Refreshing La Maison, Without Spending a Dime


Before we moved to France, I was a regional editor for Better Homes & Gardens and Traditional Home. My job was finding story locations, styling the shots for the photographer, and often writing the story, and I still work for them part-time.

And once again, those cultural differences pop up! If you’ve even looked at a French home magazine, then you have probably wondered why they didn’t bother to tidy up before they shot the photos. You’ll see books strewn around the floor, stacks of papers left around, maybe a half eaten meal. But yes, they really did have a stylist for that photoshoot---they just prefer the natural, lived-in look. I once did a shoot here at the home of a French celebrity, who had her personal hair stylist and make-up artist on site. And I swear when they finished she emerged for her photo with torn jeans, messy hair, and no make-up, like she just climbed out of bed and was ducking out to the boulangerie. Go figure!


Today I’m going to share my professional styling tips with you. If you want to fluff up your decor a bit without spending a penny, then do what we do on a photoshoot: prop ‘til you drop! Here are some things I’ve learned about styling a house for a magazine, that you can use chez vous. It’s also a great thing to do if you’re selling a house and you want your decor to have broad appeal. I’ve chosen photo examples from French country decor on the web site.

Rule number one! Less is more. Edit. Edit again. De-clutter and keep it simple. The most common styling we do is to take stuff OUT of the shot, not add to it! Clean lines have been a strong design trend over the past few years, and a room that’s too fussy looks dated. Try taking all the accessories out of a room, then put back in just what’s necessary.

Take photos. When I was in training to be a stylist, the design editor of Traditional Home told me that “Some designers just know how to decorate for the camera.” And if the camera loves it, so will you. You too can learn this; take overall photos of your room, to get the "big picture", then tighter photos of vignettes around the room. Study them. They will teach you a lot.


Big scale is generally better, when it comes to accessories. Fewer, larger, better is a good rule. Collections of small objects can work, but group them together for impact and unity–on a mantle, or a bookshelf. Instead of hanging a lot of small artwork, you can take the same pieces and put them in frames with large mats, for more impact.

Consider symmetry. Some symmetry in a room is pleasing to the eye, but too much is boring and rigid. It’s nice to have an area that's symmetrical---like matching lamps on a buffet---and an area that isn’t, like a tabletop grouping of diverse objects. In general for asymetrical groupings arrange objects in odd numbers, usually in three’s. Varied heights are good too---use books or small stands to get objects up higher.

Contrast and textures are pleasing. Sleek modern accessories with old, crusty pieces for example. Or mix textures, or put soft surfaces with hard surfaces, or shiny ones with dull or distressed ones.

Prop your bookshelves. When I go to shoot a house and they have open bookshelves, my heart sinks. Almost invariably I will have to spend hours rearranging them. Open shelves, especially with books, can warm up a room and add interest, or they can make it hopelessly busy and cluttered. Arrange your books in an orderly fashion, mix a few accessories with them to break them up, and you’ll be amazed at the impact.

Red chair

House plants on a tabletop in a pretty container are fresh, welcoming, and easy on the budget. They can add contrast, texture, and color and I never go to a shoot without them. But house plants should be lush, overflowing. Lose the half-dead ivy!

A vase of flowers can work miracles in most any house. Flowers should suit the style of the house. They can add color in a neutral room or they can calm a bold one.

Hang pictures low. Art can be anchored with something underneath (a chest, a chair), and hung just inches above it, even sitting on top of a chest or table. If the pieces aren't anchored, consider stacking a collection of them in a column.

Think creatively, and repurpose. When we’re in the midst of a busy shoot and we need an accessory quickly, there’s no time to go shopping. You’ll find me poking around in cabinets, kitchens, and the garden to find a container, basket, or artwork that can be used in a new, unexpected way.

My last rule is every stylist's mantra: When In Doubt, Take It Out!

Photos: At top, a loose suggestion of symmetry gives a casual feel. House plants add softness, artwork is stacked and hung low. A section from a wrought iron gate is repurposed and placed in an unexpected spot,as a focal point (photo by Gordon Beall). In the kitchen shot, note the smooth and rough textures, the oversized pot of flowers, and the table that anchors the mirror. The bedroom shot is pared down to beautiful essentials. The living room with red chairs has a lot going on, but here the symmetry, restricted color scheme, and the neatly arranged bookshelves keep it from looking cluttered. Photos courtesy of Meredith publishing.

And now dear readers, what styling tips do you have to share with us?

By the way, you can subscribe to various design slide shows (free, by email) at and at Traditional Home, as I do. Great for training the design eye!