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  • By Jacqueline Hosford, ASID

Pre-planning for design: Get that high-end look

Have you already figured out that planning for furniture and decor before renovation or construction is crucial to a fabulous finished design?

The most successfully designed and admirable projects always take a holistic approach. Even without professional resources at hand, the more integrated the preplanning the better. Truly, that is the only way to achieve that seamlessly interwoven style and function you see in all the finest design magazines.

Aesthetics are almost always improved when there are fewer odd jogs and unplanned asymmetries. Another way of looking at it is that if some arrangement or design feels stuck on or jerry-rigged or ungainly (or any other discomforting descriptor), there probably is a better way of doing it. The designed room with all its elements, from the basic architecture to the arrangement of tchotchkes on the mantel, needs to feel as naturally part of the whole as possible. Herein lies the art of good design.

There are probably endless design and decorating possibilities that need preplanning. Here are some pretty common yet often overlooked situations I’ve encountered in my work:

Large impactful decorative items. You have a fabulous, striking patterned and/or colorful area rug (or intend to purchase one), significant piece(s) of eye-catching artwork, furniture or a collection of things you intend to feature. These are all significant design elements. To most successfully and beautifully incorporate them into the finished space, they very often need to be considered up front before you pin down architectural details for a renovation, and before you finalize materials, finishes, materials and paint colors.

The décor of this room was known in advance.  Art and sconces need to be exactly located - so the contractor can install them in exactly the right spot.

If you love one of those terrific patterned wallpapers that are back in vogue now, it needs to work with the other patterns, colors and styles in the room. Often people timidly "go neutral" to avoid clashes. But with a bit of preplanning you can have it all. In the bathroom shown, the green tile accent was a definite choice, and I would bet a good sum on money that the designer and client knew before construction that the tile worked with that specific wallpaper.

Tile color and design clearly thought out with wallpaper in mind - before construction!  (design by Christina Murphy)

Trust me on this, finding the right vividly patterned area rug after you’ve installed the wood flooring, the paint colors, the sofa fabric, etc., becomes insanely difficult. Whichever is the last element to be placed into a design arrangement is generally the most difficult to find because it has to work with all the other already established elements. You have to hunt through hundreds and hundreds—actually probably thousands—of pieces to find the right one. It becomes almost a game of chance to find the right piece that ties the room together. In this situation, the best solution often is to spend on a custom-designed piece that suits things perfectly, but that’s prohibitively expensive for many. It would be cheaper and easier to repaint the room! It would have been better to do some design/décor preplanning!

Furniture pieces versus customized built-in. Unless you have a fabulous piece of furniture to feature and properly address your needs, a well-conceived built-in piece is likely to be a more harmonious design choice and would be more suitable than a store-bought semi-custom wall unit that doesn’t adequately suit the space. This is especially true of small spaces that need to provide maximal utility for every cubic inch.

Going custom often requires forethought. Think about how the architectural, decorative and electrical elements integrate with the built-in unit. You’d be paying for a change order if you decide to install the unit after the crown molding and baseboard were installed and painted. For one client who needed to pack a small living space with a large collection of Playbills, videos and books, I had strongly suggested a wall of built-in shelving. After the room was all but done they "got it" and agreed that those built-ins were the only way to conserve space and gain the storage. It was a bit of a muddle, pulling out the finished painted baseboard and the crown moldings and losing two weeks on final delivery of the project, but today’s they’re wonderfully satisfied with the result.

Built-in details of these bookcases need to happen BEFORE finish trim-work is done.

The circled areas in the image to the left show why all of this is best designed and installed before finish construction. The crown, base and horizontal midline of the cabinetry are all integrated into the moldings that wrap the chimney breast.

Electrical and AV wiring locations. Built-in cabinetry may indeed require electrical wiring. Will it be a showcase for your collection of Limoges enameled boxes requiring transformers for low-voltage lighting? Will part of the unit be a work desk? Any of these requirements also require preplanning.

Stylishly suited to the decor of this small apartment, the multifunctional built-in provides ample and specific utility.

In the larger picture, planning ahead for very specific electrical, communications and A/V needs is intimately tied to how the space will be used, including where furniture will be located to ensure outlets are in the right spots, or swing-arm reading lamps are perfectly located. Even expensive “custom” homes come with missing details; I recall a gracious newly built home with the added luxury of a dedicated TV den. The room shape clearly indicated that a sofa should face the TV that was to be wall-mounted above the fireplace. But … there was no wiring or electrical above the mantelpiece.

Lighting design and fixtures placement. There is all sorts of wonderful specialty lighting designed to illuminate specific furniture locations, activity areas and art walls, or just to add that inviting glow of accent light. Don’t default to one ceiling mounted fixture centered in the room, or lot's of 6" diameter recessed can-lights, when you can do so much more with a little forethought. Lighting design is a technological and aesthetic specialty. Having a terrific and stylishly lit space definitely requires preplanning, knowing where furniture will sit and even the dimensions of the actual furniture, and most certainly the size and type of the lighting unit itself.

Design by J.Hosford: Ceiling lighting soffit reflects carpet pattern which was selected before construction

Lighting soffits and other ceiling details beyond the basic box-out or dropped ceiling can provide both light and style. Built-in details like these always need to be thought of in relation to the finished furnished room. In the example photo here, the ceiling lighting soffit reflects the geometry of the carpet pattern. It could only have been designed after the carpet had already been selected.

Next, you need to understand what will be placed next to, against or on that wall, such as a piece of furniture or work of art.

Sconces mounted at just the right height.  Note location of electrical box.

How about a pair of terrific wall sconces? That’s easy, but you need to let your electrician know exactly where on the wall to mount the electrical box. And the size and height of the sconce fixture itself matters before the wall is closed. Some sconces sit higher than the electrical connection, others drop below, and some sit centered. Sconces placed oddly on a wall are a really bad look. A smart electrician will care where the electrical boxes are mounted, and he won’t want to do the work twice if he has to move them because you haven’t thought it all out in advance. And you won’t want to be pay for a change order to move the electrical when you could have preplanned for it.

Plan ahead for a drapery soffit created by wrapping the crown molding around the room.

Construction details to suit window treatments and draperies. There is a trend today that all drapery hardware is decorative and visible. It’s a great look and makes lots of money for the drapery hardware folks. Another great look is to hide the drapery header within a drapery soffit, which of course requires preplanning the finished décor. Here are a few built-in examples, both contemporary and traditional.

The decorative architectural window surround was designed with window drapery in mind.
One must plan ahead for this integration of architecture and drapery!

If you are fortunate to be designing a new home and selecting windows, do think about privacy and light control. There are stunning window styles available and it’s easy to fall in love with the architectural window choice without thinking for a moment of end use. These can become the “difficult windows” conundrum for the designer/decorator brought in after the fact. Avoid any issues by thinking in advance how you might want to dress the window.

I would even go so far as to state that what is true for windows often applies to other aspects of furnishing and décor, which in the end are not just attractive add-ons, but actually impact the final designed aesthetics of the built space.

The lesson underlying all this is a variation of “measure twice, cut once.” If you have the golden opportunity to build something from the beginning, as with most things in life, spending time planning up front will save you dollars and grief, with an end result that really can feel custom and high-end.

Jacqueline Hosford, ASID, principal of Jacqueline Hosford Interior Design, loves working with clients to design their spaces for optimum function and each client's ultimate delight. Jacqueline is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID); is certified by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification; and is an adjunct professor of interior design, State University of New York (Purchase). Jacqueline is a graduate of Barnard College-Columbia University, and the New York School of Interior Design with highest honors. She can be reached at

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