Seven Secrets to Great Design

Designer Mary Cook shares her formula for creating harmonious interior spaces.

Ever wonder why a room just doesn’t feel right?

Designer Mary Cook experienced it countless times when she was called in to fix spaces that, for reasons the clients couldn’t put their fingers on, just weren’t working.

Finally, she said to her colleague: “You know, it’s just seven things. The exact same seven things, over and over again, were what was out of balance.”

The realization led her to develop her seven fundamentals of design. Together, they form the trademarked concept she calls The Art of Space. It doesn’t matter what your style is. It doesn’t even matter what your budget is. When these seven fundamentals are in place, she says the result is harmonious design—every single time.

“You can feel it. It elevates your emotions,” says Cook, president of Mary Cook Associates Inc. based in Chicago. And once she started implementing her fundamentals, “really cool things started happening. People started buying homes, joining clubs where membership had been static, paying more for hamburgers and not complaining.”

Locally Cook has partnered with M/I Homes, and you can see her Art of Space concept at work if you visit model homes in three of their communities. She also expects to have a new book out in time for the 2012 holiday season. In the meantime, here’s a quick guide to her seven fundamentals so you can get started improving the balance and harmony in your own interiors.

1. Objective
Start with a clear objective of what you want the room to do for you. If you’re not currently using the room much, or if you’re not that comfortable in the room when you do use it, ask yourself why. Remember to think outside the box to all the potential uses—it’s not just a family room, for example, it’s homework-central on school nights, a home office on weekdays, a sophisticated entertaining space on the weekends, and maybe even a guest room at Thanksgiving.

“There isn’t a right or a wrong. It’s what you want for your home, for your family,” Cook says. “The better you define that, the better your results are going to be.”

2. Function and Livability
This always starts with a plan—a real plan on paper, with actual measurements, not a general guesstimate of what you think you want. Start two-dimensionally with the floor space and make sure every inch of space is measured out. Then bring it up and examine the wall space.

Then, refer back to Objective and list the furniture items you’re going to need to make the room functional and livable: an 84-inch pullout sofa for when your sister comes to visit, a desk that can accommodate the kids’ Mac and your PC, a place to store 200 books.

3. Scale and Proportion
Cook calls this the “soul” of the project, and it’s the most important and most difficult part to execute. You’re going for “a pleasing interaction between the size of things and their relation to the room and to the other things in the room.”

The whole project can unravel if you get attached to something that is ill-proportioned for the space. If there’s any doubt, bring your plan in to an expert and enlist their help in choosing the right size piece.

4. Light
There’s a tendency to think about lighting at the accessories and decorating stage, but light is actually an extension of both Objective and Function. In order for the room to fulfill its purpose, you need the appropriate lighting. First look at your available natural lighting, then see what you need to add in the way of task lighting for work, mood lighting for entertaining, etc.

5. Color

Color is the most impactful element—it’s used to inspire activity, to define space, to subdue a mood. You’ve got your functional elements in place, and now it’s time to get the ambience right. Color is considered an “enhancer,” along with the next fundamental:

6. Pattern and Texture
Along with Color, Pattern and Texture add richness and dimension, define space, and set the mood for the room. Up until now, we’ve been focused on what we want the room to do. This is where we set how we want the room to feel.

7. Significant and Relevant Ornament
Accessories are so essential for tying a look together that she sometimes devotes as much as 50 percent of the budget to this fundamental. However, she emphasizes “significant and relevant” because she’s seen a well-executed design go completely awry with too many accessories. You may find things that you absolutely love, but be careful about accumulating too many of them—they can dismantle proportion and function.

Ready to begin? Make sure you don’t skip any of the steps. The harmony, Cook says, comes not from the steps themselves but from the interaction between them.

“It’s just like a recipe,” Cook says. “If you deconstruct it, the ingredients are all critical but it’s the interaction of them together that makes the magic.”

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Photos courtesy of Mary Cook and M/I Homes, Charlotte, NC, (top) and Cincinnati (middle and bottom)

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