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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Want to Think Like a Decorator? Me, Too

Of all the brains I’d like to download into mine, the ones of talented top designers top my list. I would like to internalize their ability to see potential in pieces I thought were defunct, to provide solutions to problems I didn’t know existed, and to have the creative confidence to put a zebra print rug under a polka-dotted armchair.

So, when I got an advanced copy of “Think Like a Decorator,” (Rizzoli, March 28, 2023), I dove into its pages. Then I called the author, interior designer Leslie Banker. She opened our conversation by telling me she’d started her career as a writer, then swerved into design. Now she really had my attention.

Back in the 1990s, when Banker, now age 53, was fresh out of college with an English degree, she worked as a newspaper reporter. In 1999, she got an assignment that would set her in a new direction.

While helping her mom, interior designer Pamela Banker, set up an office for her growing design business, the younger Banker got a request from an editor. Would she consider writing a design book with her mother as the expert?

The mom-daughter duo put an outline together, made notes, and took a run at writing it. However, the subject felt too big and broad to get off the ground. They wound up publishing a smaller book on design terminology instead. Meanwhile, Banker continued working alongside her mom, and, yes, downloading much of her design acumen. When her mom died in 2013, Banker continued in the profession.

“Five years ago, I came across those old notes,” Banker told me. “Some were in my mom’s handwriting. I decided it was time.”

“Think Like a Decorator” came out last week.

In her new book, Banker, who lives in New York City and Jamestown, Rhode Island, with her husband and daughter, channels what she learned working alongside her mother and also applies her journalism skills interviewing other notable designers and sharing their insights.

She opens the book with a discussion of how her mom likened design to writing. “An interior designer must play the role of editor…. Being an editor on a design project is about knowing how to develop the story of the space.” I get that.

Woven among the book’s many of eye-popping photos that feature interiors Banker has created as well as ones from the designers she interviewed, is a narrative that reads as if you’re eavesdropping on the designers themselves.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways

· Don’t wing it. Good design is not instant or quick. Though it looks effortless, it’s highly edited. (Ditto with good writing, by the way.) You’ve got to do the thinking before you start. Don’t just buy a sofa and figure it out from there.

· Start with the essentials. Put function first. Every bed in the house needs a lamp next to it. The eating area should have a table big enough to seat everyone in the household. Everyone in the household needs a well-lit place to work. The door where household members come and go needs to have a place to hang coats and set down keys. Homes need adequate storage for clothing, books, and linens. If you don’t have enough room in the linen closet to store bedding and towels, add an armoire or chest.

· Address the mess. Good design is not just about picking palettes, combining fabrics, and arranging furniture. It’s about identifying and eliminating the pain points of a home: a room no one goes in because it’s drafty, a reading chair no one uses because the light is bad, a closet that stays a mess because it’s organized poorly, a home office you avoid because you can hear the television in the next room. Sometimes a $15 fix is all it takes. Be open to observing how things are and how they could be better. What’s important is not just how a home looks but how it lives.

· Use your words. Find three designers whose work you love. Study photos of their interiors and write down specifically what you like about what you see. Saying, “I don’t know why, I just like it” isn’t enough. Describe the vibe. Is it sophisticated and formal or casual and comfortable? Urban or rustic? Calm or playful? What materials and elements in the room contribute to the look: pine, bamboo, metal, glass, brass, leather, chrome, fur, stone, lacquer, silk. Deconstruct what you see to figure out why you like it, and how to get there.

· Drop anchor. After you have thought about the look you want “drop a few anchors.” An anchor might be a paint color you definitely want, a rug that has been in your family, or a wood finish that has the right character. An anchor might also be a feature of the room you can’t or don’t want to change, such as a stone floor or existing wallpaper. Use these anchors to guide the rest of the room. If your anchor is a rug, then the sofa fabric for that room should work with it. If it doesn’t, find another sofa fabric.

· Get offline: Go see things in person. “This was one of my mother’s golden rules,” Banker said. “We have gotten used to buying furniture online, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it is better to go talk to the furniture makers, dealers, or salespeople.” Get tangible samples. Put them in a box or tray dedicated for each project, and let the materials speak to each other.

· Think beyond paint. The walls of a room don’t have to be painted. Bring texture to the room by covering walls with wood, plaster, mirrors, wallpaper, or even upholstery. You want to think like a decorator? Come up options that aren’t obvious.

CAPTION: Dark on light —The dark mirror frame, wall art and strong black trim on the linens add contrast to this Rhode Island guest room, offsetting the softer colors and floral patterns. Photo courtesy of Max Kim-Bee.

COVER IMAGE: Interior Designer Leslie Banker's new book “Think Like a Decorator” (Rizzoli, March 28, 2023, 224 pages) is a how-to in decorating, featuring Banker’s tips and interiors alongside those of fellow designers.

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