Designers Spill Their Secrets to Creating Rooms That Blow You Away

Decorating is so often about injecting life into snoozy situations.

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"I’ll say, ’I love dark rooms!’ to kind of guide a client toward a bold decision," Brant says. Case in point: these suede-like Venetian-plaster walls in one of his projects.
Courtesy of Brant Macfarlain

Jo Saltz: OK, let’s jump in. What is the most fun part of your job?

Denise McGaha: Okay, this is Denise mc--ha. That's how it's pronounced. What was the question again?

Jo: Note to transcriber: We are two glasses of wine deep.

Denise: The most fun part of my job is presenting. I love presenting to the client and make a really big deal out of it, it's kind of a formal thing. We serve their favorite treats, and I know what they like to drink. It's all about the presentation: I had a client last week say, “Oh my God, do you have people who are addicted to this like plastic surgery?” Then she looked at her husband and said, “When do we get to do the next part of the house?” We did several rooms for them.

When I was young and growing up I was in 4H, and our leader always told us, “You’re investing in your future” when we had to do public speaking and presenting—and I hated it. Now it’s my favorite part of my job, so I tell my kids that all the time. You’re investing in your future.

Jo: That's great! What do you like about presenting?

Denise: You know, I think it’s revealing it to them. Kind of like a reveal without them actually seeing the room. There’s always something where they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t expect that” or, “Oh, I love that, I never would have thought of that!” I like to see their responses. I want them to be excited, and if there’s tears at a reveal I love that too.

Brant McFarlain: So I'm Denise mc-GAH-ha. I'm kidding, I did that on purpose. No I'm Brant McFarlain. Since I was a kid I knew I wanted to do design, and what I love about this field is, doing it so long, there are so many different phases of it. There’s no redundancy, I don’t get tired of it. So I love selecting, but then I get tired of the shopping part. I love drawing, then I would get tired of that.

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Brant McFarlain. @rbrantdesign
Bret Hartman

I mean, I do like presenting—but not as much as you do.

Denise: I love it.

Brant: The construction part and installation part is also very fun, but doing it all the time would wear me out. So I think the different phases of every project and at different times keeps me interested.

Jo: So you like changing. You like the constant change.

Brant: Yeah. When I go to work every day it’s something new. Each project has a different look, so just that in itself is fun.

Monica Wilcox: For me, the most fun part is definitely the reveal. Pretty much everything else I hate...no, I’m just kidding. We have bets in my office on who’s going to cry—our goal is actually to make people cry! We do everything we can. We light candles. We even have music.

Jo: What kind of music?!

Monica: It depends on the vibe of the house. So if we’ve done a very sexy house, we put jazz music. If it’s a fun room, we put fun music. If it’s a bedroom, we do very soothing, calming music. So we match the music to the reveal and then we do everything we can to make them cry.

Denise: It’s an experience!

Monica: Yes! A celebration. We say, “Everyone’s just going to die when they see this house. I mean, look at your house!” And I just keep pushing them until those tears come out. And then we all start crying and then you’re like, this is really worth everything that it took to make it happen.

Jo: How many people here are "reveal people?"

Monica: We are! We do all our installs in one day.

Denise: Yeah, we're the same way.

Monica: So we start out in the morning, we have a crew of 12, and we design everything. We are turnkey in one day. I don’t want to go back! I think I learned very early the way that I work—because I have a lot of clients, and they see me at consultation, presentation, and installation—is by setting boundaries on my schedule. You’re only going to see me those three times, so you have to make it count. I think if you keep your business very structured, it allows you to take on multiple clients.

"People get to see themselves in a completely different light when you change their interiors. They get a whole new persona!" says McGaha. For this Southlake bedroom, she introduced color and pattern in soothing tones to enliven a room with white walls.
Stephen Karlisch

Amy Berry: We always end up revealing in layers. There’s always the big moment where it’s like, “Ok, we’re going to go install, and if the stars align and the client is patient and wonderful, you can do it.” But I always kind of get people in and then come back. Because we were talking about photography, and do you photograph it right after you finish installing? A lot of people do, but I kind of like to let them live there a little bit and then I come back in.

I really love that part because it feeds the part of me that’s like why I do it. There’s nothing better than a happy client, there’s nothing better. It beats everything. It’s kind of your moment to be like, “I was listening.” But I also love the quieter moments: I love to draw and I love the product development part of it.

Jo: What's the most fun product you've gotten to develop?

Amy: There’s this woman, an illustrator for children's books—remember Baby Dear? Did you read that? Yes, OK. Eloise Wilkins...amazing! I can’t read these books to my daughter without being like, “I’m going to take a picture of that.” So one of the things we are making is like a little baby cradle, it’s the one out of Baby Dear.

Jo: Is that for one of your clients?

Amy: No, well, I'm opening a store. So we’re going to put it there after I let my daughter try it out first. Trial run.

Jo: That's amazing!

Jean Liu: I think for me, personally, the most fun is the process. I love working with the different trades, because I think that they’re the most unsung part of any project.

Denise: It's so true.

Jean: We can sit here and present to our client, and we can show inspiration boards, and tear out pretty pictures, but they’re the ones who have to get it done. I mean, we direct them. Just before this thing today came from a construction site where I was working with a carpenter. We were literally going over six different stain samples and he felt comfortable enough with me to tell me today how hard his job is lately.

He said, “I’m 55, I’m getting old, it’s really tiring for me to do all of this and I’m having a really hard time finding young people who want to come and learn and appreciate what it means to nitpick over the details. It’s also why some of these jobs aren’t going as fast as I would like them to. I’m worried about what’s going to happen when nobody else wants to come in behind people like me.”

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Denise McGaha. @denisemcgaha
Bret Hartman

I just came back from New York where I was up in a showroom, and if my client signs off on this powder room, I will literally be flying back and hand-choosing every single tile because every single one is hand-painted and has a different scene on it. So, for me, that artisan is equally as important as this carpenter to get my job done.

Jo: The artisan thing has actually come up in conversations before. So much so that when I was at my D.C. Open House, Thomas Pheasant said there was a tradesman they had to take out of retirement because there was no one to come and do the work that he wanted to do.

Jean: Yeah, especially masters. Like a master carpenter.

Jo: It was plasterwork... It’s almost like a dead trade. An 80-year-old man did it for him, which is insane. Okay so how do you push your clients to take more risks and have more fun in their space?

Monica: For me, it starts when I first meet them in the consultation. I keep saying little things like, “I’m not going to show you something typically what you would normally see somewhere—after all, that’s why you hired me.” So I kind of already get them thinking at the very beginning. I don’t just surprise them at the presentation with something way out there.

These wallpapers that are out now are just over-the-top amazing. So I try to push everybody to do some type of cool wall treatment and thenceiling moldings that are fabulous (painting them different colors or even putting wallpaper on the ceilings and cool geometrics). And layering lighting. I don’t like just buying one chandelier, I like layering lighting together in groups.

Brant: Same here. If there’s something that’s going to make them uncomfortable, I’ll slowly bring them into conversations, like “I’m thinking this. Now it’s kind of out there, but trust me.” So as we’re getting toward the decision, it’s not so new to them where they think “Oh my god, this is so crazy!”

Let’s say it’s painting a room all black and it’s so dramatic. I’ll say, “I love dark rooms!"

Jo: When a room is feeling bare and boring, what’s your go-to for making it more fun?

Brant: I like to arrange furniture in a way that’s not typical. You get architectural plans and it seems to be the same layout all the time, but mine would never look like that. For me it’s more about the placement of things, rather than color.

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Jean’s mood board for the new KOCH showroom, where all the fabric she’s using is left over from their clothing lines.
Danielle M. Sabol

Jo: I love the idea of there being shades of fun—you can push it to a certain level or you can push it crazy. The idea that wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, there’s a place for you.

Jean: When we talk about risk and pushing our clients to try and do something we feel strongly about, but it may not be in their thought process, we sometimes say to them, if it’s a piece of furniture, “Look if you hate it, we’ll buy it back.”

Brant: I do that too!

Jean: Or if we feel really strongly about it, we go, “We’ll sell it to you and we will bypass whatever markup that we had agreed to.” Because I think it’s an indication to them that we feel so strongly about it, we’re willing to not have this be a profit opportunity because we feel they need it for their house, or the room, or part of the program. But we don't do that very often.

Ultimately, at least my clients feel like if we’re willing to forgo something, we must feel like they really need it.

Jean: We always probably start with looking at bringing in another pattern. Like Brant said, we will then go back and take a look at what the floorplan is. I’ve had a client completely change the way they felt about a room just because we took the existing pieces of furniture and changed up the layout. Or we suggest painting something. I think paint is always a good, easy go-to quick fix.

Amy: At the beginning of everything, I'm quieter than I normally am because I really do want to get to know the people that we’re doing something for. On the back end, I spend a lot of time thinking about how they live and who they are. The training I did for design was also very client-centric. When I go to present, if it’s something maybe they weren’t expecting, it’s like...well, I got there somehow. So a lot of times I have to backup and be like “But remember you told me you love this?” And that kind of helps them get there. I’ve actually only ever done this one time, but it was effective—there was one print, I can’t remember which, but they were nervous and I was so excited about it. I was so excited about it that I actually put the scheme of the fabrics on my worktable on my Instagram and the reaction was good. I’ve only done it once, but I should totally do it more. It totally swayed the vote. It broke the tie. It was a floral. We have a lot of clients that are younger, so I think that’s intimidating. “Oh no I can’t do floral,” it’s like “Yes you can do floral.” And we did it. They kind of just needed that extra boost of confidence that like, I’m not the only one excited about it.

Jo: When a room is feeling a little stale, what do you do?

Amy: I like a good balance. I don’t want it to feel like a showroom, I want it to feel like a thoughtful thing that reflects them, whether it’s an antique or something we find. I don’t take myself that seriously, so I think there needs to be a playfulness, like, “You can move it around, you can live here! We gave you a house you can live in. And yeah, you can move that chair, it’s okay!I know it’s not where it is on the layout, but it’s ok, it can sit here too.”

Jo: It’s true! A lot of the questions I ask when I meet people who aren’t using interior designers are, “Why are you not?” And a lot of the statements are, “Well, I have a family” or “I need to live in my house.” They feel like if they have a designer it’s going to feel too precious to touch. But then I get in front of designers and these are people who are professionally trained to give you a home to live in, and that’s what they’re job is.

Denise: I have four dogs, a husband, and I’ve got five chickens in the garage. I’m a person just like you. How do you think I live? People seriously think we live in an ivory tower and everything’s perfect in our lives but that could not be further from the truth. We’re normal people and by having these lives that we have, we design for people that live in their homes—like Amy said.

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Jean Liu. @jeanliudesign
Bret Hartman

Jo: You design for function.

Denise: We really do. It has to reflect the people that live there. I think it’s our job to take this perfect little bow that interior design has been tied with and kind of blow it up and say, "It’s available to everyone."

But you really want to hire a professional. I mean, I don’t cut my own hair and I don’t put my own fillings in.

Amy: I think you were the person that told me, "You’re not going to put on your resume that you potty trained her. Just hire somebody." It was so so smart, so smart. We’re outsourcing.

Denise: Hire it out and work with someone that you really connect with. I think Amy brings up a really good point about connecting with your clients and understanding how they live. I spend a lot of time watching my clients, especially husbands and wives, and I’m all about breaking down the barriers that they’ve created in their marriage or in their home that prevent one of them from crossing over into the other one’s lanes.

I throw all that out and I’m like, “Oh, I know that you’re not interested in talking about the art, but how do you feel about that piece that I’m about to hang over your bed? Do you love it or do you hate it?” And I give her permission to hate it. He’s had it over the bed in a place of glorification, but she hates that piece and she’s never been able to say it. So I just open that wide up on the table. It’s like therapy.

Monica: Designers are therapists.

Jo: I’ve heard that before!

Denise: And can I tell you how happy they are in the end?

She no longer has to sleep under that hideous painting that’s been hanging over the bed for 20 years and he’s (kind of) happy that she’s happy.

Jean: As a designer, you’re able to ask the question because they probably don’t have a relationship where they feel like they could talk about it.

Denise: She didn’t want to hurt his feelings!

Amy: How often do you ask like, "Do you like that sofa?" And they’re like, "No, I thought you liked that sofa." And I’m like, "Let’s burn the sofa, let’s burn it."

Dense: It’s so true!

Amy: My parents have a sofa they’ve been holding onto and I can’t recover it, and it is so annoying.

Denise: Out of here.

Jo: Habit is, like, 100% of human nature.

Amy: There’s no reason to hate things in your house. Life’s too short.

Jo: How do you convince your clients to take a little more chance and to have a little more fun?

Monica: I have a brand-new client with a swing set that you can see from the kitchen we’re about to redo. He has memories of his daughters with it, and I prayed the other night when that hailstorm came through that it would destroy it. I’ve also thought about going over and burning it down. So if it disappears, put it on my bill because I hate it.

And I just said it. Now he looks at me and is like, “It is kind of ugly.”

Jo: Plant the seed of insecurity. So what’s your go-to when a room is feeling to bare?

Monica: Art, art, art—original art. Find an artist to create something individual, unique, one-of-a-kind. Introduce your clients to art, and you will never ever go wrong.

Jo: So true. And what a diverse mix of answers.

Denise: We’re Texans! We’re individuals.

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Monica matches the music she plays at a reveal to the mood of the room, so this chilled-out living area was presented with jazz.
Kenyaco Wilcox

Jo: Is it more fun to have tons of money for a project, or to have to get creative on a budget?

Amy: It’s fun to have a fun client.

Monica: There you go. I don't think it's the budget that creates the fun.

Amy: No, no it’s the client. The trust factor of it.

Denise: I want a brave client.

Amy: You get to know the client, you see how they see themselves, you watch this little thing play out, and you think, I am a kid. I mean I do a lot of kids rooms, but I love that because it's the inner kid in me that just redid my dollhouse a hundred million times as a child. I get to take this thing and enhance how they see themselves.

You know what I mean? That is the best part. There’s nothing better than a client that completely trusts you, gets you, and appreciates it, because you can do so much with that. Like if they trust you to really run with it, wheels off, it’s such a better thing that happens.

Jean: Totally agree. The clients who trust you—who are so trusting they don’t even check in with you—can make a project come in a lot smoother, and even under budget, because they’re not micromanaging every decision.

Monica: It’s not about the money. It’s about the experience. I know the second door on the left is where the lingerie is. I know where everything is in their life. I can go to a drawer in the kitchen, open it, and tell you where the steak knives are. I know everything about these people, I have such a relationship with them. That’s the fun part about it. I really think we get so involved in their lives—we’re part of their families—and to me, that’s what it’s about.

Brant: But, to me, it is fun when there is no budget. I mean, because you get the most fabulous furniture and the most beautiful lighting and the best fabrics. So that makes me so happy.

It’s not perfect because I make more money, but it’s just fabulous.

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Monica Wilcox
Bret Hartman

Jean: But at the same time, I feel like when we’ve had the tightest budgets, there have been some great things to come out of them because we’ve had to be more creative.

Brant: I agree.

Denise: We definitely don’t go to the same well when there’s a budget. We have to work harder to find budgetary items that aren't in our every day. To Jean’s point, when I find something like a $25 vase, I’m like, “Wow! We did it! Can you believe we did that? Don’t ever tell anyone that that was only $25!”

Monica: I agree to that it’s not really the budget. What makes it fun is just fun people. Sometimes I have people who have lower budgets, but they’re so fun and you find yourself sitting with them longer than you normally would with other clients. You’re having wine with them, you genuinely enjoy their company, and you want to help them. You’re like, “I want to do this for you because I like you so much.”

Clients need to know how to become more likable to designers, ha!

Jo: Is that being more receptive? Is that being more open?

Monica: I think that’s being more receptive. As Jean said, it’s letting you do your job. Like Denise said, trusting you that you have the experience, that you are the expert. They hired you for a reason. The last thing I say to my clients before I walk out of their house from that initial meeting is, “You are in good hands.” I just see their chest go, [exhales]. They take a breath.

Jo: Co you find that that trust comes from second-time clients?

Brant: I think it’s a personality thing.

Amy: It’s hard to be somebody’s first designer, no question.

Jo: Because what I have heard is designers are like, "Third house, they just trust me to do whatever."

Amy: We’re doing a second house for clients and I haven’t even gone. I don’t think I will until the install, which is great. She’s just like, “I don’t even need to see the fabrics, I trust you.” I’m like “I love you.”

Brant: That’s probably a personality, because I have a client I’ve done four houses for and she’s been great through all four.

Amy: She loves the process, she really does. But it’s kind of one of those things where she doesn’t have the time to go through it the way we did the last one a year and a half ago. I texted her a picture of the fabrics, she’s like “I love it.”

Brant: That’s a fun project, if you can do your thing.

Amy: What I think that some people miss is that I really am going to labor over this like it’s mine. If you give it to me, I will take it and run with it. If you try to take it from me...

Jo: I want to know the most fun project you've worked on in the past year.

With one client, there was a closet where I said, “We should make it a dollhouse!” They have a little girl, so we did a whole hidden bookcase she can walk into. There’s a little light fixture, a little kitchen. The dad was like, “What are you doing to my closet?” And I was like, “It will be fine, and we can turn it back into a closet later.” That’s how trusting they were.

Jean: We’re working on the new showroom for KOCH, a clothing line. I love them because they know who they are, they know what their brand is, and Nicole who’s the owner has been wonderful. She is very representative of someone who trusts us. And this project does not have a crazy budget, so every single fabric we’re using is actually a remnant from their current collections.

Monica: That’s amazing!

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For the daughters of some adventurous clients, Amy turned an empty closet into a child-size dollhouse.
Courtesy of Amy Berry

Jean: It’s been really fun. And they have very much a boho beach vibe going on, so it’s really a departure from what we’re doing day in and day out.

Denise: And I love following it on Instagram when you post snippets.

Jean: Between it being such a fun project by nature, because it’s so different from what we normally do, and having a great client who does trust us, it’s really been a breath of fresh air.

Amy: We just finished a house that we’ve been working on for two years. It’s kind of my baby project—I mean, I’ve lived at that house. I love that house. Because I love them!

This is just how trusting they were. There was this one closet that they were like, “What do we do?” I was like, “We should make it a dollhouse!” So we did this whole hidden bookcase thing that she can walk through, and the whole thing’s wallpapered. There’s a little light fixture, a little kitchen and whatever. I kind of had to fight for that. He was like, “What are you doing to my closet?” I was like, “It will be fine and we can turn it back into a closet later.”

Monica: I’m a California designer and so I get a lot of young people that love fresh, modern style. Recently I had a couple come from California and they were only here for two days and they had 13 rooms to design. I didn’t have time to obviously do all of these concepts that quickly, so I showed them just my preliminary ideas and they said “How much for something like this?” I gave them the price and they wrote me a check. And they said, “You just do it.” I was like, okay! So... you don’t want to see anything!?” And they loved it.

Jo: You want people to trust your talent.

Brant: So a project I finished last year was one of my favorite in a long time. It was the penthouse of the Ritz and it was beautiful architecture—he built the space when it was a raw shell—but everything’s wood paneled. So we just painted it white! He had grandma furniture in there and I was like, “Let’s move this out." It’s 5,000 square feet, he’s a bachelor, and he just trust me like to do my thing.

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Amy Berry. @amylberry
Bret Hartman

Denise: Is that your perfect client profile?

Brant: Perfect client. I like sort of a masculine look, sex appeal rooms. He let me do the art, the accessories, and the layers.

Denise: And he probably looked sexy in the rooms.

Brant: Yeah, totally. And that’s like his guest house. He sends his guests there! But it was just a really fun project, I put like 100 percent into that project. Now I’m doing his main house because he loved that one so much.

Denise: I think it helps people see themselves in a completely different light, too. They get a whole persona about themselves when you change their interiors.

Brant: Well now he’s cool.

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