Designer Critique: My Space vs. Hers
A humbling—and enlightening—lesson from an interior designer in creating a much cooler look for the writer’s home
Interior designer Judith Liegeois
If you live somewhere—an apartment, single-family home, condominium, mansion—this story is for you, because most of us want to know how to make our spaces nicer. Whether that means prettier or more functional or stylish or simple, etc., interior designers know how to take a space and transform it to its best self.
Well, the good ones do, anyway.
But most of us—those who don’t know the difference between shagreen and chenille—often struggle to make the right choices when it comes to designing our spaces. If you regularly open magazines like this one, you’ll see rooms perfectly configured to dazzle the eye and make you feel like you could have made a few better choices in your life. Frankly, it’s frustrating.
How do designers do it?
What are the secrets to choosing the right chair? Or why do they put a pile of books on a shelf just so? How does a piece of art make a wall come alive instead of looking like a Band-Aid with a personality disorder?
It’s a mystery—even for someone who looks at beautiful spaces for a living. In fact, if you were to ask me to put a room together in your home from a blank slate, there is a 50-50 chance that I would just set it on fire and walk out. (Let the adjusters deal with it.)
Writer Michael Korb
It’s somewhat embarrassing when you consider the fact that as a home editor, I’m perfectly capable of critiquing some of the best interior designers money can buy. But my own home was approximately one semester shy of rush week, featuring hideous vertical blinds, a curtain rod with no curtains and an inordinate amount of pillows purchased in the outdoor furniture section of Target. In fact, my dining room actually was composed of aluminum outdoor furniture.
In my defense, I just moved in (six years ago) and haven’t had the time to make any other decisions.
But that’s not how Judith Liegeois lives. Far from it.
The renowned Naples interior designer lives in a space that is magazine-ready at all times, even though she shares the spaces with a 1-year-old Whoodle (Wheaton terrier-standard poodle mix), three cats and a husband. The clan left a lovely 7,000-square-foot manse in Aqualane Shores to renovate a charming, but smaller, home across town. It was just the creative outlet that Liegeois thrives on, but would leave most of us paralyzed by fear. Should we knock out a wall to open up the kitchen? Should we build an addition? Should we add to our orphaned Allen wrench collection because we’re just going to buy stuff at IKEA anyway? It can be a mystery. But not one that needs to remain unsolved.
And to that end I called Liegeois, who’s worked on some of this area’s most exclusive properties since moving here from her native New Zealand. She invited me to her new home in an effort to help deconstruct the process of interior design and give me tangible examples of the process. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the walls of her home were blank and the floors bare. But to help see the process firsthand, Gulfshore Life Editor-in-Chief David Sendler asked if I might also invite her to my home to have her explain the rules of design.
“You have to know the rules in order to break them,” says Liegeois, while casually sitting in a beautifully textured cream colored chair decked out with a gray throw and a Wheaton-toned fur pillow. And that’s as frustrating as it is accurate. She starts with the floors and then works her way to the walls. But as for colors, she says things such as, “It varies” or “I get a feeling” or “Let the house tell you what it needs.” For many, our homes tell us just to write a check to someone like Liegeois. It’s money well-spent.
Layering is the secret to Liegeois' aesthetic, as seen in this corner of her home.
For her home, Liegeois put Venetian plaster on the walls in a warm white tone over a soft gray/taupe-hued wood floor throughout. “A space should be beautiful without all the stuff,” Liegeois says. “Then you layer.”
And that’s the secret. Layering. Almost anywhere you look inside her home, from the living room to the bedrooms, you can see the process before your eyes. A nook off the kitchen houses an oversize gun-metal-gray round dining table that she’s tucked into the corner. Just above that on the wall is a beautifully framed piece of art. On the table she’s layered varying stacks of books, on which she’s placed a lamp and a small sculpture. Then, elsewhere on the table she’s set items of varying size in front of the aforementioned décor. The lowest item is an open book.
“What I like about coffee table books and books on art is that you can leave them open and it’s like you’ve got another piece of artwork,” Liegeois says. “And you can change the page every day if you like.”
Playing with light and texture is a hallmark of Liegeois' design style.
Ultimately, it’s all about placement, Liegeois says. “People make mistakes, and they’re expensive mistakes. But my attitude is that most things will work if you just keep moving them around until they do.”
In fact, her home is a testament to that. Remember, many of the furnishings she brought to this 2,000-square-foot home used to fit perfectly in the much larger Aqualane property. But if she doesn’t draw your attention to that, you’d never notice it. For example, the table we just mentioned probably doesn’t make sense for that nook, but she makes it work beautifully. In the main living area, the coffee table was designed for a room twice this size, but here it looks just like a conscious design choice. And once she mentions it, the sectional seems a bit oversize as well.
“I’m using pieces that I love,” Liegeois says. “That oversize kitchen table is from the old house. It’s like sculpture. But it balances out the whopping big coffee table … and the size of the pillows.”
One of the pillows on the sectional is the size of an adult human being. And yet, in the space, next to pillows of varying size, it looks great. The coffee table also is home to a 4-foot-tall metal praying mantis, which helps distract from the size of everything else. It’s just another aspect of layering.
Everything Liegeois does moves the eye from one place to another. In fact, when you enter the front door, your eyes move through the living area, through the kitchen, out the sliding glass doors in back, across the pool, and to a walkway between the guest cabana and the garage/dining room (yep, that’s what I said) to a white chair on the opposite side of the property. That white speck pulls the eyes toward it. “I want my outside to be more visible,” the designer says.
Liegeois starts on her quest to rework the author's home layout.
It’s hard to put too fine a point on it when I say I wasn’t excited about having Liegeois come to my home. And though I can’t be sure, my concerns seemed warranted when it looked as though she was going to call 1-800-CrimeStoppers as soon as she entered. Turns out that was just the wheels spinning in her head. “Well, your couch is blocking my view of your fabulous backyard,” she says as she walks past a too-large-for-the-space sectional and out onto the lanai, with her assistant, Pamela.
The writer's home "before" the designer arrived blocked guests from the sitting area and views out to the water.
It turns out that even the furniture on the lanai was blocking some of the views of the water and needed to be moved ASAP. In fact, Liegeois didn’t even bother to look around the rest of the house before sliding the chairs on the lanai out of the way and considering her options.
“You need to paint this area white and continue the color from the inside,” she says. (Like most people’s homes, my lanai came painted in the exterior color of the house: Florida beige.) And you need to paint the floor the same color as the screens to help guide the eye outdoors. That is unless you want to stain the concrete—then stain it the same color as the interior floors.”
Huh. OK. Three minutes into her visit and I’ve already lost control of the situation. I thought we’d be indoors. But after some rearranging out back, she finds herself inside contemplating the placement of the sectional. “You have the couch set up to take advantage of the view,” Liegeois says. “Most people do this. But you see the view from everywhere. You don’t need to see it from the couch. Most of the time when you are on the couch you’re watching TV or reading.”
Liegeois helps the author by moving furnishings around.
OK, right again. But if we move the couch around, won’t that block the view even more? Apparently not. After moving some remarkably heavy potted plants and spinning the couch around, it starts making sense. My concern was that it would block the sliding glass doors to the lanai, but Liegeois left it almost 4 feet from that wall—enough space, in fact, to slide in some decorative boxes that were on the other side of the room. On those boxes, she stacked books and magazines and moved a lamp from the dining area to on top of the books, giving height to the corner.
She then added more books and magazines to the back of the sofa, giving a new home to my chrome iguana. And, once she does that, it all starts making sense. Art on the wall layers down to the iguana and the magazines, which layer to the pillows, which layer to the couch. But what about a coffee table? It turns out we had one in the dining room, which she moved to the living room. On that she placed a tray with some candles from another part of the room.
“Doesn’t that look better?” Liegeois asks. “Now your eye is leading through the room and outdoors to that beautiful view. … But now you should take down those awful vertical blinds. They make that wall seem shorter.”
The next thing I know I’m on a ladder pulling down blinds that have likely hung there since the late ’90s. She then rummaged through the closets, finding framed artwork from my previous newspaper and magazine work that came down two years ago when we repainted. (Rehanging things is such a bother.) The next thing you know, she and Pamela have hung five pieces throughout the living and dining rooms at “5-foot center,” adding to the layers. “These are pieces that have meaning for you,” Liegeois says. “It’s important to have things displayed that are important to you.”
The "after" shows a space that is welcoming, stylish and free of vertical blinds.
Of course, Liegeois was also quick to point out a curtain rod in the dining area that had no curtains. And, by this point she had pulled out the dining room set (AKA outdoor furniture) that was in that space, and placed two of those chairs in the living room on either side of the TV. Thanks to the new arrangement, there was actually room for more seating. But, you might ask, what about the dining room?
Well, thinking outside of the box is where Liegeois shines. She took a 7-foot-long teak bench that resided in the kitchen and moved it into the dining area as a new table. “Now what you need to do is find some chairs and cut the legs off of them so they’re low,” she says. “It’ll be like a very cool sushi restaurant.”
I stared at her incredulously, convinced she was just messing with me until I turned and looked. I’m actually shopping for chairs right now that I can cut in half. Who would have guessed?