Sara’s House: The Design Process…Part II (Time to Pick Some Furniture)

Amber Interiors Client Tupac Meets Biggie To Decorate The Diggies 33
design by amber interiors | photo by tessa neustadt

Welcome to our latest blog experiment where one of my designers (Velinda) became the official designer to Sara, my head of production. Sara and her boyfriend Mac bought a house and frankly needed help. As a reminder, I thought it would be fun to really show you the design process from both sides. I also knew it would be great experience for Velinda as she builds her portfolio for her own future clients. So we (including me, Emily) get to sit back and watch…today, it’s the design board presentations. Let’s go.

Velinda here, and welcome back to Sara’s house. After a bit of gutting and lots of measuring, we’re about to dive into the fun part!

Residential design collaborations are usually fun because they’re so intimate. And they’re challenging because they’re so intimate. Unlike many commercial projects, the spending of every dollar is felt, so each decision is under severe scrutiny and debate. Often there’s more than one person fighting for a presence within this space they call “home.” It’s not uncommon to get 10 pm, worried texts from a second-guessing client. (Note: Sara, this isn’t permission to do this.) The faint of heart sometimes deem residential clients “not worth the hassle.” But each project is as varied as the client, so the job stays spicy. And in the end, you get to hand over a finished canvas to someone who cares passionately about the space and sees themselves in the details. That’s what we’re hoping for here, as we delve into visual concepts and sourcing.

When I initially met with Mac and Sara for a full low-down of wants and needs, I learned art has been their biggest fight (to mix or not to mix styles) and in their last apartment, Sara won. (She’s a stubborn one.) But they both love mid-century lines and vintage rugs. Sara described wanting a “fresh, traditional, warm, curated, minimal space.” Mac is hoping for a space that’s “inviting, intentional, sharp, comforting and lit.” I’m pretty sure he actually means “light,” not “drunk (or maybe it’s just what the youths are saying?),” but just to cover our bases, a bar of some kind is definitely in the works! They really see themselves using these two spaces as entertaining areas for playing games with friends or cuddling by the fire.

One of the first things we did together as designer and client was scroll through inspiration images they had both approved of and previously pinned, and I had them talk me through what from each image they were drawn to. I think it’s important to note that while a client might pin a room it doesn’t necessarily mean they love everything in the room; they might like airy feel, or the color palette, but not the actual furniture in the space. Here are some pins from their “Dining Room” board:

Sara&mac Pinspirations Dining Room 1
from left to right: design by carter design | photo by joe schmelzer, design by katie hodges | photo by haris kenjar, design by amber interiors, design & photo by the lisbonas

From these pins, I picked up a lot of traditional vibes, a pretty stark lack of color (they both tend to lean very minimal in their color palette), and a bright fresh, organic feel overall… but with punches of black.

Moving onto some images they pinned for the living room:

Mac&sara Inpirations Living Room 1
from left to right: design by amber interiors | photo by tessa neustadt, design by Catherine Kwong, design by unknown

They seem to both be drawn to images where textures are mixed in rather than mixing lots of different colors or patterns. And again, strong traditional aesthetics with hits of minimal modern.

I kept their boards open to refer to throughout this phase of the design, checking back frequently to see if concepts felt on track, even if they presented new spins on their own ideas. And I always want the finished space to fit their desired description, so I checked back in with their questionnaire along the way, too.

Again, there are great samples and explanations about creating initial boards in our recent “Design Process” post, so I won’t go into a ton of explanation on what we’re doing in this step of the process. In short, here’s where the shopping starts. I immediately turned to some of our favorite go-to sources (Article, Lulu & Georgia, AllModern, Rejuvenation, Clad Home, and Sunbeam Vintage to name a few), hunting for pieces that fit the vibe and that I thought might excite my duo. Since Mac and Sara aren’t planning on repurposing much of what they currently own for these two spaces due to size constraints (don’t worry, all previously loved furniture is going to good homes), I approached concepts by seeking high-impact/anchoring pieces first to build the rooms around. I also knew two important things:

  • Mac and Sara are both Team Vintage Rugs (and, like me, they like a dining room rug! Gotta protect those new wood floors)
  • Sara had already picked out two pieces for the dining room: A bar cabinet and this pendant light (which she bought months ago)

Rugs felt like the best “design-guiding” place to start, due to Mac and Sara’s love for them. It can be hard to find a vintage rug in the right colors and size needed, much less two that work together. Another aspect that makes shopping for vintage rugs tough is the fact that they’re often odd sizes and listed under general broad size categories (i.e.: “Area Rugs” or “Large”). We knew the exact sizes we needed (thanks to spatial planning!), so I started by shopping Esmaili Rugs because they have a site feature that lets shoppers sort by exact sizing. I made a rug options board within a couple of minutes.

How did I do this? Am I a Photoshop magician? No, my friends. While I still use Photoshop skills for final presentations, back when I started at EHD, Brady (uh EMILY actually) taught me the trick of using Keynote or Google Slides to make fast vision boards for the designer as they home in on designs. It saves so much time (and money for my clients) because it’s easy to just drag and drop/easily crop, without spending extra time cutting out backgrounds in Photoshop for every object being considered. Keep in mind these aren’t the final boards, just process concepts. Photoshop comes back into play to make things pretty to present to the client.

Speaking of, remember when I said some designers avoid taking individual clients at all… well, I couldn’t get away from mine! My “client” (boss) was always just a pane of glass away (and was often sending me links to stunning sofas far too large for their space). And stubborn lil’ Sara couldn’t resist peeking over my shoulder. No pressure. So this (typically private) part of the process got a little incestuous. Normally clients would see two, maybe three design concepts with everything perfectly cut out to really help them visualize. But it didn’t seem fair that Sara was getting all these sneak peeks while Mac was all the way in Culver City everyday, so if Sara was going to get to see these so was Mac. In the end it wasn’t actually that bad, and I was able to get pretty instant feedback on my initial directions, which looked something like this: 

Concept #1

Design Options 1 New

Concept #2

Design Options 2 New

These first two options both present a dark rug in the dining room and lighter in the living. The dark green square in the dining room area serves as a reminder of the moody color they’re leaning towards painting the TV room, which will be visible from both the living room and dining room. It’s a small house and the design should all speak to each other, even if there are variations. Concept #1 has a smaller sofa and really is suited to the space. The longer, leather sofa is low and lacks an arm, so it’s not as visually heavy as a lot of larger sofas. I already knew Sara wanted a rectangular dining table big enough for six, so I made sure to source big tables perfect for game nights (concept 1 & concept 2) It was already determined through layout planning that we wanted a bench and I loved the one in these boards due to the fact that it has a back (comfort), minimal lines (sleek) and a lighter tone to speak to the hutch and lighter rug tones. Concept one’s dining chairs have a mid-century feel. In concept two, I choose chairs that have more organic shape.

Feedback For Concepts 1 & 2:

Sara and Mac agree that they like the green pops of both designs and were open to something bold like a velvet green sofa, which I wasn’t sure would meld with their request for minimal (but liked a lot given it’s a craftsman house). Mac didn’t love the blue tones in the rug of Concept 2 as much as Sara did. The very simple/neutral living room chairs in Concept 1, while pretty, didn’t end up feeling like their vibe. If we went with a layout that includes chairs, Mac would prefer something dark. Sara, at this point, still leaned slightly toward a chaise/daybed. They both dug an arched mirror but leaned towards the more modern metal framed mirror.

For these next two boards, I swapped rug tones and placed a darker rug in the living room with a lighter rug in the dining room. Since they rarely eat at the dining table and board games don’t often stain fabric, I feel pretty safe about going light in the dining room:

Concept #3

Design Options 3 New

Concept #4

Design Options 4 New

In Concept 3, knowing Mac would be excited by as much black as possible, I explored black chairs in the dining room. However, seeing the dark chairs with a dark cabinet and a dark pendant was a lot of DARK. The white sofa in the living room is actually a chaise, which I love, but it’s really more to show the concept/feel. It’d actually be oddly deep for their tiny space. If they loved the idea and feel of it, there’s always the option of something custom. But how cool are those chairs in concept 4? They’re wood and leather, so I can’t imagine anything more “sharp,” for Mac. Plus, they’re narrow and low, providing plenty of visual flow space between the living room and dining room (which is what a chaise would provide).

Feedback For Concepts 3 & 4:

Mac was obsessed with the lounge chairs in Concept 4. I showed him an option with the leather in a lighter caramel tan, too, but he was hooked on black at first sight. He also loved the black dining chairs. And the dark rug. Basically, if it all could be black, Mac’s in. Sara also loved the chairs, but I positioned her to be on my side with “it can’t all be black.”

Concept #5

Design Options 5 New

Concept #6

Design Options 6 New

These two concepts are where I wandered the most. “But…do you like yellow? What about a really modern pop of color for a coffee table?” The bench/lounge in Concept 5 is a perfect size, but ultimately, our power couple (Mac + Sara = “Sarmac?”…sounds like an ointment. “Macara?” Let’s just round up to “Mascara”)—Mascara had become pretty obsessed with the chairs from Concept 4. Which meant we finally had a layout decided on! Sofa across from two chairs it is. Finally, in Concept 6, I explored all neutral rugs since they specified wanting “fresh and light.”

Feedback For Concepts 5 & 6:

Sara nixed an all-neutral rug concept and while she loved the yellow sofa in style, she would prefer to stick to blues and greens. Mac reiterated his leaning away from blues…and then he broke my heart. That gorgeous, theoretical “we gotta find this vintage piece” photo displayed in most of the boards? He let me know he doesn’t want anything that “solid” for the bar area. Instead, he’d prefer a cart. I pushed back a baby-bit, pointing out a vintage “cart” doesn’t take up much visual space, so it doesn’t quite serve as the “vintage heart” of the room in the same way. I love modern and I love new, but I think we gotta have that unattainable quality that comes from something that’s seen some sh*t, too. So we agreed that we’d still look for a vintage bar cart option and find other way to bring in a bit more “old” in some of the remaining details (like original art and accessories).

Just for fun, let’s examine the varying styles in communicating preferences:

Mac: “I’m actually into this vibe, not sure if it is too big to bridge the gap between living and dining rooms, but I like the utility—don’t like light gray.” … That’s incredibly helpful, Mac, I hadn’t considered how much you care about utility before, but now know exactly how to adjust. Brilliant!

And then Sara: “LIKE ALL CHAIR OPTIONS” or “NOT AS INTO THIS”…uhhh, Sara that’s…equally helpful? Sara’s worked in production too long, and really knows how to cut to the chase. ::palm slapping face emoji::

The slab of clay has been tossed, the general form carved out and now after all the peeking over the shoulders, I think I know how to adapt. It’s time to start carving in the details, hopefully with a balance of his and her preferences.  But you’re going to have to come back to see the final design choices…next week! In the meantime, let’s look at all options all together in case you wanted to, I don’t know…study them?

Design Options 1 6 Updated Grid

See you next week for the final design board. ::waving emoji::

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