How Not to Decorate

  • By Justin M. Riordan, LEED AP (orginally published by Oregon Home Magazine 2.24.17)

“Will you come over to my house and tell me how to fix it?” My brow furrows, eyes start to well, mouth opens in horror, the look of absolute terror fills my face. I get this question often, like all the time. It makes sense to ask me. I have a degree in Architecture, 25 years in interiors experience and own a very successful home staging company. If your going to ask somebody, ask a somebody with experience, right? The problem is that most people who ask me to work for them for free are friends and family. Because they are friends and family, I of course, would never charge them for my work, but I really cherish my relationship with them so I would also never say anything to hurt their feelings, and that’s the rub.
If you are asking a friend for interior design advice, prepare your self for one of two scenarios. One: They will just lie to your face so that your feelings will not be hurt. Or two: They will be brutally honest with you and hurt your feelings. Either way the outcome is not exactly what you’re looking for.
My best advice is to hire a professional (who is not a friend) to help you. Pay them for their time. Get honest unbiased advice.
That being said, most folks don’t have piles of cash allotted for interior design so here are the top things I would love to tell everybody to never put in their home.  These are the mistakes I see most often. They will never, ever be ok. Like never.
(photo at top)
You live a real life, with real people and you eat real food. I understand that you may not have a green thumb and real plants might die in your care. That is really ok. I kill just about every plant brought into my house. That does not mean I should run out to buy a bunch of “real” silk plants to fool people into thinking I am a super good horticulturist.
Whoever said that houses have to have plants in them in the first place? I think some silk plant maker in Po-dunk, Nowhere started that rumor. Stop listening to them. If you need to have something plant-like in your house, consider a weekly trip to buy fresh flowers after work on Fridays. It will start your weekend off on the right foot and let you enjoy the flowers when you are actually at home instead of at work.

Colors come and go… neutrals are forever. First, let’s define color. Think the rainbow as in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and all the colors in between like mauve, puce, and cyan.  The neutrals on the other hand are not found in the rainbow. They include white, cream, beige, grey, brown and black as well as neutrals in between like charcoal, buff and tan.
Decorating can be expensive. In order to keep that expense down, relegate your colors to items that are not expensive like art, throw pillows and blankets, accessories, and coverlets. Your expensive items like sofas, carpeting, chairs and tables should be purchased in neutrals. This way, the hope is that they will stay in style longer. If you purchase a red couch and get bored with it, you will need to spend thousands of dollars to replace it.  But if you bought a neutral couch and a few red throw pillows and blankets, you could change that couch to a blue or orange or even a puce sofa with less than $100 by simply swapping out the throw pillows and blankets.

This one is so popular right now and I fully blame a certain home decorating catalogue that comes every week. Big black and white photos of perfectly lovely families hung smack dab over the sofa in the living room or the master bed are not OK. The Victorians had a perfectly good rule to follow when it came to family pictures. Family pictures belong in hallways and areas of transition. By hanging a picture of your family in your living room you are telling the world that YOU feel your family is so beautiful that they are actually pieces of art. It’s ok for other people to feel that way about your family but for you to feel that way, comes across a vein and shallow and just… eewww. Having a picture of your favorite people in a small frame on your nightstand, sure, why not. Having giant prints of your children hanging over your bed? Super not sexy.
Hallways are a great place to hang family pictures. Folks who visit can look at them to find out more about your family, your story, your life. Then they can step away and go back to your living room, dining room and kitchen and talk to you without being stared down by pictures of your family.

How many times will I write about word art? It is still just as terrible as it was the first time I wrote about it years ago. It comes in various forms, sometimes it’s lots of words on a picture frame like MAN’S BEST FRIEND, BOW-WOW, FETCH, SIT, STAY, FUR, ROLL OVER.  (Just in case you were wondering you are supposed to put a picture of your dog in this frame, I know… creative, RIGHT?!) There are signs you can hang on your wall. They are usually sets of instructions with words like LAUGH, LOVE, LIVE or DREAM BIG! (I am still looking for one that says BARF!) There are even vinyl words you can put right on your wall. They are often reminders of who you are with words like “THE JOHNSONS” or “EMMA” just in case you forget who’s house or bedroom you are in, a gentle reminder is but glimpses away. There is no situation in which word art is acceptable. Please stop buying it… NOW.

This one is just simple logistics. I see this often. I like wallpaper, seriously, I am a huge fan, but this is not about wallpaper, this is about glue. Kitchens and bathrooms are places where lots of moisture lives. Glue tends to lose its best quality (stickiness) when it comes into contact with moisture too often. Nearly every time I see wallpaper in these rooms; the seams are starting to rise, making even the best wallpaper look bad. Use wallpaper, knock yourself out, just relegate it to rooms that do not have plumbing fixtures. In rooms with moisture content, stick to wall tile and semi-gloss paint. You will be much happier in the long run. (While we are at it, just apply this rule to wall-to-wall carpet as well. Moisture and carpet go together like socks and flip-flops, its not just a no, its a hard no.)



Justin Riordan

Justin M. Riordan, LEED AP is the founder of Spade and Archer Design Agency. As the creative energy behind Spade and Archer, Riordan fuses his formal training as an architect with his natural design savvy to create beautiful and authentic spaces for clients. 

Prior to opening Spade and Archer in 2009, Riordan practiced interior architecture and interior construction for twelve years, bringing an esteemed skill set and diverse background to home staging. With more than a decade of hands-on project management and design experience, Riordan delivers an unmatched level of precision, expertise and service to his clients. Since founding Spade and Archer, he has personally prepared over 2,100 homes for market.

Bad staging

By Justin M. Riordan, LEED AP (Originally posed on on January 16, 2007)

There is good staging. There is bad staging. I mean, like really bad staging. In an industry with no regulations, no standardized accreditation system, and tons of “hobbyist professionals”, one gets what one pays for. The problem here is not if that inexperienced or bargain basement stager will do a good job, rather if they’ll actually stop your house from selling, dead in its tracks.


It’s true; good, thoughtful staging can most certainly help a house sell for more money and in less time. Bad staging can bring the selling momentum of a great house to a screeching halt. The absolute best way for bad staging to kibosh your sale is to have it offend potential buyers.

Here are five potentially offensive staging props that could threaten your sale:

Bad Staging Seattle Washington

1. Alcohol. Alcohol is a common thing found in many homes. It can raise both positive and negative emotions in buyers. We aren’t too worried about the positive emotions on this one as nobody is going to walk into your house and say, “They drink Chablis, I drink Chablis, let’s buy this house!” That being said, a potential buyer may very well be uncomfortable or even offended by alcohol for various reasons.  They could be in recovery or alcohol could be prohibited by their religion. For any reason, a buyer could be offended by alcohol sitting in the living room, on the counter, or next to the bathtub (tacky) in what could potentially be their new home. Even worse is staging with two-buck-chuck and offending the connoisseurs.

Bad Staging Portland Oregon

2. The tipi (also spelled teepee or tepee). Cultural appropriation is a hot button topic these days. I’ve noticed a good number of home stagers using tipis in kids rooms and play areas.  I spoke to a friend who happens to be a Plains Native American to help me understand why the use of a tipi in home staging could be offensive. He explained that the tipi is a very sacred structure used for ceremonies and rites of passage and to use that sacred piece of somebody else’s culture to sell a house is less than thoughtful. It would be like using the pages of a King James Bible to wallpaper a bathroom, pretty but disrespectful. Whether you agree that using tipis is offensive or not, it’s important to understand that it may raise questions and emotions that are not related to “buy this house”.

Dead Animal Parts Seattle Washington

3. Dead animal parts. These items are going-to-town, off-the-charts popular. Walking into staged homes all over the county is not unlike walking into an animal autopsy. There are pieces of the beast strewn on the table, tossed over the chair, laid out on the floor and even hung on the wall. Whether it is antlers, hide rugs, fur throws or pillows, these are all clearly recognizable parts of animals that were once alive and are now dead.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some creepy dead animal decoration, but I know that I am not in the majority. Truly, it’s a very popular trend right now, but many of us are offended by it. A potential buyer might be vegetarian or vegan, an animal rights activist, or even just have a weak stomach. Needless to say, if your potential buyers are any one of these things and need to walk over the ripped-off epidermis of a recently murdered bovine, they might think twice about buying the house they actually love but can’t stomach the though of purchasing.

Blow up matress Portland Oregon

4. Blow-up mattresses. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a blow-up mattress deflating. Or perhaps it was the sound of somebody crashing to the ground after sitting on a blow-up mattress, which was in-turn sitting on top of four 5-gallon buckets. It sounds an awful lot like a lawsuit, doesn’t it? Not only do blow-up mattress look like blow-up mattress (i.e. horrendous), they are unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst.  It’s a stager’s responsibility to demonstrate that a real mattress and box spring can get up the staircase and into that perfect bedroom your buyer had in mind.

Dream Big Toilet Up

5. Word art. Do you really need a 3-foot tall E-A-T sign to get a buyer to understand that this room is the dining room? Shouldn’t the dining table surrounded by eight chairs tell that story that this is, in fact a dining room, designed for the specific purpose of E-A-T-I-N-G? Word art is fun, isn’t it? I always love to add one extra word or phrase to each one I see like “Life, Love, Family… Barf”. Ultimately, the staging should tell the story of how happy, successful, and fulfilled one could be if they bought the house. Word art is simply a lazy way to ineffectively send your message. (P.S. My favorite one so far? A big pink canvas that said “Dream Big” next to at toilet, with the lid up nonetheless. Ugh.)

When it comes to home staging, we all make choices. You can choose to simply pick the latest trends that you love and take the chance offending your potentially buyer. Or, you can make thoughtful selections that keep your buyer paying attention to the house and not the staging. Choices, darling… choices.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Justin M. Riordan, LEED AP is founder of Spade and Archer Design Agency, a home staging company with offices in Portland, Seattle and Palm Springs. As the creative energy behind Spade and Archer, Riordan fuses his formal training as an architect with his natural design savvy to create beautiful and authentic spaces for clients. Follow Spade and Archer on Instagram.

The All White Room. It’s a Trap!

This article, written by our founder, Justin M. Riordan, LEED AP orginally appeared on National Association of Realtors Styled Staged and Sold.

White staging

So… you’ve been seeing all those great staging projects, magazine covers, and television living rooms that look so pretty because they are all white. White sofas and white walls and white floors and white pillows and white tables … all white. And now you are thinking about going all white in your real life as well. Do yourself a favor and listen to Admiral Akbar: “IT’S A TRAP.” Don’t do it. Seriously, run the other way as fast as you can.

But then again I would give you the same advice if you were planning an all red room or an all black room. By having each and every thing in one room be all one color, you are proverbially painting yourself into a corner (pun intended). You would, for all intents and purposes, force your future self to stay with that one color forever, with your only way out involving a large investment in time, money, and energy.

With all these warnings, I see you are not convinced … that nothing I can say will steer you away from that all white living room or bedroom or office you have been dreaming of since early 2015 (since that was when they became hugely trendy, and oh, by the way, that trend will end in less than two years … but I digress). So I might as well tell you how to do it correctly.

All white rooms are sterile at best, but mostly white rooms can be warm and inviting. If something is not white, that is A-OK! Let’s say your floors are dark brown, that will totally work! We want to have some contrast with other neutrals to be sure that the whites pop out against them. (Please note this will work well with other neutrals like cream, beige, brown, grey, black, and sometimes gold.)

When upholstering soft goods, consider slipcovers. The convenience of slipcovers is that they can be easily washed or (if need be) replaced. If you are way over the slipcover like I am, then you are going to need some super fabric. I would highly recommend an outdoor fabric manufacturer like Sunbrella. They make a number of beautiful soft, comfortable interior upholstery fabrics that are tough-as-nails.

Keep your whites varied, chalk white, decorator’s white, whipped cream, oyster, canvas, salt, bone white, snow drift. If all the whites in the room are exactly the same it will look forced and contrived. By mixing the whites together, it will look more natural, elegant, and easy.

Allow yourself to have pops of color. After a few months in your all-white room, you may start to get bored or frustrated and find that you need a bit of variation. It’s very easy to add one pop of color at a time (pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple). This can be done with a bouquet of flowers, a throw pillow, or a pair of sassy lamps. What you want to avoid is having more than one color in your white room at the same time. Remember, this rule does not apply to neutrals.

I wish you the very best of luck with your all white room, and in 2018 when you absolutely hate that room, you will hear my judgmental voice in the back of your head saying “Sorry ‘bout it!”