end table. Add something unexpected.
Stop. Once the room looks great, resist looking at the pile of things that didn't make the cut. Sheila kept trying to bargain stuff back. "What about this?" she asked, holding up a string of stuffed elephants she'd had hanging on a doorknob. I shook my head and handed down some old design advice that also applies in life: "Just because you love something, doesn't make it right."