Do you ever look at your most-used room in the house and think, ‘I’m so tired of this stuff’? I know I do. Most often, it’s not entirely the “stuff” I dislike…it’s the arrangement. And that’s when a redesign happens.
I’m blessed to have three college buddies who have mad interior design skills. They look at a room and just know. They know what needs to be moved. They know what colors aren’t working. They know where the furniture should be. They know what’s missing. They just know. So when I need a change, I call one of them over and cut them loose.
College roommate Deb helped me out of my doily phase. I had a shocking collection of doilies—many of them handmade by church ladies from my childhood. I thought a doily needed to be under every lamp, vase, photo frame and candleholder. Turns out, they don’t. My style was changing, so the doilies went into storage. New look!
College roommate Ann helped me with my Christmas decorations. After a few years, those stored-away ornaments, ribbons, pine cones and candleholders seemed so blah. When I cut her loose, she had new and creative ways to use those decorations that delighted me instantly! It was so much fun rediscovering those old friends within her design ideas.
College buddy Hank specializes in redesign and sarcasm. When he walks into the room, he points at things and says, “Get rid of that. [points] What is that—plastic? I never want to see it again. [points] Hideous. [points] Was that a gift? It’s not your style.” It’s hilarious. He then takes everything out of the room and puts it back in a different arrangement. I give him a small amount of cash—less than $100—for “bits and bobs” to bring the look together. He may spend it on paint or curtains or a rug or throw pillows or shelves. His choice. I’m not allowed to see the room until he’s done, and the reveal is always exciting. I may or may not actually squeal when I see his handiwork. Good times.
So, maybe you’re over your wild kingdom phase or orange phase or floral phase. Maybe your knickknacks have taken over too many shelves. Maybe your afghan collection isn’t working for you anymore. Maybe you’re having trouble pulling the trigger on a new paint color or rug. You probably have a friend with great design instincts who will just know what you need to do.
Pick up the phone today. Throw out an invitation for coffee, tea, brunch, lunch. Use the good dishes. Mention your design dilemma. I guarantee you, that creative friend has already done a mental redesign of your space and was just waiting for an invitation. Let the squealing begin.
There was a time, 20 or more years ago, when I thought I had to have every ingredient listed in a recipe or I couldn’t make the dish. I’d either pass that recipe by, or I’d hit three grocery stores trying to find obscure things, like tarragon or pink peppercorns or sheep curd. Those days are long gone.
If I learned anything from southern hosts, it’s this: Use what you have.
I always marvel at cooks who consider recipe ingredients a good “suggestion.” They rarely have on hand spices like tarragon, because they know dill or basil is a good substitute—and far more common in recipes. They know any bouillon cube does wonders in heating up canned vegetables when fresh aren’t available. They interchange cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and allspice. They’re experimental on a whim, and I adore that.
I watch these same women step outside and return with a centerpiece made from whatever’s growing in their yards—daisies, herbs, a tender branch. A vintage glass ashtray becomes a wine bottle coaster. A funky glass holds a tea light.
It’s a gift to be unconcerned the fifth dinner chair came from the home office and doesn’t match. Who cares about your chair when you’re laughing and eating delicious food? Odd coffee mugs are great when you’re in a group and lost track of yours on the counter. You can’t miss the cup that reads “Ask me about my lobotomy,” now can you?
And you know what? It’s OK to use the jarred pasta sauce—whether you run out of time or just don’t have it in you to make it from scratch. No guest has ever complained about my Ragu sauce in the fanciest of recipes. Likewise, it’s just fine to serve macaroni and cheese as a side. It’s considered a vegetable in the South! Bonus points if you throw on a breadcrumb topping and bake it. Who could turn that down? Seriously.
So, if you’re hesitant to host because you think everything has to match or be fancy or look exactly like the recipe photo, I’d like to encourage you to let those thoughts go. Just invite someone over and use what you have. I can tell you firsthand, your guests will be delighted to take part in whatever you’re offering. Now, about that lobotomy…
When was the last time you were a guest in your own house? And I mean, slept in your guest bed? Showered and prepared for the day in your guest bath? I’m going to take a stab at your answer: Never.
I travel and stay in guest rooms a lot. I have a packing routine, a car-loading routine, and a move-in routine. I feel like I’m prepared for almost any daily need, but occasionally I’ll have to go on the hunt for a hair tie or contact case or nail clippers in the guest bath. And I usually come up empty. So then I have to track down my host, make my request, watch them search frantically, or even make a late-night trip to the nearest store. It’s difficult for everyone, because we both feel unprepared.
So here’s what I recommend: Be your own guest.
Start with your guest bedroom/suite. I’ve had to very gently tell a few hosts their guest bed is extremely uncomfortable. I usually make a suggestion, like, “You might look into a gel mattress topper. Walmart has some great options!” Most guest beds naturally have the oldest mattress in the house. I mean, who sleeps there? Not you! Ah…but you’re gonna.
Climb into that bed one night. Is it comfortable? Are the sheets, blankets and pillows appropriate for the season? Flannel in the summer = misery. How’s the bedside lighting? Do you have to get up to turn it off, then stumble back to bed in the dark? Tricky. Do the blinds/curtains close? Is a fan—overhead or portable—handy? How’s the noise level? Can you hear the washer/dryer running? Is the morning smoothie maker like a jackhammer in your head? Do doors slam? Dogs bark? Children shout? Do you just want to move into a hotel? Then we have some work to do.
Get ready in your guest bath one morning. How’s the lighting? Glaring? Dim? Could you shave or put on makeup quite happily? Lighting is a pretty easy thing to fix. And here’s a good tip: No one, not even a vampire, looks good in fluorescent lighting.
Use the guest shower. Does the water barely trickle out? New shower heads are pretty affordable and easy to install. Is your towel handy? Ditto for wall hooks and over-the-door hangers. Do you step out onto a slick floor? Bath mats are available everywhere. How’s your toilet paper supply? Down to the last two squares? Sooooo awkward. Restock immediately!
All of this—every bit of it—is easy and affordable to remedy. Half the battle is just being aware of what’s working/not working, handy/not handy, comfortable/cumbersome. Make a plan to fix everything within the week. You’ll be prepared the next time your college roommate pops into town, your favorite aunt comes to visit, or your best friend needs a place to crash for the night.
And you might just create such a wonderful oasis that you’ll hear yourself tell your family, “I think I’ll be my own guest tonight. See you in the morning!”
A few months ago, I finally got up the nerve to say to a client what I’d been dying to say for more than a year: “Do I need to do a drive-by planting?”
Every week, I’d show up at the front door, see those poor, unloved pots framing the entrance with their dry soil and dead plants, and I’d cringe. Several times I’d stopped myself from just pulling out the dead whatever-it-was and flinging it behind the shrubbery. Even that change would’ve been an improvement.
Much to my surprise and delight, my client said with excitement, “Do you do that?? That would be fantastic!”
Before long, we were talking colors and seasons and plant combinations. We discussed possible changes to the whole front porch that would make it beautiful and usable. We unearthed a petite watering can, two old-but-usable obelisks, and some window boxes. One week later, I filled those pots with pre-sprouted tulips, hyacinths and primrose. The obelisks created height and the colors popped. A new outdoor rug and pillows completed the scene.
And just like that, the front entrance was happy and inviting.
It was a small task for me, but a HUGE win for her. I had no idea she’d been embarrassed about the condition of her front porch and door for more than a year. She knew that entrance was a terrible first impression, so guest invitations were few and far between. Now she felt far more confident and excited. She took photos for her mom and sister. She talked about having a friend over for porch coffee. And I thought, My work here is done.
If your entrance is looking a little tired or sad, I encourage you to get out there and change just one thing. Sweep and dust it off, then add a pot of flowers. If that brings a smile, add an outdoor table or chair. If you have an outlet nearby, add a table lamp and leave it on. It will glow at dusk and whisper to evening strollers, Friendly people live here.
Before long, you might find yourself sitting on that porch, waving to neighbors, counting fireflies. Happy. Inviting. Then our work will be done.
I once got a C in hosting.
My college buddy, Hank, was in town and we invited over an agent to pitch a TV show. I think I made Shepherds Pie or lasagna or some other signature meal. I probably used a linen tablecloth and crystal glasses. Undoubtedly, I placed vases of cut flowers near each place setting. And I know, for a fact, I lit tapered candles in brass holders as a centerpiece. Because this is where I earned the C.
Dinner and the show pitch went smoothly. I remember popping brownies into the oven when the doorbell rang, so the intoxicating fragrance of baking chocolate would fill my little townhouse as we chatted and laughed and found each other brilliant. And when the oven timer dinged, I jumped up, pulled out the brownies, walked to the table, and blew out the candles.
I’ll wait as you recover from your gasp of dismay.
Hank shot me a what-the-heck look, I turned to our guest and said, “Shall we move into the living room for dessert?” Both men seemed confused, so I picked up my wine glass and led the way. They eventually followed, awkwardly found seating, and I disappeared to plate up the brownies.
As the door closed on the agent, I said, “I think that went well.” Hank rounded on me and said, “I hope so, because you just earned a C in hosting.” I was speechless. He ticked off the reasons: “You blew out the candles, then forced us to move into the living room—where you abandoned us to make small talk while you messed around with brownies!”
This was all true. This is also the beauty of having an old Yankee friend for dinner: They get right to the point.
I took my ego out of the equation and evaluated the dinner scorecard. Why had I blown out the candles and forced guests out of their chairs? They were comfortably chatting at the still-beautiful table. I could have simply cleared the plates and worked on the brownies 15 feet away, engaging in conversation.
Why had I insisted they move into the living room? Well, I was proud of its off-white seating, soft lighting, and baby grand piano. I didn’t need to transition to a new space, create an awkward moment and show off a fancy tableau to make the meeting successful.
Why had I abandoned them to “mess around with brownies”? I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to rinse the dinner plates and get them into the dishwasher before serving dessert. I fight a constant urge to tidy up the kitchen during every dinner party to this day.
Here’s the truth: Dinner guests don’t care about the condition of the dinner table at the end of a meal. They are always—-always--happy to lounge around the table and chat…especially if you have comfortable chairs. Clearing the table signals to a guest, true or not, social time is winding down. I now say, “Let me get these out of the way to make room for dessert!” Rinsing and loading plates into the dishwasher is a social cue for “you should probably leave.” Guess what? It doesn’t actually kill me to stack them in the sink.
I check my hosting score with Hank during every visit now. He consistently says, “You get an A. You’re welcome.” Yes, old friend, I am. Thank you.
A Michigan farm girl transplanted to the South offering hospitality hacks.