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How to Decorate an Empty Space

This article is part of our Design special section on how looks, materials and even creators evolve.


I recently relocated and took with me basically nothing. What’s the best strategy to fill up an apartment? Should I buy everything at once? Or wait and build it out?

Even if you can afford to buy everything at once, it probably is not a great idea, because you risk ending up with a showroom look, which is never appealing. The goal is to be your authentic (and perhaps contradictory) self, not to buy into someone else’s one-size-fits-all uniformity.

So aim for a home that looks like it was assembled over time. And the best way to achieve that — short of hiring people to scour online auctions, rural flea markets and vintage shops — is to take the time. Buy pieces you love and want to keep around. Enjoy the process of discovery. Find inspiration in your travels.

To create some coherence, before you start out, decide on an overall style and color scheme. Make mood boards from magazine clippings, visit blogs, comb through Instagram and roam décor stores, antiques markets and garage sales. Using these inspirations, lay a foundation of basic items like a sofa, coffee table, dressers and the largest table your kitchen will accommodate — it can function as dining area, workstation, extra counter space and family hub. The rest will follow.

Oh, and you’ll need a mattress (perhaps I should have led with that?). It’s expensive, but it has a major advantage: No one will see it, so it doesn’t have to match anything that comes later.

My pullout guest bed is in the middle of the living room (as they often are). I’m a renter and can’t do anything structural, but I would like to make the area more private for guests.

Consider a folding screen. It can solve a multitude of problems, and add a dash of glamour to your home. While the screen can’t replace an actual wall or door, it can be very effective at creating the illusion — or delusion — of separation.

Positioning a screen in front of a drafty window creates a cozy spot for an armchair (in French, folding screens are called “paravents,” or “wind blockers”). Or you can use one to filter out an unattractive view without cutting off the light. A screen in a corner prevents the divan in front of it from “floating” in space. In a large room, a central screen allows you to delineate a small seating area (or space for a sleeping guest).

Almost any material is fair game for a screen. The Italian-Danish team GamFratesi wove leather into geometric patterns for screens by Poltrona Frau, available in two-, three-, and four-panel models, from $7,150. Alvar Aalto did a wood-slat version in 1936 for Artek ($2,375 from Finnish Design Shop), and in 1946, Charles and Ray Eames designed a screen in molded plywood for Herman Miller (on sale for $3,295 from Hive at press time). For screens in nearly any style and pattern, 1stDibs is a veritable treasure trove.

I’d like to install a marble countertop in my kitchen but want to know: Is marble really sustainable?

Marble itself is extraordinarily durable and will probably outlast you, your kitchen, your house and your children. It is a natural material, taken out of the earth, and the supply doesn’t seem to be in danger of running out any time soon. Major points for that.

However (and this is a big “however”), quarrying marble requires an enormous amount of energy and water, and the process can create waste in the form of off cuts (oddly shaped leftover pieces) and copious dust. Many coveted types of marble come from Italy — including the city of Carrara, where the block from which Michelangelo’s David was carved. But transporting something so weighty burns up a lot of fuel. If you are building something with a long intended life span, marble might be a good choice. But if you’re working on a countertop you plan to replace in five to 10 years, you might want to consider alternatives.

Or at least cut the distance that the marble needs to travel and buy American. The Vermont Danby quarry is in New England, and marble produced there was used to build the Jefferson Memorial.

I’m doing a renovation and would like to upgrade everything — including my light switches. But a recent trip to Home Depot was uninspiring. Everything looks the same — and cheap. Any suggestions?

There are plenty of switches out there that are a huge step up from the ones you’ll find in typical home center inventory. What sets these switches apart is a serious reduction in plastic. Many are made of stainless steel or brass; they are pleasant to touch. Instead of modern rocking toggles, which seesaw from off to on, they operate with levers that have a substantial feel and a very rewarding “click.” Likewise, dimmers operate with satisfying metal knobs.

Forbes & Lomax offers lever, knob, and push-button switches, as well as a so-called Invisible Lightswitch, which combines a metal switch with an acrylic plate. (Plastic gets a pass here; the transparency is useful when you have colored or patterned wallpaper and want the beauty to show through.) Buster & Punch switches have a slightly more industrial look, with knurled switches and dimmers that feature a carved texture. (And the white anodized metal finish on the company’s dimmer switch is the last word in clean and contemporary.) The switches and plates from Futagami — a Japanese company founded in 1897 that specializes in sand-cast brass — have a subtle texture and a patina that will further develop over time. Find them through Housework.

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