Seven Layers of Design  


My Seven Layers of Design was developed over a six-year period in workshops with average Americans from all walks of life.   It started out as 168 layers and over time we whittled it down to seven simple phases that would become the centerpiece for the thousand hours of original lifestyle TV programming that would follow.  It’s goal is to get you through the design process while staying on budget and out of emotional overwhelm.  Below is a VERY quick overview to show you how a room is built from the outside onward.  Enjoy the flash from the past videos too!

 7 layersOverview video with Christopher  

Layer # 1 is paint and architectural embellishments: Paint is the cheapest way to transform any space and well worth the effort. The right paint colors will not only add great warmth and richness to any space but will help to visually tie together everything you own into a more cohesive look. Paint is also the great disguiser that can make unsightly things blend into the background or disappear altogether. I can use paint as a color-sculptor in your room to make them feel taller, shorter, more intimate or more spacious. In most cases you'll note I always include not just trim and wall colors, but the ceiling color too.


What we designers know is that the ceiling is really the third wall which can't be decorated with anything but paint and shadow. Also once having added rich color to the walls, leaving the ceiling white actually makes it look lower and totally unfinished like you've spread a bed sheet over the top of your walls. Architectural embellishments are moldings that add value to homes, but also a ton of charm and substance to any space. They, of course, go up first before painting commences. If I know you're a total novice, often I will recommend that you just put molding up on one wall end-to-end, so you don't have to do any intricate mitering.

Layer #2 is installed flooring: This is wall-to-wall installation, not area rugs which come later in the accent fabric layer.  In general, remember it's a background color and after you add the next five layers of stuff, how much of that floor are you really going to see? The same with tile or stone. Keep it SIMPLE. If you can't carpet or have nasty looking floors, try paint. A few coats of a smart color underfoot can be quite chic and cover a multitude of sins.


This completes the shell of the room. So if this exhausts your budget, this is a good place to stop, clean up and look forward to the real fun to begin next. While you wait to build up capital, this is an excellent time to really purge your environment of anything you don't use or that no longer applies to the life you'll be living in your new space. Remember if you could drag it in, you can drag it out. Rule of thumb, if you haven't used it in a year, you won't. Pay it forward to someone who could really use it. .

Layer #3 is high-ticket upholstery items: These are basically any oversized fabric covered pieces. In short, these are the room essentials. You can live without a doodad or an ottoman, but not a place to sit or sleeps. Yes, the bed is included here too since, once dressed, it becomes the biggest fabric-coverd thing to go into any room. It's why I like to keep spreads more texture driven as well. Things in this layer (even if they're stock items) generally require a longer lead time from store to space because of delivery so best to get the orders in early. When you choose your 'cover' for sofas and beds, and it looks too boring to you (especially with solid walls too), that's because all of them are backgrounds to which accents will be added later. Don't worry you can punch it up visually with accent fabrics, but that's the next layer. Right now it's best to focus on solid and textured fabrics rather than prints which are the first thing to date a room. So if they're already locked into a major investment piece, versus a smart throw pillow you can easily toss, you're screwed. Stay clear of too much embellishment. On sofas, for instance, too much contrasting piping, tassels, skirts, etc., can often date or earmark an item for use in only a particular (or themed) room. You want to be sure that if you move, that item can go into ANY room of the next place you call home.

Layer # 4 is accent Fabrics: This is where we can have fun with pattern. Graphics oversized prints. faux hides and textures for pillows, curtains, runners ect., knock yourself out! Because these statement fabrics will be confined to elements that are easily changed out, you can be as bold and dramatic as you'd like. The key here, is to make sure the pattern is balanced evenly throughout the space because it's the first thing the eye will go to as it surveys the room. It's why I'll often tell you to use, say the same fabric from the drapes, as additional throw pillows on chairs, beds or sofas, to bring the pattern from the shell of the room into the midsts of the room.


Statement area rugs fall into this layer too. They're just like accent fabrics just put under foot. While a bit more pricey, they're still cheaper to replace than flooring or wall-to-wall carpeting. Still if budgets are tight, it's best to stay a bit more muted but at least if you gotta have it big and bold, it's portable. Right? Even so, remember that by the time you pile furniture on it, what happens to the pattern? 

Layer #5 is non-upholstered furniture (or what I call the workhorses): Without coffee, end and side tables, or bookcases and chests, a room simply doesn't work. If you have no storage or surfaces, it's just not livable. This layer also includes accent chairs where there's little fabric other than seat covers. One of your main concerns in doing your while designing your room, is that there is enough surface where you need it. My rule of thumb is just within arm's length. So furniture placement here is key. One should not have to lunge forward to set something down. Rooms that work well need as much closed storage as open (or display) area. Some things should never be seen while others, displayed well can turn "organization" into an actual design element. In the accessory layer I'll talk more about containers.


The biggest mistake folks make with things like coffee tables they're never big enough. Even in small spaces, a few over scaled things work better than many smaller, light weight things. Remember the eye always sees what's in the room versus its size of it. It's why rooms always look bigger with furniture in them. Who knew? Right? So if you scale everything down to elf size, you'll feel like you're living in the land of the Lilliputians. Often I suggest overhead shelves in tiny bathrooms or one wall with floor-to-ceiling shelves (just done with standards and pine boards painted the same color as the walls so they look built-in). If so then this goes in layer number one as part of the architecture. To make a room really work hard, there are a lot of issues in this layer which is way it stands alone. 

Layer #6 is accessories: This is my favorite. It's where you can inject personal items like photos, books, and other icons that mean so much to you. This layer also covers all wall art, and that includes mirrors which are the great space stretchers of all time. Here the key is restraint. Less is best, and the art of good display is mostly about editing. Integrating the old and the new is the most artful part of the design process since it's where you really tell your personal story. I will say, it's a fluid process you'll be engaged in for the life of the space. You'll tweak, you'll reposition and in the end, you'll re-edit until you get down to the essentials you care about most. Over-accessorizing just to fill space is the amateur's insecurity. Rooms need to breath, and the eye needs to lite and rest. TMI can kill a great space.


Often just the new beautiful wall color is all that's needed and in your first phase will do more visual furnishing than you might think. Here, it's not what you pay, but how you group that makes all the difference. Remember just because you own it, doesn't mean it should be seen. Here "organization" as actual "design" comes into play with decorative containers that can elevate the most mundane of items into eye-candy. However, they are not to hide stuff you don't know what to do with. That's just making landfill.

Layer # 7 is plants and lighting: Shadow is an important, if not a critical aspect in creating an inspiring mood in the room. Sculpting with light can make cheap things look like museum finds and turn not so great stuff into dynamic silhouettes and shapes that can be poetic. Pools of light just where you need them, arcs of light on yummy wall color, and the flicker of candle light are what create spaces you and guests want to linger in. Today, it's a very inexpensive proposition to add this theatrical element to every room without ever calling an electrician. What makes the best ambiance is when as much light is shooting up from the floor as down from overheads and lamps. This can be achieved with a twelve-dollar can up-light available anywhere. That's where plants come into play.


An up-light placed below a small tree is what can furnishes your newly painted ceiling with soft shape and shadow that umbrellas you. Tabletop dimmers allow you to control lamps so the atmosphere day or night, reflects your mood. Faux plants today (thanks to digital reproduction) are no longer considered a no-no. Even of not real they still give a space the impression of something living and growing with fresh possibility.. .


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