Tricks to Transforming a Room

Get the Look

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Story by Rick Cowan | Photography by Augie Salbosa Photography

A client inherited her father’s furnishings: an old couch with worn turquoise fabric, and a chipped and faded coffee table. Reupholstery and new coats of lacquer transformed them into keepers.

Spaciousness can make any home feel more luxurious. It’s a look you can achieve, even if you don’t have a lot of square footage. The trick is to lose the clutter and find the best arrangement for the rest.

Deciding What to Keep

Start by taking stock of what’s in your home. If there’s a piece you’re not using, if it’s become a “collector” item where everyone drops their stuff, put it on Craig’s list. Or take it to Habitat for Humanity—a great place to donate unwanted furnishings, and get a tax deduction while you’re at it.

But before you throw out what might be a quality piece, consider giving it a second life. Most older furniture was built from solid oak, which lasts longer than the pressboard that is the norm today. Reupholstering a worn old chair or sofa can transform it into a wonderful new piece that will last for years. Custom slipcovers are even more cost-effective; they’re washable, too.

If you’re not sure about the value of the piece, a good upholstery shop or an interior designer is a great place to start. If you’re choosing the upholsterer yourself, go in and see how the shop is organized, and what kind of fabric selection they carry. For furniture that gets a lot of use or sits outdoors, I recommend Sunbrella. It’s a durable, washable fabric that doesn’t fade, and comes in a variety of colors and patterns.

Away from the walls, chairs and sofas turn a large room into several intimate seating areas—each with great access to views.
Away from the walls, chairs and sofas turn a large room into several intimate seating areas—each with great access to views.

Sometimes, you can give a piece a completely different purpose. (When a certain short magazine editor moved to Maui, her partner built a couch from eucalyptus, for which she made cushions. Years later, when she decided to work at home, he dismantled the couch and used the wood to build a desk her size.)

Left: A client inherited her father’s furnishings: an old couch with worn turquoise fabric, and a chipped and faded coffee table. Reupholstery and new coats of lacquer transformed them into keepers.

Recently I was working with a client who wanted to redo her master suite, including custom-built closet doors. As we talked, she mentioned that her father had built some koa furniture that was big, clunky, and sitting in storage. “When I go,” she said, “my daughter will probably give it away.”

It wasn’t the greatest furniture, but her father had built it by hand. There was sentimental value—and a lot of lumber. “Let’s make the closet doors and a mirror frame out of it,” I suggested. We saved her money, and reclaimed an heirloom.

living room

Adding Missing Pieces

Once you’ve eliminated the clutter, you may find you want to add some new pieces. Have some fun. Mixing different styles of furniture can create a personal statement. I like to incorporate contrast. For example, if a sofa is plush, with a lot of upholstery, a more structured piece, like a wooden chair with a simple cushion, creates a nice yin/yang.

If you plan to buy furniture right off the showroom floor, do so before you reupholster, so new and old will harmonize. Bring along a photo of the piece you’re keeping, as well as its dimensions and that of the room it’s in. A good furnishings consultant can help you choose the chairs, coffee table or media armoire to create the look you want.

Position Is Everything

The way a room is laid out can be as important as the furnishings in it. A new arrangement can change not just the look, but the feeling of a space and how you move through it.

Be adventurous. There’s no rule that says couches have to go against a wall. Move them into the room to define a space within the larger space, to create an intimate seating area, or a walkway that redirects the traffic flow.

Be visionary. Here in the Islands, we’re blessed with beautiful views. Orient your furnishings to take advantage of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a couch pushed up against a window, away from the best view in the house!

And don’t be afraid to angle furniture—for example, angling your bed in a corner. You can fill the empty space with a large, lovely plant, or hang fabric with a lamp behind it to create mood lighting.

If you feel spatially challenged, you can consult a designer. Or try this simple tip to come up with your own design: Draw a scale floor plan of the room on graph paper, then measure your furniture and cut out blocks of paper, drawn to scale, and use them to move around the “room.” You can be as creative as you like, and you won’t have an aching back next day.

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