We asked pro designers to solve some major design challenges—check out what they did.

By Stephanie Sisco
Updated August 06, 2020
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For our third annual Real Simple Home, we’re working with designers and pro organizers to make over a two-story penthouse apartment in Manhattan. This time around, each interior designer has been paired with a Real Simple editor—aka, their “client”—who presents them with a design challenge. Maybe it’s an open layout living room that doubles as a dining room and triples as a homework station for the kids. Or maybe it’s an owner’s suite that has to be stylish, but also durable enough to withstand two toddlers. Don’t worry, the design pros have practical solutions to these common challenges and more. Check out some of their ideas below, then don’t miss the big Real Simple Home reveal in the October 2020 issue—you’ll feel inspired to work their brilliant design solutions into your own space.

Challenge #1: Design an Oblong, Open-Space Living Room

When you do your connecting, relaxing, and dining in one area, the space needs to really perform. Designer Max Humphrey shows how to pull it off—this is his collaboration with editor Leslie Corona.

Goal

Max aims to “turn this blank white box into a space with some architectural detail—without breaking the bank” and to make it livable all day long, 365 days a year.

Challenge

We often want rooms to do double duty. With an open floor plan, though, it can be tough to define areas meant for different purposes.

Max’s Action Plan

Left: Courtesy of manufacturer
Center: Courtesy of manufacturer
  1. Go with multiple light sources. The navy shade offers a sleek twist on an industrial silhouette.
  2. High-back chairs create a visual distinction between zones.
  3. Wallpaper can be pricey. Choose a pattern that works with your paint and use it in small doses, like on a column.

The Zoned Approach

For a previous project, Humphrey made a bonus room feel extra cozy by going all in with olive green paint on the walls and built-ins.
Christopher Dribble

Use rugs to define areas.
The largest rug can anchor the living room setup; another rug, like a durable hide, can distinguish the dining space.

Select furniture that’s flexible.
If you don’t use your dining room daily, select versatile pieces that make it functional in other ways (think: a homework station). Try a small sofa on one side of the table for comfortable, bench-style seating.

Add wow factor to the walls.
Humphrey likes to affordably fake the appearance of wainscoting by using paint. When picking his shades, he often looks to brands’ color-of-the-year winners: “There are so many paints to choose from, and it can get overwhelming. The color-of-the-year options help narrow down the field and make things feel modern.”

Max Humphrey

Interior Designer

Max has designed everything from beach mansions to log cabins to an Airstream trailer. For the Real Simple Home, he brings his “cowboy high style” to the long, sunny living space. Follow him on Instagram at @maxwhumphrey.

Leslie Corona

Real Simple’s Senior Associate Home Editor

A native New Yorker, Leslie is passionate about throw pillows (“I constantly change mine up!”) and wants a space that balances her light and airy style with her husband’s preference for darker hues and chunky furniture.

Challenge #2: Design an Owner’s Suite with Wiggle Room

Courtesy of the Marbury

Flexibility is key for the moms who sleep in the bedroom—and the toddlers who act like they run the place. Our team shows how to strike a balance between calming and kid friendly—here’s what resulted from the collaboration among designers Rebecca Atwood and Kate Hamilton Gray and creative director Emily Kehe.

Goal

Emily and her wife want their space to feel relaxing, have the cool factor they crave—and stand up to the shenanigans of their active twins.

Challenge

Hitting the right combo of soft, sweet, and edgy—while making the space toddlerproof—can seem nearly impossible.

Rebecca and Kate’s Action Plan

Left: Courtesy of manufacturers
Center: Courtesy of manufacturer
Right: Courtesy of manufacturer
  1. Incorporate graphic patterns that feel sophisticated and help disguise wear and tear.
  2. Soften the look of an angular nightstand by placing it next to a curvy, upholstered headboard.
  3. The sconce pictured above is minimalist and chic (suiting the moms’ designer taste) but has a nice warmth for storytime.

The Balanced Approach

For a previous project, Kate designed a bedroom with earth-toned wallpaper and pale neutrals to make the space feel serene and rejuvenating.
Courtesy of Mark Andrew

Find the yin to your yang.
When planning your bedroom, pick the bed first. If you opt for a wooden headboard, that should influence the surrounding elements: Go with softer options, like an upholstered chair or whimsical wallpaper, to balance out the hard edges.

Consider longevity.
The newest indoor/outdoor fabrics are so elegant, you’d never know they’re also durable. Try the fabric on pillows, your headboard, and elsewhere to add coziness—or use it on your reading chair right by the window to avoid fear of fading.

Accommodate the whole family.
Scatter pretty storage baskets to keep stuffed animals and dinosaur figurines accessible…but out of sight.

Rebecca Atwood

Designer and Artist

Rebecca has an uncanny ability to mix her wall coverings and fabric designs in refreshing ways. Learn how to do it yourself with her books Living With Pattern ($23, amazon.com ; $32, bookshop.org ) and Living With Color ($22, amazon.com ; $32, bookshop.org ).

Kate Hamilton Gray

Interior Designer

With a background in furniture design, Kate has an eye for details. She brings her signature touches—vintage furniture, unique wall treatments—to the owner’s suite of the Real Simple Home.

Emily Kehe

Real Simple’s Creative Director

Both Emily and her wife work in a creative field and appreciate beautiful things. But as parents of two young boys, they also need those things to be functional and resilient.

Challenge #3: Design a Hardworking Woman Cave

Creating a space for reading, writing, thinking, and occasional book club hosting can seem like a tall order. Dayna Isom Johnson shows our editor-in-chief how to maximize—and customize—every corner of the room.

Goal

Dayna hopes to spark Liz’s creativity by bringing in cozy spots to relax, clutter-clearing systems, and an infusion of saturated colors.

Challenge

The terrace is accessed via this space, so there needs to be a path for passing through, but the room should also offer Liz the calm escape that she craves.

Dayna’s Action Plan

Left: Courtesy of manufacturer
Center: Courtesy of manufacturer
Right: Courtesy of manufacturer

Limited shelf space (like the one pictured above) will help Liz be extra discerning about which books are keepers—and which are destined for her Little Free Library.

The Personalized Approach

In her own home in Brooklyn, New York, Dayna used shades of blue, graphic textiles, and plants galore to tie the space together and reflect her warm personality.
Courtesy of Aaron Bengochea

Pick a palette.
Start pulling your mood board together by selecting a core group of colors. This will help streamline your ideas. From there, besure each element has a functional purpose.

Make it individual.
“I’m looking for pieces that will make Liz smile and bring delight and inspira- tion every time she walks into the room,” Dayna says. “We’ll incorporate her pets, reminders of travel with family, and her love of trees into the design.”

Ask for alterations.
Though it often requires more time to deliver, customized pieces—like slipcovers or built-to-fit benches—can make you happier with the finished space over the long term.

Dayna Isom Johnson

Etsy’s Trend Expert

Between her role at Etsy and her job as a judge on NBC’s craft competition, Making It, Dayna has her finger on the pulse of the latest trends—and an eye for products with tons of character. Find some of her faves on Instagram at @daynaisomjohnson.

Liz Vaccariello

Real Simple’s Editor-in-Chief

Liz draws inspiration from her surroundings, and she wants her home office to be a place that’s practical and peaceful (but still comfy enough for her twin teenage daughters to hang out in). Follow her on Instagram at @lizvaccariello.