Mistakes We (Hopefully) Won’t Make Again

Q: I have an idea for a blog post. “Design mistakes we won’t make again.” As I look through pictures of all the beautiful work you’ve done, I’m thinking of choosing many similar styles & purchases. But then I wonder, over time – did you ever regret a design choice? – Shannon

A: That’s a good one. And now for 1,970 words on the subject. We’ll start by saying that we definitely don’t always know what we’re doing when we do something (us = so not experts) so we just try to take things one day at a time and learn as we go. We make tons of mistakes. You’ve just gotta feel your way around and course-correct along the way. Doing something, even if it’s a bad something is so much more of a learning experience than doing nothing and being frozen in indecision. So here are a few live-and-learn mistakes of ours that come to mind:

1. Buying an expensive-for-us Pottery Barn sofa. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to buy a sofa without seeing it in person (and sitting down on that baby). The reason we got a PB one for our first house’s den was because we ordered a cheaper sofa from target.com and then it arrived and it was terrible. The scale and proportion was all wrong and it was hard as a rock. Thankfully it was fully returnable, but we were left feeling like “maybe you have to spend a lot on something to get something good” so we saved up and ordered the PB Basic sofa after sitting on it in the store (to the tune of around $1300 with delivery at the time).

But in all of the 3+ years that we spent with it, we never really loved it. It’s totally just one of those personal preference things but it always felt kind of baggy and frumpy. Here’s a less glamorous glimpse of those top cushions from this old old old post from back in the day:

It just never felt/looked as nice as the living room sofa that we actually paid $400 less for from Rowe (read about that here). Even Karl the sectional (who is three times bigger) was less expensive! He’s also more comfy and looks more like “us” than our old PB sofa (which we craigslisted for $500 before the big move). So I guess the lesson that we learned was that just because something is more expensive, it’s not always better.

2. Black trim in the bathroom. Bad idea. But I’m glad we tried it. I had this cool graphic Domino vision and it was not just working. But it only took about two hours to paint it…

… and then unpaint it. And it didn’t hurt to eliminate a few other odd items like the blue plastic shower curtain, my blue pashmina window treatment (that was definitely a work with whatcha got oddity), and those funny old shutters on the windows (among other things).

So the black trim was definitely a mistake worth making, just to learn that it wasn’t the right move so we could get past it and find out what we really liked. Turned out white on white on white made for a nice spa like effect until we could reno the entire bathroom (up close the original tile was a disaster, so it sadly couldn’t be saved).

3. Not bringing enough furniture into a room. Like our stark and completely non-functional living room in the early days:

This mistake was pretty easy to remedy over time. We just saved our pennies and slowly added items to fill out the long skinny never-used-it-at-all room. Here’s here’s how it looked a few years into the whole evolution (adding a dining area off of the kitchen was a lot more functional, so we used the room a lot more).

4. Going too crazy with our whole house color scheme. At first we thought every room called for a different color of the rainbow- read more about that here).

The black trim bathroom debacle taught us to try something, even if it doesn’t always work out. And this is more of that lesson. Slowly over time we tried a bunch of colors, identified the ones we loved best, painted over the rest, and ended up with a sea-glass inspired palette for our first house that was really welcoming and serene.

For our current house we’re in the mood for something a bit more moody, risky, and sophisticated (who wants to clone the same house twice?). Could be awesome. Might suck. Only time will tell!

5. Dinky, not-big-enough items. Even if your space is small, we’ve learned that lots of small furniture or art & accessories can actually make it feel smaller (and more cluttered) – at least through our eyes. Yup, we’re definitely fans of a nicely sized sofa or a large scale art item to add a little something extra. Some might say we like things too big (that’s what she said), but the drama of a giant light fixture, like this one in our current bedroom…

… or an oversized vase, like this one in our hallway…

… seems to add interest and presence to spaces that might not feel as special without them. Whatever tickles your pickle I guess (one more time, that’s what she said). Of course when Clara gets a little bigger we might have to nix the giant glass objects, but we’ll cross that bridge hide that vase when we get there. Ha.

6. Growing grass everywhere. A bag of grass seed is definitely cheaper than a bunch of bushes, and the easy-care regional grass that we use doesn’t need much water or weeding once it’s established (we don’t use fertilizer or sprinklers or anything). But it’s still a lot to mow. It used to take John at least an hour and a half to mow the front and back yards of our first house. And in the summer it would grow like crazy so it definitely ate into our “fun family time.”

Keeping a more naturalized landscape with a few areas of grass for the pup and the kiddo(s) is more of the plan when it comes to this house. So we’ll definitely add some grass in a few places for t-ball and picnics, but we hope to leave other areas au naturale (and add low maintenance wildflowers, grasses, ground cover, etc).

7. Not relying enough on craigslist and thrift stores for furnishings. Some of our favorite items, like our old living room coffee table (which is now being borrowed by John’s parents), the white slipcovered chair from the den (which now lives in the sunroom), the white pedestal table from our old sunroom (which now sits in the living room by the window) and Clara’s old dresser (which still resides in her room) are secondhand finds that cost less than $30 each. Yup, we paid under $120 for a giant 6-drawer dresser, a large white pedestal table, a crisp slipcovered armchair, and a two tiered glass and iron coffee table. Insanity.

We’re so glad we didn’t end up dropping $200+ for each thing from a big box store. And since moving into our new house we’ve added eight dining chairs from craigslist (scored for just $25 a pop) along with two $35 chairs from a secondhand shop, and all of the fun thrifted finds seen here. Secondhand treasures = yes please.

8. Not building things. It’s not that hard. Even though we’re the first to admit that it sounds intimidating (it took us three months to work up the nerve to tackle our latest build). But everything from our custom door-topped desk and our postcard shelves to the book ledges that John made in the nursery were so affordable and doable when we think back.

And now that John’s tackling our 140″ console table (he’s still hard at work – details soon). There’s something sweet and poetic about making furniture together at home (even if you’re just the cheerleader, and even better if you’re the one slinging the drill). Petersik-style romance is building something under your own roof (or outside in the yard). Sawdust + teamwork (even if it’s just me watching Clara and cheering John on while he works) = amore.

9. The whole matchy-matchy crime. In our first house we learned that we love a mixture of dark wood and white painted pieces along with brown faux leather upholstery mixed with white slipcovers and and even a few soft painted pieces (like a celery toned bookcase or bench). And in our current place we’re having fun switching things up by adding more boldness, different wood tones, and even things like gray beams or deep saturated walls. But one thing’s for sure. We’ll never have a room full of furnishings that are all the exact same wood tone or the same upholstery fabric. It’s just too much fun to switch it up with things like a green luggage-rack-turned-side-table (see how we DIYed that here)…

… or create a two-tone dresser like Clara’s (that we DIYed here).

10. Buying things that don’t work with anything else in our house. We thankfully never bought a giant piece of furniture that didn’t fit in with anything else that we own (other than the PB sofa we never really loved), but we’ve definitely picked up pillows and accessories that never felt quite right with other items in our house (and eventually they made it into the Goodwill/yard sale pile). Read more about trying to avoid grabbing tons of stuff that doesn’t work with the rest of the stuff that you already have here.

11. Refinishing the floors of our first house with traditional materials like oil-based stain and polyurethane. It stunk for months. We both got headaches for weeks and it felt really unhealthy, even though we ran fans and cracked windows (even in the dead of winter). Thank goodness it was two years before Clara was born (read more about that floor refinishing process here and here).

Moving forward we’d only use green products like just-as-amazing water based stain and eco sealants that aren’t full of nasty VOCs and odors that hang in the air for months on end (a local place called Eco Logic here in Richmond sells that stuff, which we plan to use when we redo our floors someday).

12. Buying a boob lights (yes, that’s a technical term). Or buying any interim item for that matter. For us it’s usually best just to wait and get something amazing that we love when we can afford it instead of rushing to buy something just to fill space until the real purchase is made later (read more on that here). We bought a boob light for something like $10 to get rid of the old never-used ceiling fan in our first house’s tiny guest bedroom.

The switch instantly made the small space feel ten times bigger, but we later switched El Boob out for a nicer long term fixture (learn how we made it here):

So if we really plan things out we’ve learned that we can save a step or two (and some money, even if it’s only $10) and not introduce boob lights to begin with. Or any other just-for-now-and-we’ll-upgrade-later item.

And so ends our little hope-we-don’t-make-these-mistakes-again-but-will-probably-make-others roundup. Of course all of these “errors” are subjective. You know what they say: “one man’s decorating ooops is another man’s decorating booyah.” Wait they don’t say that? Oh well. These are just a few of the things that came to mind when we looked back and tried to come up with “stuff we don’t wanna do again.” We’re sure there are probably fifty other decorating and renovating whoopsies looming in our future. But I guess I’ll be corny and say whisper “bring it on.” How else will we learn what we love (and don’t) if not by trial and error? Happy mistake making to one and all!


  1. says

    I’m totally with you on not buying interim items! We try to stick it out with whatever we have and save for/search for what we know we want.

    Good to know about getting headaches for months after redoing the floors, we have two rooms we bought reclaimed wood for, but we have yet to decide how exactly to finish them.

    • tarynkay says

      We had most of our floors refinished with polyurethane, and then ended up doing one room ourselves. On the room we did ourselves, we did a lot of research and ending up using a tung oil product called Waterlox, in the hopes that it would be less toxic. Well- it smelled far worse and the stink hung around far longer than the polyurethane floors! Plus the floor in that room isn’t so waterproof as the poly floors are- honestly, if I had it to do again, I’d go with the poly.

  2. says

    I loved this post. You definitely learn as you go. If we were to buy another house, I highly doubt we would add as much trim. It’s a lot of cleaning! And if we had existing hardwoods, we would try to refinish them before we move all of our junk in. At this point, I don’t think we’ll ever refinish our honey stained red oak flooring. Oh well. You live and learn, right?

  3. Kim says

    We bought a pottery barn sofa also, for the exact reasons you guys did. Terriible-never, ever, liked it. You are so right that expensive doesn’t equal quality.

    • says

      You did it again, stealing my thoughts! I was just about to comment on the boob light. I thought we were the only ones that called them that!

      But we are guilty of boob lighting. The 2 lights our builder gave us in our hallway were brass and glass… and the ugliest things I have ever seen. They made funny reflections all over the walls and they had to go immediately. So we bought a 2 pack of brushed nickel boob lights at Lowe’s and we’ve had them for a year. Totally worth the $19.99 in exchange for my interim sanity. Plus, they’re actually not that bad! Much um, flatter than yours :)

  4. Susan says

    Yes totally agree on the matchy matchy thing – a couple questions…..

    I’ve been looking around for a new sofa or possibly 2, the problem is when I look at inexpensive ones they are hard and at the same time I don’t want too squishy that they’ll flatten out quickly (3 kids). Are yours comfy and where do you shop? I’m from Portland, Oregon

    Also the boob light thing – yes I agree they are NOT awesome. In hallways what do you suggest and or have?


    • says

      We have had great luck with sofas from Rowe (check your local sofa retailer, who most likely carries them) and Ikea. And have heard awesome things about Room & Board. As for the lighting question, there are other flush mount fixtures with drum shades that we like. When we redo our hallway we’ll post all about whatever light we choose for sure!


    • Jill says

      I have the Ektorp sofa from Ikea (actually the sofa, two love seats and an armchair) & we love them. They’re firm, yet comfy. The slipcovers wash well & hold up. I’ve got three teenage sons, a large dog and two cats and for being 3 years old, they look pretty good. Plus, you can always get new slipcovers.

      Speaking of slipcovers – did you all see these slipcovers at Pier 1 for your dining room chairs? http://www.pier1.com/Catalog/Dining/tabid/493/List/0/CategoryID/113/level/a/ProductID/29182/ProductName/Green-Geometric-Dana-Slipcoveruu/Default.aspx

      Thought of you all while cruising through for pillows.

    • says

      I love the Ektorp we have (love seat) but it’s pretty uncomfortable for my tall boyfriend both because it’s a touch low and also the seat is a bit short.
      The ottoman with storage is great though. It’s a great sofa if you’re not too tall.

    • Tia says

      Susan, as a fellow Portlander, go to the Hillsboro Costco on 48th. They have a HUGE furniture selction, and their couches are comfy and cheap. Their version of the big Ikea sofa that Sherry and John recently got was only $899 and came with a big ottoman!

    • Nancy says

      Do you guys with the Ektorp find that you need to fix it all the time.. like does it looks like disheveled slip covers when you get up? I have had my eye on it for awhile, but I am afraid it will be work to keep it looking tidy. Thanks:)

    • Susan says

      Does anyones Ektorp sofa have problems with the back pillows slouching with kid-wear! We currently have a sofa we love that has the same arms 2 coushions on the bottom but with a tight back of which I love that feature. I think I’m on the vurge to get it recovered!

    • Jill says

      Mine only get slouchy on the back because my cats like to sit on them. They really seem to keep their shape well.

      As for the slipcovers, I put them on damp and they fit snuggly. My only issue may be that they don’t hit the floor. I wouldn’t mind an extra inch or two of fabric.

      Keep in mind, they are meant to be inviting and casual. If you’re really drawn to a clean look, they may not be for you.

    • jazzgirlpdx says

      I’m not sure if you’re in the market for a sectional (and I believe the Karlstad collection has regular couches too), but I got my Karl sectional for my new house after seeing it on YHL…and it is amazing! My husband and I have probably spent more time on it in a month than we spent on the old couch in a year. It’s fantastic for stretching out and cuddling, and it was an absolute dream to put together/slipcover. Probably took husband and I about 45 minutes to completely assemble. It’s also comfy but not so soft that you conk out 15 minutes into a movie (which was the problem with my old one). And I happen to think it doesn’t look cheap at all.

      Dania Furniture is also a local place to consider. They have a few locations across the Portland metro area. They’re a little more expensive – somewhere between PB and Ikea.

  5. says

    That was a very helpful, comprehensive list!

    The most helpful one for me was the “finishing wood floors with oil-based stain and polyurethene.” After we finish the plumbing and electric at our being-renovated-house, we’re going to have wood floors layed throughout. I guess I should research the finishing techniques…

    • says

      I wholeheartedly second the water-based Bona recommendation. We used it on the maple floors in our new house and love the way it looks (and feels…hard to describe, but it’s so nice and smooth). You can see some pictures here. (That’s the satin finish, which as you can see is plenty reflective in direct sunlight. I think the gloss finish would look like a basketball court.)

      (BTW, those aren’t the final lights over the bar in the first picture. They were the builder’s interim lights to pass inpsection while we waited for the real lights to arrive.)

    • says

      Agreed on the water-based poly! We chose the same and no problems with smell at all. It has worn nicely over the past 3 years, and Bona’s floor cleaner is great as well.

  6. Kirsten says

    This is a great post! Sometimes the “don’t’s” are just as, if not more, helpful than the “do’s.” Thanks!

  7. julie g. says

    Great post(but when aren’t they?)! Glad to know the Youngins’ are just like the rest of us and I loved the Michael Scott “that’s what she said” references!!!

    • gk says

      i highly appreciate the recent uptick in “that’s what she said” references. always makes me giggle. in real life, i am far more likely to say things that get a “that’s what she said” from my husband and friends :) heck, i just got one when i excitedly told my husband that i’ve been impressed with the recent uptick in YHL TWSS references…sigh.

  8. Jen says

    We tried black trim in our kitchen at our previous house thinking it would look so good with our dark floors and black appliances. Boy were we wrong!! Too bad it took me forever to repaint it all white and we eventually just replaced the baseboards because they never looked good. White trim always seems so fresh!

  9. almk42 says

    Ha ha, Boob Lights. That’s exactly what we call them out our house. My three month old is mesmerized by them. “Ooh! Giant light up boobies!”

  10. Christin says

    Great post. Very helpful. I really appreciate what you said about the PB sofa especially. Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s better. And I think it goes hand in hand with the getting what you really want, not just something to hold you over idea. My hubby and I desperately want a new sofa, but I really want to hold out to get the right one for us. Whether it’s a little pricey or not. Sometimes I just want to get something cheap to hold us over, but I know it’s better to wait for the right item. Anyway, best of luck continuing on your house! Happy mistake making! ;)

  11. says

    Love this post! Just thinking about the grass one myself — wishing that (especially here in Arizona) I’d followed that when we first landscaped. Would have saved a lot of time, water and money over the last 13 years. I also learned about the color one the hard way — much easier to add with throw pillows and accessories than paint sometimes…

  12. Carrie says

    I always wondered about you guys and that Pottery Barn sofa… it just wasn’t like you to pay $1300 for a sofa. My whole bathroom remodel didn’t cost that much. (But I didn’t have to buy a vanity of a toilet.And thanks for your tile tutorial!)
    I have made so many poor paint choices and have also went ahead and used paint that was mixed wrong (I painted the whole house before I moved in. It was a nightmare of frozen paint and returning paint and having to call a representitive of the paint company because the consistency was more like mud…)
    And all my furniture is matchy matchy. One day I may change that but this summer I am repainting the living room, kitchen and hall. :)

  13. says

    I love your rationality about home decor purchases/expenses. And I adore the light that replaced the boob. I had the hardest time finding a close-to-ceiling light that didn’t look like THAT, and have been happy with the IKEA CALYPSO light, if anyone out there is looking for a nice fixture.

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