Want to elevate your home without taking on a complete overhaul? Interior decorator Nick Olsen—DIY whisperer and master of the cheap trick—reveals the little tweaks that make the biggest impact.
How did you get started in this field?
Right after getting my architecture degree, I read about the designer Miles Redd in a magazine. I was so blown away by his bold aesthetic and everything he’d accomplished by the age of 35 that I wrote him a letter asking for a meeting. Two weeks later, I had my first full-time job, as his assistant. It was fate!
What’s one quick change that will improve any room?
Lower the artwork. People tend to hang it too high; it should be at eye level. And don’t worry about having something on each wall. It’s better to cluster art in one or two spots than to spread it out.
Decorating a huge room can be intimidating. How do you deal with soaring spaces?
My philosophy is to fill them with large-scale furniture and art. If you’re a less-is-more type, go for one massive piece, like an amazing painting over the sofa.
Suppose you can’t afford art that big?
Buy a blank canvas and paint it yourself. Pick the most interesting color in the room (as long as it’s not already the dominant color) and just cover the canvas in that shade, using the same paint you’d use for walls. There’s no way to mess this up, and it costs next to nothing. Google [famed abstract artist] Ellsworth Kelly for inspiration. He has pieces like this hanging in the Whitney Museum.
Any tips for jazzing up a minuscule space?
Nearly every room has a door. Work it. Paint it a glossy black: It takes only two hours and gives a room instant sass but won’t eat up any valuable real estate.
Say you can revamp only one room. How do you keep the rest of the place from looking shabby?
Fiercely edit the undone rooms. Get rid of the junk; keep only essentials. You’ll be poised to redecorate when the time comes—and until then your rooms will feel calmer. Tell visitors you’re experimenting with minimalism.
What do you always want to fix when you go into someone’s living room?
The floor plan and lighting!
Break that down for us.
A good living room needs a comfortable place to sit, a place to rest your drink, and a place to read a book. But people default to the school-dance arrangement, where everything is pushed back against the walls. So I start by moving the furniture closer together, toward the center of the room. Then I fill out the arrangement with occasional chairs and tables to create functional seating areas. It makes the space feel so much more intimate and conversational.
And for the lighting?
If we’ve learned anything from the movie Gremlins, it’s that bright light is the enemy. Install dimmers, or change your bulbs to extra-soft white 40-watt bulbs. That $30 investment makes a huge difference.
What if you have a room that just feels blah?
A common feature of boring rooms is a lack of color. Start there, and think from the ground up. Buy a patterned rug you love: here’s your palette. Go for a geometric dhurrie if you like modern, or multicolored stripes if you’re more traditional. You can pull the wall and furniture colors from the rug, then pick up its accent tones in pillows and other accessories.
Speaking of color, are there any surprising shades you’re really into right now?
I think fuchsia should be the color of the year. It’s so rich and chic, it’s like red’s hipper sister. I’d use Benjamin Moore’s Gypsy Pink on walls in a room with neutral furniture and gray trim. Or just do the ceiling (use high-gloss for that).
One piece of advice you’d shout from the rooftops?
Stop overthinking every little change and just try it! It’s easy to say, “Oh, that desk will never work next to my bed.” Move it and see how it looks. Sometimes pulling that blue armchair from the den into your green living room can work miracles.
Name an item you’d like to banish for good.
That poufy, marshmallow-shaped leather sofa from 1988. I can’t slipcover it, I can’t change it, and I can’t convince someone that it’s not really comfortable, because it is really comfortable.