Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Three Questions: Criteria for coming home with me!

When I first started decorating our house, it seems like I brought home anything and everything that caught my eye (within reason of course, as I am a natural born bargain hunter). 

After a short time back in the decorating world, I found my style was evolving so fast that things I bought last month didn't appeal any more.  I got confused in the shops and couldn't decide what was the "real" me.  I couldn't decide what I really liked or what was just a trend that had crept into my head after months of exposure.

So about a year ago,  I decided it was time to edit my purchases more carefully.  For lack of a better word, I was becoming very self-consciously existential about the act of shopping/buying.  And if I was going to spend my hard-earned cash, I wanted to buy things I really adored and wanted to hold onto for a while.  My style had evolved into something I would call "pared down traditional" or "clean historical" or perhaps simply "classic".  So I decided everything I bring into my home must answer "Yes!" to the following three questions:

1.  Is it Beautiful?

The interiors I find the most compelling are "beautiful" (think elegant, timeless, or handsome) not just pretty.  Beauty can be a hard quality to achieve on a budget.  I simply cannot always afford to buy the most beautiful thing, and many beautiful pieces (like really beautiful clothes), are expensive.  But I decided that things have to be "beautiful", or at least lovely and attractive, to my eye before coming home with me.  This quality really gets me thinking about a piece before I put it in my shopping basket.  Beautiful is a personal thing but my eye knows it when it sees it.  This crystal lamp I bought two years ago is truly beautiful to me (and so are those paintings) : 
And since finding a beautiful thing is so much more rare than just another pretty thing, I buy far less with this criteria in mind.  In fact, sometimes I don't buy anything for months, which fits with my new ethos of "slow decorating"

2.  Is it Classic?

You can insert your style in place of "classic" above, to remind you to keep your eye on your style and not bring home a lot of odd pieces that really don't fit in.  For me, classic style means several things but mostly that something is simple, elegant, historically inspired and often neo-classical in actual style.  I love neoclassically-inspired elements and interiors most of all, but I am also drawn to modern and rustic styles at times.  "Is it classic?" keeps my mind on the style I am trying to build on now.  So for the most part, I seek classic elements for the house, things I won't tire of, things that are timeless and that have an "old world" sort of look, an antique look but one that isn't too stuffy nor too busy. 

My china cabinet in the photo below meets the "classic" criteria, as does the lovely old etching I bought in Paris at the St-Ouen flea market (a second etching hangs on the far wall):

3.  Do I love it?

Let's face it, we all see things we like when shopping.  Sometimes I see things I really like and I am almost convinced I need them.  Then I ask myself "do you really love it"? Most of the time this question paralyses me, because the answer is no.  Again, this makes for a very slow decorating process, but since I am not a serial decorator, I am not too concerned if it takes me 10 years to put my house together!  And it drags out the fun of decorating as I look for very special pieces.

Our new dining room chandelier meets the "do I love it?" criteria.  I was desperate for a chandelier and almost brought home several I didn't truly, deeply, madly love.  Reminds me of dating.  But this crystal beauty had me at hello:
True love is rare.  Again, you will know it when you see it (and hopefully it won't cost $10,000). 

These are just my guidelines and frankly, I don't always follow them.  But at least now I remember to ask myself these three questions, to take a deep breath, a mental pause, and to think before I buy.  You can be flexible in your answers to these questions (or make up your own list).  After all, decorating is supposed to be fun, but these questions keep me on track and avoid a lot of wasted money.  Still, the reality is that sometimes a piece says "hi there" to your heart and makes you smile without meeting all the criteria, sort of like a gorgeous guy with no job.  My advice then: bring it home anyway.  Just take it back tomorrow. 

I will, however, make exception for the occasional "trend" piece that seems to wake up your interior or modernize your look without breaking the bank.   

So a fourth question might be:

4.  Is this an Interesting Update?

This item may be just what's needed to update a space, even if you don't ADORE it.  So while I don't sanction this "one night stand" approach to decorating, it can be an awful lot of fun and make you feel very hip and young, and hopefully not leave a trail of broken hearts... 

Now for some examples...

Example 1:  I bought this wire basket a while back, to update my sideboard, which was feeling a little tired.  This basket was a "one night stand".  It isn't classically beautiful, but it spoke to me and I grow to like it more each day.  It answered the missing fourth question, which was "is this an interesting update?": 
Example 2:  The sketch in the photograph below met all three of my criteria. It was a great find.  It is beautiful and classic and I love it.  The night tables, however, did not meet all my criteria, but I didn't have time to wait forever to find the perfect pieces and don't live in a great shopping city for traditional furniture.  So I bit the bullet and bought something temporary.  These pieces were affordable and are classic.  They are pretty, if not beautiful.  I don't love them but I like them enough to tide me through the next, say, 5 years: 
 Example 3:  I just framed this old sketch.  I have a penchant for black and white sketches, if you haven't noticed.  This old sketch ticks all the boxes for me:
Example #4:  In Paris I bought this taupe quilt (very expensive) and this little pillow (very inexpensive), both of which tick all the boxes.  My Mission bed frame is beautiful and classic but I don't love it like I once did.  Still, it is timeless and though it doesn't thrill me doesn't bother me either:
Example #5:  Something as simple as a bathroom hook needs to meet the criteria too.  As I slowly replace ugly things in my home with nicer ones, I like to use the same criteria for the little things too.  This hook, from Printemps in Paris, ticks all the boxes (as much as a hook can):
Example #6:  When we sought to buy a new living room chair, I wanted something small and comfortable for this spot.  I realized the old chair we had already ticked two of the boxes more or less.  It was pretty and classic and very comfortable.  I didn't LOVE it but I certainly couldn't find anything I liked better for the price of reupholstery (about $800).  Sometimes you have to be sensible about things.  So I picked a fabric that I love and now we have a chair we love:
So in summary, my three questions are:
Is it beautiful?
Is it classic (or whatever style you are trying to stick to)?
Do I love it?

And a bonus question if something seems to resonate with you:
Is this an interesting update?  Something with a little contrast from your usual style to create a little tension.

Do you have a set of criteria for things you buy to decorate your home?  
Must be under $100?  Must be antique?  Must be repurposed?  Must be modern?  Must be white?

Do share...


  1. This is really terrific advice. When we first moved out on our own I had the problem of buying too much just to fill the space too and have now tried to slow down and really think about things. For me, it has to speak to me, I must love it. Everything I've bought that I "love" go great together..so I ask myself wether I really truly love it or not.

  2. hi terri,

    so much to say here. first though, the pics of the house look beautiful. your classic style is shining through each and every picture!

    that 4th question is a zinger b/c the idea of a little update is what drives me crazy. i don't consider myself a serial decorator either i can get caught up in the "newest" fabric/pillows/rugs/etc. these are the things that wind up in the basement b/c i quickly tire of them. i'm learning to not give in to that impulse any longer. when i need a fix, i'll buy a bunch of flowers instead b/c every room looks better with them and then once they die i don't have to store them.

    i love this article and i'm going to save it to my favorites to refer back to when i'm getting that urge to splurge.


  3. Oh Terri, this is lovely advice. And I NEEDED to hear it. I often buy things, place them in my home (with price tags still attached) then look at them for a few days...then end up returning them.
    Seriously, I'm wasting so much money on car fuel...and wasting so much time on driving back and forth for returns.

    Great advice. I'll write this on a notecard and make myself check off at least three of the four items before making a purchase. This will definitely help.

    BTW - has botox been working for you? I've been thinking about your nasty headaches and hoping you've found some reprieve.

  4. Must be cheap as dirt...

    This is great advice, Terri. You should submit this for publishing in a decorating magazine, it's that good. And I'll try to remember them, too. Maybe I better take notes.

  5. wonderful sentiments, terri. I do try to run some of those questions thru my head before buying and it does work. I have even stopped going into certain stores, because when I think of their inventory, I can already say 'no' to all of the questions...

    it does help!

  6. oh Terri, your post made my heart sing with glee ~ you'll always be my favorite one night stand girl...

  7. Thank you for this great advice...and I'm sure my husband will thank you for it too :)

    We are not yet in our forever home, and are living in a smaller apartment. So for larger purchases, it has to be adaptable, or multifunctional. For example, we have an antique trunk that acts as a funky coffee table, and duals as storage for dvds, board games, and extra blankets. In our previous apartment, the same trunk was flipped up on its side, and used as a catch-all in the entrance way for keys/mail/sunglasses etc. I look for pieces that I know can be moved from room to room to solve whatever issues our "next place" might have.

  8. I love your three questions Terri. My questions are similar. I also try to walk around a bit before making my purchases these days. Now that I buy for the shop as well, I'm working on not being too impulsive.
    I think your chair looks great in its new upholstery. Yes, sometimes we have to be a bit more sensible!


  9. Such good questions for me to ponder as I decorate my house! I definitely need to love it and feel like I'm having an 'aha moment' before I buy it, it's hard to wait to find the right thing though I'm so impatient to get it done now!!

  10. Great advice Terri! I too, have taken a more sensible approach to my decor shopping and pretty well follow your three criteria. It can be a little painful to leave something behind. But I look at it like I'm saving for that really "special" purchase by not buying EVERYTHING I see. Hubby is happy too :)!

  11. Hi Terri,
    Of course I'll echo what has been said - great article and great advice. Adele and I live by this as our place is stocked to the rafters with antiques and whatnot. She's always calling saying, "Honey, you can't believe what I just found!" and I basically repeat what you wrote to her. :) SOmetimes it's really hard walking away from absolutely great buys just because you no longer have the room for it.

    Hope those headaches vanish forever. Nasty things they are.


  12. LOVED this post - very informative and inpirational. Now, if I can just keep these things in mind when I go shopping!