Mary’s Story

50-ish, with a successful law practice. Divorced, with 2 children now living on their own. She had been living in her charming, cottage style home in the suburbs for about 8 years.

The Symptoms:
With a home that was now “her own”, Mary hired someone to update the living and dining rooms, which were one open to one another. She admitted using someone based on price and convenience (they lived in the same town) but said that she absolutely hated what had been done. She said her home just didn’t feel like her anymore and she was sick over the money spent on things she could not stand to look at. She said she liked what she had before so much better.

When I asked her how this happened she said that she was hesitant when the selections were presented, but she did not listen to her gut and speak up. Instead, she ignored her instincts and told herself that the “decorator” knew what she was doing. She kept quiet but when it was installed, she hated it. Mary called the decorator and asked what could be done. She replied, “What do you mean you don’t like it. I think it looks great!”.  It was a classic case of a so-called design professional “decorating” to their tastes, instead of the needs and tastes of the client.

Mary was so out of sorts by the impact this situation was having on her life. She felt she no longer had a charming house where she could relax and unwind from her long days at work.  She didn’t even want to be there and kept her eyes half closed as she came home every night. She called me out of desperation, having resolved herself to thinking we’d have to chuck everything and start from scratch.

The Diagnosis:
When I arrived I was immediately struck at the awkward layout. It was a generous space but had to accommodate both living and dining furniture. In addition to the front door (which entered directly into the space) there were 2 other doorways leading to other parts of the house bisecting the space.

The “decorator” had flipped the living and dining spaces so the heavy dining table was sitting right there when you walked in the front door. This visually stopped the eye and felt crowded before I was fully in the room.  She had devoted the largest part of the space to accommodating a dining table and 6 chairs, which only got used once or twice a year.

When I scanned the room I noticed that the 2 largest pieces of furniture, a huge antique clock and a display cabinet were situated close to one another on the smallest walls. This made the space feel unbalanced and the antiques looked like they didn’t belong.

The smallest amount of space was devoted to the “living room” area.  It had the 2 doorways there making the layout un-inviting and the furniture lined the walls like a dentist’s waiting room. Who in the world would want to sit there and have a glass of wine with a friend or take a nap on a Sunday afternoon?

The Treatment:

First thing we did was to flip the layout back, centering the sofa and chairs around the cozy fireplace. We brought the display cabinet down along the largest wall to anchor and visually define the “living room”. The space immediately felt better and I could see Mary’s optimism returning as each adjustment was made.

We took out the leaves to make the dining table a small round one and put it in the corner of the room between the 2 doorways. It could seat 4 if need-be, yet it didn’t impede the traffic pattern.  A small mahogany chest grounded the space and implied that this was the “dining room” without the bulky furniture.

Across from the table was a large window with a radiator under it. The space was made even smaller by the walkway from living room to kitchen. There were not too many furniture choices that made sense. I took 2 upholstered chairs (that coordinated with the living room upholstery) and set them under the window. The radiator cover acted as a table between them, perfect for a lamp and some picture frames. We were actually able to create a 3rd little area that invited one to sit down and visually connected the living and dining “rooms”.

I cleared all the surfaces of what I refer to as “accessory clutter” (candles, knick knacks, etc) that do nothing to enhance the space. The “art” that the decorator used was perfectly matched to the décor and lacked any personality. When I walked around Mary’s house I noticed that she had some great original pieces of art. She lit up telling me about the artists that she had collected and showed me some of the most amazing pieces she had tucked away in her bedroom (where she could only enjoy them for 3 seconds as she climbed into bed!). When we added art that really reflected her tastes the rooms immediately lit up. All of the sudden we could see who really lived there. It was not the old decorator, it was not me. It was Mary’s house and she was able to feel at home again.

In the end, she did not have to start from scratch as she had imagined. By putting all the right things in the right places her furniture made sense and even looked better than she had remembered. I left her with a very short shopping list of things to complete the space. Knowing exactly what she needed left her confident that she would not be wasting any more time or money.

The Breakthrough:

The “Mary” I met when I first arrived was one with a sense of “heaviness” about her. She was lovely and intelligent, but I could tell she was gun shy and mentally exhausted from the first experience. I know she was questioning whether she would ever see her own style or hear her own inner voice again. The “Mary” that I left that afternoon seemed like a different woman. Laughing and visibly more relaxed, the light was coming back to her personality and her face. It was as if a dark cloud had finally been lifted and she could feel the sunshine.


I just got a very nice note from Mary telling me that this was the best therapy for her, and her house. She said that she sat in her living room for hours that evening, and for the first time in a very long time she was able to think clearly about things.  As order and balance returned to her home, so too was it returning to her thoughts.  She said that she had always toyed with the idea of moving into the city when she became an empty nester. She was now able to start weighing whether or not that was what she really wanted to do. Now, if she decided to move she knew it was not because she was running from a problem, but running toward the next chapter in her life. If she decided to stay, she knew her home would continue to support the life she wanted to live there.

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