You have to start somewhere! To get your feet wet, try thinking in vignettes. Vignettes are those “tight shots” you see in magazines—not the whole room, but rather a little grouping that works. It might be an easy chair, table, and lamp all tucked into a corner, or tall plants placed on either side of a wicker settle on a long wall. (The idea enlarges on the “art unit” of Victorian times, a carefully composed and artistic arrangement of furniture and objets.)
Though it sounds risky to furnish one area without considering the rest of the room, this approach can work quite well. Some spaces are just easier to “see” furnished than others. You already may have a good sense of what would look right at the stair landing, or between your bed and the window—even if furnishing the room as a whole is daunting. You also may have a favorite piece that has to go where it will fit, so put it there and consider it a given.
When you move forward with the vignette, three things happen: (1) With limited expense, you’ve furnished one area to completion. (2) What you’ve chosen sets a style and mood to direct the rest of the furnishing. (3) You limit and define the size and placement of other pieces in the room, by process of elimination. Here are some other ideas for room-starter vignettes: a table in the hall (with it, consider a lamp, a tabletop collection, and hung artwork); built-ins or scaled furniture to fit in a window bay; a well-lit reading corner; seating near the fireplace; a large signature piece on the only unbroken wall; a grouping to play up existing symmetry (as between doors or flanking windows, or around a staircase).
You may not want a museum room, but furnishing in sync with the date and design vocabulary of the house is a shortcut to non-faddish rooms that “look right.” Your house is giving you clues, so take them. Seek out specialty suppliers that do reproduction, traditional, or adapted styles. You can, over time, acquire a few antiques to set the period mood. To fill in and assure sturdy comfort, rely on good reproductions or period-interpretive designs.
Good furniture is not cheap—a reason to avoid mistakes. The more you furnish with classic, adaptable pieces, the fewer oddball items you’ll get stuck with. By oddball, I don’t mean unusual favorites or family heirlooms, but rather the sofa you can never move because it won’t fit through any doorways. Sofas, wing chairs, small tables, and chests should be classic (whatever their style vocabulary) and modestly scaled. That way, they can move from living room to bedroom to library as your living space evolves. Still, don’t be afraid to “fall in love” with a special item now and then. The occasional unrelated piece is wonderful in a well-considered scheme.
Wherever you start, consider scale. Think in terms of volume—that is, the width, length, and height of your room—before you go shopping. For example, the footprint of a gabled attic room may technically be large enough to hold a king-size bed, but once you’ve wrestled that baby up the stairs (good luck with the box spring), it looks all wrong under the sloped ceiling, and you’ll hit your head when you get out of bed. Large, high-ceilinged rooms can stand up to (or demand) pieces of greater size and scale, like tall armoires, highboys, and massive sideboards. In smaller, low-ceilinged rooms, less is usually more; edit out one or two pieces, or take a leaf out of the table, and the room may work better for it.
Finally, don’t fall for fads. Take your time. Live in a room for a while, even if it’s not working, to see how the light moves, what normally goes on in the room, what’s missing, and so on. Still not sure what works and what doesn’t? Take snapshots of the room from several angles. For some reason, you’ll see problems and solutions faster in the picture than when you’re standing in the room!