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. laura says

    gotta love the boob lights….we have 3 of them in our house! oh yeah! someday I’ll switch them out to something more design savvy but for now i’ll stick with the boobs. :)

  2. says

    Thanks so much for the point about the grass! We just bought a house — an end-of-row one with a U-shaped garden around the side. We decided to cover the most of the area with wooden deck as we don’t believe that we can keep a lawn in such a small space and not so much sunshine. We’ll keep the greens on the side. This way we hope that we can really use the garden to the max without having to care about mowing and growing grass when 2 kids run/bike on it! Btw, we will use Forexia for the wooden deck that is made from saw dust (=waste) collected from European saw mills.

  3. says

    I loved this line…
    “Sawdust + teamwork (even if it’s just me watching Clara and cheering John on while he works) = amore.”

    This is something Mike and I just learned while installing molding on our own. I really don’t know why we didn’t try sooner because not only do we love the way it looks, but we love working together and the feeling of accomplishment! I just told my mom this weekend that we enjoyed doing it and doing things around the house is like a hobby for us and she was all like whaaaat??

    Forget dinner and a movie, I’ll take some sawdust and snacks any Saturday :)

    • says

      Hmm, let’s see. I think we love when we can solve storage problems in a not-so-obvious way that really works for us, like we did here in our old bedroom with built-ins and here in our old laundry room with bamboo blinds. We also have just had the most success with trying new things in general. I guess the bigger risks lead to bigger rewards – they just make a space feel more special and less safe/generic. Whether it’s taking a chance on a bold saturated color, like the one we used on the back of our new house’s built-ins and in our guest room or trying something new (like painting our living room beams gray instead of white). We’ve also been really happy with these choices in general: jute and wool rugs, floor to ceiling curtains, wood floors, crisp white trim, Olympic Premium No-VOC paint, capiz shell chandeliers, and ceramic animals (haha). Sometimes it’s just about trying things to pin down what you love and sticking with those items (and then doing one risky unexpected thing to make the room really sizzle). Yes, I just said sizzle. Gah.


  4. says

    I love that you posted that before pic of your bathroom. I actually just discovered that old post when looking through your archives and actually made me excited to think “hey, john and sherry didn’t get it right every time, so why do i think i should?” Plus the afters are only made that much better when you can see how far you’ve come. Great post.

  5. says

    I love #9 – The whole matchy-matchy crime. I am currently going through a matchy-matchy crisis. I really want to take all of the espresso wood in my living room (coffee table, end table, mirrors, picture frames, clock, and TV stand), open up my window and yell, “Come and get it!” Then obsessively scan craigslist to find things that compliment each other rather than resemble… Great post!

  6. BarbaraB says

    This was such an educational post and I recognized a few of your mistakes in my own home. Especially the one about getting larger, more substantial pieces for a room vs. a lot of smaller ones which make a room seem more cluttered and smaller. Thank you again for your stellar design insight.

  7. says

    Awesome post, YHL! I am planning on moving to a new house eventually (still a ways down the road) and I was just thinking the other day about the things I’ve learned by decorating my first place…what I’d do again and what I’d stay away from the next go around. I especially want to use Craigslist more like you two – I bought way too much new furniture (which also ended up being too matchy matchy) AND I am the shameful owner of a boob light! I won’t be doing that again!

  8. says

    HA! My husband also calls them boob lights. As we were looking through houses, he kept referring to them as that and I’m pretty sure our realtor didn’t know how to respond. They were one of the first things to go in our new house!

  9. Emily says

    I think all your points are great. I do think the black trim in the bathroom would have worked if you had painted the window black as well (and maybe in a glossier paint). I definitely think that the pashmina, shutters and vinyl shower curtain had to go though!

  10. says

    Great post! I, too, hate the boob lights – it seems that’s all they sell at the big box stores! But thankfully we’ve got a local lighting store with better alternatives that still don’t break the bank.

    Thanks, too, for the reminder to hold off on the interim purchases. I remember when we moved into our house back in 1998, my Mom kept nagging me to take down the dated, totally not our style lace curtains in our living room. Since we didn’t have any ideas for immediate replacements, they stayed up for a few years until we did. And I’m happy to report that I somehow survived the wait! ;)

  11. says

    I’m intrigued about your painting “adventure.” Basically, did you decide to go on a whole-house theme or did you go room-by-room? I know in some of your previous posts you talk about finding colors you like and going with it, but did you “mood-board” out the entire house?

    • says

      At first we just picked a handful of paint swatches we liked (one in every color of the rainbow- turquoise, yellow, green, gray-blue, etc) and then later realized that all the rooms should relate and a am-I-in-the-same-house effect wasn’t the goal (you want rooms to flow). So we slowly worked our way around the house and left what we liked our bedroom color) and slowly redid what we didn’t over time. It was definitely a learn-as-you go process over a few years.


  12. says

    Great post and advice. I’ve certainly made the same mistake. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to never impulse buy anything over $200. If it’s above that price point, I make myself think on it for a few weeks before committing. I learned my lesson the expensive way!

  13. says

    We also have a boob light. We were going to put our house on the market, so we ran and picked up a $20 light. Now we’re still here and so is the boob…

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