Back-to-basics decorating: Start with favorite things

To make it personal, start with something you love: a painting, a photograph, a rug, a shell, a pillow, a glass jar, a quilt, anything.

I was talking to a friend the other day who was despairing that she couldn't decorate her apartment. I asked her what she had that she really loved. It turns out there was a sofa her husband had refinished himself, a hutch they had found in an antiques store, a beautiful green marble tabletop in the attic at her mother's and lots of family pictures. Within minutes we had sketched out a way to rearrange her whole apartment to feature these cherished things and build around them.

I'm a big believer in high-low. Expensive and cheap. It is worth spending some money on one nice piece that you can showcase and really cherish. Then you can augment that with flea market used furniture, and it looks as though you have eclectic taste.

In our living room, we have some beautiful things my husband inherited. There are also three large patchwork pillows I bought in a market in Iran nearly 40 years ago for 25 cents.

Interesting and unusual objects are key. Look at items you've brought back from trips. You can take a cheap Mexican pottery vase and put it under a glass case, and people will think it's a pre-Columbian artifact. Frame a quilt and hang it on the wall, and it looks like art. Group together things that you have collected to make them look more interesting. Get a picture light and hang it over a painting you got at an auction, and it will look as though it's something really important.

Get inexpensive basic fabrics for the main pieces of furniture in solid colors, and then spruce them up with silk-tasseled pillows or with patterned fabrics for a small skirted table.

There are no rules

Books, book, books. We have thousands of books. We are drowning in books. We have books from our college days, books people have given us, books we've bought and books we will never have time to read. It doesn't matter. They are the single easiest and most satisfying way to decorate a room. They fill it up with color and warmth and humanity in a way nothing else can. Even if you have to pile them on cinder blocks, books give you an instant home.

Color can make all the difference. You can change a room overnight just by putting a fresh shade on the walls. In the old days it was safe to paint everything white. Benjamin Moore Linen White is the perfect warm off-white, which I use mostly on woodwork, and I paint rooms rose or blue or green or yellow. I prefer softer colors, but if you're a fire engine red person, go for it.

There are no rules. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something. It's your home. You can do anything you want. If you read magazines in which decorators give their rules, you'll be schizophrenic by the end and too terrified to make a decorating decision. Curtains are in, curtains are out, rugs are in, rugs are out, color is in, neutrals are in. It's ridiculous. Nothing is ever out if it pleases you.

Don't strive for perfection. Nothing is perfect. Life is not perfect. You are not perfect. And if you have something in a room that doesn't quite work, it makes everyone feel more comfortable.

Break out of the mold

Everything needn't be in the same style. In fact, it shouldn't be. Oriental rugs go with everything, or you can use sisal rugs with Oriental throw rugs if you can't afford a big one. We have antique lamps and glass lamps, acrylic tables, steel picture frames, modern china and antique china, arts and crafts things, art decor, Victorian and Federal furniture. It all looks so much more interesting when things are mixed together.

Rooms should all look as though they belong in the same house.

It's my bread-crumb theory of decorating, like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs so they could find their way home. Each room in a house should have a color, a piece of furniture, a lamp, wallpaper or fabric that echoes what is in the adjoining room. So, for instance, if you have yellow walls in one room, you might want to put yellow pillows or a yellow lamp in the next. It's so satisfying to look through two or three rooms in a house and see the little bread crumbs of design that pull it all together.

"Where do they sit?" That's the first question that comes to mind when I walk into someone's house. I once asked that of someone who had a perfectly decorated but sterile apartment. She looked completely baffled. But really, there was no place you wanted to put your feet up and have a conversation. There was no place you wanted to actually live.

A home needs to be livable. A house is not necessarily so. Livable means that in every room, there should be a place where you want to curl up and be cozy. It's always amazing to me how so many people have "living" rooms that look as though nobody lives in them. Today, with living space so scarce, it really doesn't make sense for people to have a room they don't use.

Use the living room

Warren Buffett once laughed about how he had an exercise bicycle in his living room. That's a lot better than having furniture nobody wants to sit on. I do my exercises in the living room and keep my equipment tucked away behind the sofa. People spend fortunes decorating their living rooms and then set foot in them only a few times a year for entertaining. It reminds me of people putting plastic covers over their good furniture.

Keep it cozy. To me, that means comfortable furniture (if you want to look at stick furniture, go to a museum), down-filled if possible, soft, plump pillows and throws over every armchair.

The lighting should be good for reading but at three levels so you can turn it down for atmosphere. No glaring overhead lights. They're not flattering to anybody. Pink light bulbs are great. They make everyone look beautiful.

I don't think any room can be really cozy without a rug, particularly a bedroom. One grande dame I know had her bedroom floors hand-painted by a master artist. It was sublime: birds, flowers and butterflies all over. But all I could think of was getting out of bed putting my feet on a cold, bare floor.